Before the Borscht Belt — and Beyond

Before the Borscht Belt — and Beyond

The Literary Humor of the Urban Northeast, 1830-1890; Edited by David E. E. Sloane; Louisiana State University Press; Baton Rouge.

Chicago’s Public Wits; Edited by Kenny J. Williams and Bernard Duffey; Louisiana State University Press; Baton Rouge.

It is a commonplace that humor arises from the amused recognition of the dis­parity between the ideal and the real. Inherent in this conception is the idea of humor as a mediator of experience, something which literally puts us "in the middle" between extremes. From the sane, middle ground we can laugh at both the pretensions of idealism and the cynical attitude which goes under the name of realism. The vaudeville comedian who slips on a banana peel is funny because man is presumably an erect creature living in a world of uncertain surfaces. In Shakespeare the fool is "licensed" to prate and satirize, even at the king's expense, because mental debility places him outside normal human discourse and allows him, like Touchstone, to use his "wit as a stalking horse." True laughter is ultimately a form of ecstasy, in the sense that the Greek word ekstasis means "standing outside" of oneself. The 18th-century wit John Gay distilled the essence...

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