U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Golden Age of Conservative Wit in America

When we think about humor in America usually Benjamin Franklin’s witty common-sense or Mark Twain and the comical frontiersman first come to mind. Americans—particularly white men—seem to relate most to Franklin’s ‘Poor Richard’ persona, or the tall-tale-telling comical frontiersmen, such as Davy Crockett or Mike Fink. Those less Anglophone minded, might also think about African American humor or Jewish humor. Few people, however, think of aristocratic Augustan wit[1] in association with America—we leave that to the Brits, for the most part. Nonetheless, during the first years of the early republic, elite gentlemen assumed that social hierarchies and cultural cues in America would conform to the British model. In this vein, particularly young eager American gentlemen, sought to found a tradition of Augustan wit in America that would cement its claim for a place among the refined nations of the world.

Fittingly, perhaps the first significant attempt to apply Augustan satire to an American theme was the mock-heroic poem M’Fingal, which John Trumbull composed just a short while after the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Written after the manner of Samuel Buttler’s Hudibras, which was a royalist satire in its own time, M’Fingal set out to mock the British. However, Trumbull, whose conservative proclivities had not fully ripened yet, managed—perhaps inadvertently—to mock the verbose proceedings of rural Massachusetts town meetings at the same time.

M’Fingal was a very different animal from the self-deprecating, common-sense wit that had made Benjamin Franklin famous—and affluent—by then. Franklin’s wit catered to American commoners, who learned to enjoy a good laugh at themselves, even as they came to appreciate their rustic and common-sense demeanor. M’Fingal, however, was a much more elitist text, complementing the desire of erudite gentlemen to construct an exclusionary community of sophisticated wit. Patriotic and not loyalist, M’Fingal demonstrated that one did not need to be a loyalist to be conservatively inclined during the revolution.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was no surprise that Trumbull later joined a group of conservative literati known as the Hartford, or Connecticut, wits, who wrote one decade later the anti-democratic piece The Anarchiad (1786-7). Much like M’Fingal, The Anrachiad was not very original in form, as it too borrowed from a satire that had appeared a year earlier in England, The Rolliad, and featured the same rhetorical and poetical elements of a mock-heroic. It too attempted a level of sophistication, however, which clearly catered to the refined tastes of American elites familiar with British Augustan literary cues. Employing various levels of satire, it ridiculed the supposed anarchist agenda of the insurrection in rural Massachusetts, often known as Shays’ Rebellion that had erupted earlier that year.

In good Augustan fashion The Arnarchiad was published as a well-understood multilayered hoax. It purported to have been recently found in ruins and waxed poetic about the destruction of some past civilization at the hands of the forces of anarchy. To all who read it and understood the (not too subtle) subtext, it of course alluded to contemporary struggles between the interests of eastern seaboard urban centers and typically more rural Americans who knew all too well that such schemes would uphold the interests of creditors and land speculators. It joined other anxious voices of the period, as it contributed to the rising din of conservatism in the wake of Shays’ Rebellion, which laid the groundwork for the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

During the next quarter century a young generation of learned gentlemen, usually University graduates, worked to create an exclusive ‘republic of letters’ in the new republic that would complement their claim to cultural dominance. Aside from the Connecticut Wits, men of letters such as Royall Tyler, Joseph Dennie, H. H. Brakenridge, Thomas Green Fessenden, James Kirke Paulding, and many more tried their hands with varying degrees of success at establishing a viable tradition of Augustan wit in America. Perhaps the last and most audacious (and probably most successful) Augustan effusion of wit in America was undertaken by the author who would become later the first world famous American author, Washington Irving.

