Sunday, April 12, 2020

Souls of Wit: A Tribute to the Algonquin Round Table.

Does the name sound familiar?  Even if it does, the faces escape us.  That's not too much of a surprise.  The trouble with history is that its what everyone wants to get away from and everybody has to have.  It's a sentiment the knights of the old Round Table would have known and applauded.  They were made of different stuff back then.  Another aspect of history is that it all happened in the past.  What that means is sooner or later everyone has a jigsaw puzzle dropped right in front of them, and its our inglorious task to try and see if the pieces fit together.  Whether any of us learn to warm to this subject depends a great deal on whether its able to capture your interest.  That makes it a very haphazard affair, and even when the past is able to bait the hook, it's still no guarantee that the final picture is correct in every detail.

Very few remember the legends of the Round Table.  Not the one I'm talking about, anyway.  I call them knights, although perhaps a better way is to describe them all as a scrappy lot of literary talents looking for some kind of professional home.  At least, that was how it all started out.  It all happened in New York, not long after the First World War.  A lot of the decommissioned war correspondents made their way back to the Apple and somehow found themselves lounging around the dining are designated as the Rose Room of the Algonquin hotel in between waiting for the next gig.  In that sense they were pointers to a more noticeable facet of today's economy.  Back then, however, their professional credentials just made them third-class citizen of a second-class society.  Still, they were able to keep their heads above water.  Some of them like George S. Kaufman and Robert Benchley were up and coming names in the theater circuit.  Both Kaufman and Benchley were critics reporting on the products of the Great White Way at the time the story started.

They were returning vets in one form or another, and were at New York's Algonquin Hotel to welcome back another fellow ink-stained wretch.  His name was Alexander Woollcott, and it was his strange stuffiness mixed in with a bit of low-lying snobbery that made Benchley and the others decide to play a prank on him.  The nature, meaning, and intent of the prank itself is so small as to be unremarkable.  They erected a welcome back banner for Woollcott with his name deliberately misspelled and they were even considerate enough to add in the byline of a fellow critic that Woollcott despised to the masthead.  The prank itself was a minor thing, however the sense of camaraderie it inspired in the participants, even Woollcott as it turned out, made one of them ask, ""Why don't we do this every day (6-7)".

A better sense of the context of that moment in relation to its own time is I think best provided in the following description.  "The period that followed the end of World War I was one of gaiety and optimism, and it sparked a new era of creativity in American culture. Surely one of the most profound — and outrageous — influences on the times was the group of a dozen or so tastemakers who lunched together at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. For more than a decade they met daily and came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. With members such as writers Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker) and Robert Benchley; columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, and Broun’s wife Ruth Hale; critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Table embodied an era and changed forever the face of American humor.

"It all began with an afternoon roast of the New York Times drama critic, Alexander Wollcott. A number of writers met up at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th street and had such a good time that the event was repeated the next day, and the day after that, until the lunch table at the Algonquin was established as a ritual. The core group of friends was sometimes joined by others who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group, including such notables as actress Tallulah Bankhead and playwright Noel Coward. The Round Table was made up of people with a shared admiration for each other’s work. Outspoken and outrageous, they would often quote each other freely in their daily columns.

"Round Tabler Edna Ferber, who called them “The Poison Squad,” wrote, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly.” Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. Both casual and incisive, they had a certain terrible integrity about their work and boundless ambition. Some of the most notable members of the Round Table came together to work on significant collaborative projects. George Kaufman teamed up with Edna Ferber and Marc Connelly on some of his best stage comedies, including Dulcy and The Royal Family. Harold Ross of The New Yorker hired both Dorothy Parker as a book reviewer and Robert Benchley as a drama critic (web)".  I think its somewhat telling that another member of the group was named Bill Murray.  As the later comic once observed, "Like you, I am shocked".  I suppose the final ingredient to the mix, the one acts as a decent capper, is the addition of the Brothers of the aforementioned Mr. Marx.

One of the things I've begun to notice is how a lot of the really great artistic accomplishments are either the result of the kind of informal group collaboration like that described above, or else they're at the very least interlinked by what I can only describe as a wave of inspiration that effects the culture of which each artist forms an integral part.  In the case of the Round Table, it seems as if a little bit of both was at work.  I've only begun to dive into this particular artistic group, yet what I've found already is enough to warrant a closer look or two.  As of this writing, I've familiarized myself with the work of four the members, or hangers-on of the the Tablers: Benchley, Kaufman, James Thurber, and  E.B. White.  Right now these four seem to represent to me the core artistic principles that forged a kind of informal bond for the Table.

It's the nature of those principles that I'd like to take a moment to examine.  I think unpacking the toolbox the group used to compose their works can help gain a better understanding of the ideas that drove the collective.  What makes it interesting is that what I've found convinces me that the Round Table as an artistic collective can help throw some interesting light on a forgotten influence on the nature of not just modern fiction, but on the practice of fantasy writing in the twentieth century.  The core principles of the Table that I've been able to discover come down to just three elements.  The first is that I think it helps to see the four knights discussed here as part of the Modernist experiment in world fiction at the time.  While guys like Benchley, Thurber, and White were making a name for themselves at The New Yorker, across the pond, guys like Ezra Pound and James Joyce were also busy mapping out the parameters of what Post-War literature could become.

