Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Tragedy of Comedy

Years ago, for a book discussion group to which I belonged at the time, I tried to read An American Tragedy. I made a gallant effort but just couldn’t get through the whole thing. I’ve never been quite sure why. I’ve gotten through and even immensely enjoyed other great American tragedies written by the likes of Russell Banks, Wallace Stegner, and Richard Wright. I think it’s because Dreiser was just so earnest, and it seems to me he had a nasty way of tantalizingly dangling some hope in front of you and then yanking it away without an ounce of irony or humor to ease the pain. That’s been it, as far as reading Dreiser goes, despite Bob’s urgings for me to revisit An American Tragedy and to try Sister Carrie.

You may be surprised, then, that I’ve been reading Hoosier Holiday by Theodore Dreiser. I discovered this book when I was looking for books about Pennsylvania at the library. I know, the title and author don’t exactly scream “Pennsylvania.” However, I wasn’t doing a title or author search, and this book came up under my subject search. It’s all about a trip Dreiser took in 1916 with a friend of his, artist Franklin Booth, driving from New York City to Indiana. They decided to take a route that took them through Pennsylvania. I thought I'd give it a try. Some might say this was a pretty stupid thing to do. Why choose to read one of the most depressing writer's take on the state to which I'm moving? Would I be screaming and crying to Bob by the end of it that we'll be moving over my dead body? Not one well-known, however, for her ability to avoid doing stupid things, I crossed my fingers and took it home with me. From the cover copy and the bits of the introduction I skimmed, it didn't seem it was going to be at all like Dreiser's more tragic works.

What a joy (and relief) it’s been, and I’m almost ready to re-visit Dreiser’s novels to see if I can find in them even the slightest hint of the very funny, romantic, sentimental, and opinionated man found between the pages of this book. I’m sure he isn’t there, because if I’d caught even a glimpse of him in the pages of An American Tragedy, I don’t think I would have abandoned it until I’d reached the end. I mentioned this to Bob the other day, and he said, “Well, of course it’s different, and you’re seeing a different side of him; he’s not writing tragedy.”

This, and a comment I made on Ian’s blog recently about Shakespeare and his comedies, has gotten me thinking quite a lot lately about tragedy and comedy. There’s a reason courts of old needed jesters (wouldn't it be wonderful if American businesses employed jesters?); we all need comic relief. I mean, even in his most tragic works, Shakespeare adds at least a touch of comedy. Aeschylus had a great knack for making good use of the relief a few chuckles can bring. If you’re not going to give us an inkling of hope, it seems to me you’d better at least give us a laugh or two.

When I worked at the library, my boss, who was an extremely insightful person, once said, “Writing good comedy takes much more talent than writing good tragedy. We all cry over pretty much the same things. It’s much harder to make everyone laugh.” I’ve never forgotten her words (obviously), and it’s made me think about the courses I took in college, in which tragedy was revered. Loving comedy was treated almost as a vice. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a professor at my alma mater who would tell you that Shakespeare’s comedies are really his greater works, and yet it was his comedies that turned around the grudge I’d held against Shakespeare since he was forced on me in sixth grade, led me to see him in a different light, and eventually had me appreciating the likes of Hamlet and King Lear, which I had found unbearable in high school. Likewise, no one at my alma mater would have dared to announce that Aristophanes was greater than Sophocles or Aeschylus. So, I’m standing up for comedy. I agree with my former boss. The fact that these writers' works still have me laughing out loud so many, many years after they were written is pretty amazing.

And when you think about the great comic writers you’ve read and enjoyed, most of them are really writing tragedy. All those laughs are about covering up devastatingly depressing events in which humans find themselves engaged or mistakes we’ve all made. I was listening to NPR the other day and an author, whose name I forget at the minute, was being interviewed to discuss a comic novel he’s just written about the Iraq War. One of the more idiotic questions the interviewer asked him was, “Don’t you expect criticism for writing a funny novel about such a serious event?” I mean, I know, she had a right to ask it, because America has lost its sense of humor, but really, my first question was, “How else does one deal with such a tragic event as the Iraq War?” My second question was, “Would you ask the same question of Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain?” (Actually, someone from NPR, whose recording studios must be one of the most earnest, humorless -- except when the likes of Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris are visiting -- places on earth, probably would.)

So let’s hear it for Dreiser the humorist. I wish he’d written An American Comedy instead. With his eye for detail and the absurd, I’m sure it would have been great.


Anonymous said...

Emily, I heard that same segment on NPR and I had the same reaction. Tragedy can be wonderfully poignant but I think laughter helps us heal from it. It certainly seems to be the medicine of choice in our family.

Emily Barton said...

Linser, do you remember who the author was? I'm intrigued by his book, and yes, I couldn't help thinking how our family has always dealt with tragedy through laughter (the funniest stories about people always seem to come out at funerals, don't they?).

Froshty said...

Anna's boyfriend commented that we do a lot of complaining in our household. I told him that was because great comedy is born from complaining or from something bad happening and in our house, just as in my family's houses when we were young, comedy and hysterical laughter is our goal. Emily, I loved the description of the possibility of your screaming and crying to Bob that you'll be moving over your dead body.

Rebecca H. said...

Very interesting travel book -- how fun to get another glimpse of an author you didn't like in the past. It's nice to get the chance to re-evaluate an author and see something in him/her that we didn't see before. Experiencing that makes me feel like I'm maturing as a reader.

Emily Barton said...

Froshty, I like your notion of comedy and hysterical laughter being the goal. I'd never quite thought of it that way.

Dorr, yes it's very interesting to discover an author from a whole new angle. Makes me realize how quick I am to judge solely from one book.

IM said...

One of the things I liked about Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" is that Brother William was on a quest to find Aristotle’s lost work on comedy. I took this as a great point about how scholasticism has lost its sense of humor. Williams’s adversaries see the book as extremely dangerous. I'd love to take, teach, or TA for a class about humor in literature. Of course there's nothing like a good tragedy to bring you down to earth again.

litlove said...

Wonderful post, Emily. I have never even heard of Theodore Dreiser, let alone read him, but I will search him out now. And you're absolutely right - tragedy and comedy are just two sides of the same coin.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, my advice is to read all those other great American authors on your list before turning to Dreiser (although this one IS good).