Though he was not a university graduate, was not proficient in Latin, and was not a scion of a patrician family of note—for all of which he was berated—Irving at the time he wrote Knickerbocker’s History of New York in 1809 was quite an elitist. Having travelled for a year and a half in Europe a few years earlier, he thought of himself as a man of the world and viewed the buzzing spirit of enterprise and democracy in the young American republic as rather gauche. Indeed, it was quite ironic, though perhaps fitting, that he was the youngest and somewhat petulant son of a family of New York merchants who exemplified the spirit of enterprise he found so graceless. Yet it was for the most part the mercantile success of his family that could support his tour of Europe and his rather hedonistic life in N.Y. City.

In any event, Irving’s grand pseudo-history project was much more original than any other piece of wit written until then in America, and though tedious on occasion, it stands the test of time quite well. Again intended as a well-understood hoax, Knickerbocker’s History was published after a few articles in recent newspapers had informed the public of some mysterious half mad “elderly gentleman” who went by the name of Diedrich Knickerbocker and had recently disappeared. When Knickerbocker’s History came out a note from the publisher gave an account of how this history of New York was found in the saddlebags Diedrich Knickerbocker had left behind after disappearing into the wilderness of upstate New York.

In Knickerbocker’s History Irving sought to create a founding myth, albeit a satirical one, for New York and perhaps even for America. Synthesizing fanciful imagination and fact into a whimsical self-conscious text written by a mad historian, this alternative history of New York cast the first years of Dutch rule in New York as a golden age. It reflected nostalgically on an era in which everyone in then New Amsterdam, and especially the rulers, were indolent and plump and seemed to enjoy nothing more than sitting about and smoking their long pipes. Subsequently, however—according to the fictional narrator—a new leader (William the Testy) brought with him a reign of schisms and tensions in which partisanship tore the fabric of the calm Dutch society. This was a quite obvious attack on Thomas Jefferson and the rise of democratic and entrepreneurial spirits in America, which Irving viewed with unease. Ultimately, however, at least according to Knickerbocker, the end of the good old Dutch days stemmed not from inner turmoil, but from belligerent outsiders. The fall came at the hands of the people Irving seemed to detest most, the Yankees of New England, who according to his history sought nothing more than to strike a good bargain wherever they went.

By posing the rather languid Dutch as an alternative to the contemporary restless, “Yankified,” republic, Irving sought to carve out an imagined enclave of comfort surrounding his beloved New York. Perhaps he even attempted to posit a viable Dutch origins story for the new nation as a whole, sensing that the Yankees had all too successfully carried out a hostile take-over of the American national character. While quite popular, in many regards Irving’s project was a failure—for though it signaled the rise of America’s first famous author, it is quite instructive that after its completion it took Irving about a decade to write anything else of consequence. Indeed, Knickerbocker’s History was a dead end of sorts, the last hurrah of a failed Augustan tradition that viewed democracy with consternation. While in Knickerbocker’s History Irving plumbed the great burlesque European tradition of Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, and Sterne, his future writings, though often comical, would not evince the same kind of burlesque and whimsical madness. After the War of 1812, which swept most Americans, including Irving, into a patriotic frenzy, there was no rarified air left to support such aristocratic and hedonistic texts.

Subsequently, Americans turned increasingly to the comical self-deprecating and democratic tradition of Poor Richard and Davy Crockett, rather than the mad and nostalgic Diedrich Knickerbocker. And none other than Irving’s most famous short story about the twenty-year-long nap of Rip Van Winkle, written in 1819, seemed to capture this transformation. For Van Winkle—a descendent of an old Dutch family, we are told—seemed to embrace this transformed “Yankified” democracy and put his own lazy and shabby generation behind him, making friends and connections with a new generation of vibrant Americans.[2[

[1] By Augustan wit literary scholars often refer to texts produced during the golden age (therefore Augustan) of satire in England and later Great Britain (since 1707) from the last quarter of the 17th century to the middle of the 18th century. Such texts, written by critically inclined and often conservative wits such as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Butler, and more, were since the late 18th century considered by Britons as the highpoint of satirical achievement.

[2] Fittingly, “Rip Van Winkle” was, according to its introduction, found among the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker.