The successful writer, John Green, has been on a tuberculosis kick lately. You see, writers swing that way. As the writer of books few people read, I’ve had my own little Washington Irving obsession lately. So it is that I read Martin Roth’s Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Roth knew a lot about comedy and he framed Irving’s early work as burlesque, rather than the more usual categorization as satire. In doing this, he groups Irving together with other writers in the genre such as Laurence Sterne (who sounds like a fascinating character) and François Rabelais, among others. (Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith also make appearances.) Irving is analyzed in comparison to these other writers and his comic style is considered as polite satire, political satire, and domestic humor, as well as burlesque.
Insightful while occasionally assuming quite a bit on the part of the reader’s background, Roth provides quite a bit of good chewing here. Roth was, by reputation, an unorthodox thinker. He sounds like the kind of professor you would’ve wanted to have had in the classroom. A book trying to parse comedy is a good sign, I suppose. I learned a lot from reading it, and was pleased to see that I had independently come to some of the same conclusions he had. That signals to me, anyway, that I’m not too far off track. The benefit for those interested Irving is that, while critical, Roth isn’t judgmental. It has always seemed odd to me that the premier biography of Irving had been written by a scholar who really seemed to hate him. Roth, on the other hand, likes a good laugh.
As a used book my copy had lots of pencil marks in it. So many that I had to erase them so that I could spot my own. When I worked in the theology library at Boston University one summer I was introduced to the electric pencil eraser. This was a device for heavy-duty removing of the marks of thoughtless patrons. Before working for the library I stared in wonder when I would see students (perhaps not the brightest) sitting in the library, underlining in books they’d pulled off the shelf. I think I was always too well aware that library books were not my own. Because such folks, I’m sure, the electric pencil eraser was invented. None of this took away from my enjoyment of Roth’s book. I learned quite a bit about Irving’s context and, as an added bonus, got to remember using an electric eraser.