The second element that was spread out over the work of the entire Table was that of Humor.  This is an arena in which guys like Kaufman and Marx were able to shine.  In particular, a brief look at the collaboration between the two can help to demonstrate the legacy they've left behind for up and coming modern comics.  The third and final element that united the group was their revelatory and unexpected approach to the topic of Myth.  In some ways, this is the biggest surprise I was able to uncover about the group, and the best part is I wasn't even on the lookout for anything.  I just kept going through the bibliography of guys like White and Thurber, or the list of performances made by Benchley, and somehow it finally got through that there was a genuine sense of respect for the kind of storytelling that was frowned upon by all the important taste-makers of the time.  It's the most overlooked aspect of the Round Table, and I think it may also be the one subject I'd like to go through the most.  So, grab a a favorite drink, a chair, put on some proper mood music, and meet some interesting people.


Modernism.

The problem with talking about a subject like Modernism is that you just can't always take a leap into the deep side of the pool.  That might work for certain types of literati who know all the lingo and whatever secret passwords of the month.  For those of us in the groundlings section, however, this won't do more often than not.  For one thing, Modernism is a subject that is so arcane that at this point its an open question of whether the average man on the street ever knew it was once a thing.  The second issue is that if you're going to bring Modernism up at all, these days it means the critic is faced with the difficult task of trying to define the proper terms in ways that most people will be able to grasp.  That means before I can even get into the main subject of how a handful of Algonquin writers manifest as Modernist artists, I have to make an annoying pause to explain what the hell that even means.  I'm not complaining, just the world we live in.   This problem is almost the unintentional fault of a lot of the Modernist practitioners themselves.

Writers and poets like Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis often got in the habit of trying to justify the practices and methods of their individual works by going out of their way to at least try and explain the concepts of their thinking to the reading public.  This in itself can sometimes be an admirable trait for the artist to have.  Credit can go even further when the artist's explanations display a discernible amount of generosity in the way they communicate with their readers.  The trouble with guys like Pound is that they were often lacking in these needed qualities of human sympathy.  If Humanism is one of the great benefits of being well read, then I almost have to label Pound as something of a dropout.

He is responsible for at least trying to frame a kind of banner declaration for the Modernist movement.  Whether he ever succeeded in defining and framing the nature of this same aesthetic is a matter of (in my opinion) dubious debate.  His central clarion call was to "Make it New".  By that Pound generally seems to have meant finding new modes of literary and artistic expression that would capture the then modern age of the early 1920s.  However, there is a bit of irony involved in Pound's conception of the Modernist project.  The best way to describe it is to wonder if all he's done is to succeed in focusing on style, all while missing the subject.  In practice, Pound's own attempts at making it new amounted to talking over the heads of his readers in a way that deliberately tried to exclude anyone he thought was unworthy to receive whatever dispensation he was willing to offer from on high.

Compare this with the more open-ended practices of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce.  Like Pound, they were more than willing to try and push the boundaries of the modern artistic formats.  Unlike Pound, they don't seem to have forgotten that they are still just performers on-stage in front of the groundlings.  They are writers for the working day, and that seems to have been enough for them.  Their works can sometimes be difficult, yet it operates more in the sense of fair challenge, rather than exclusion.  If I'm going to claim a seat for the Round Table authors in this movement, then my own reading experience of them is that guys like Thurber and Kaufman tend more towards the egalitarian side of the movement than that of Pound.  I think part of the reason for this has to do with how their own creative choices often mimic in subtle ways the same methods as Joyce or Eliot.  In order to understand this shared sense of Modernist method, however, requires just a few more pieces of contextualizing.

In a review of Sanford Schwartz's The Matrix of Modernism, Edward Mendelson cites the work of Frank Kermode, who made a rather bold claim about the Modernist project as a whole.  "Thirty years ago, Frank Kermode's pioneering study Romantic Image (New York, 1957) demonstrated that literary modernism had not achieved a radical overthrow of nineteenth-century art and thought that its propagandists had claimed for it but was a continuation of romanticism by different means (131)".  Kermode took things even further in his London Review of Books article entitled Modernisms.  I'm going to indulge in a bit of further blasphemy by saying that Kermode might at least be onto something.  I'm not sure that I'd go so far as he is in terms of skepticism of all period categorizations about different trends in literary history.  However, it is true that my own experience has been that Modernism is often at its best when it is trying to pick up were a lot of older writers have left off.

The two most helpful examples of this trend are The Wasteland and Ulysses.  In one, all Eliot has done is taken themes from Arthurian myth and transplanted them into a modern form of poetry that functions as a search for some kind of statement of clarity.  Meanwhile, Joyce was content to re-write Homer's Odyssey with all the major characters decked out in modern masks.  In terms of literary practice the method of both authors traces a line of relationship and descent all the way back to the Brothers Grimm, who were also known for taking the folklore of the peasant countryside and translating it all into Children's and Household Tales.  I've seen and read enough of the Algonquin Knights to recognize that same technique at work here and there.

One of the most recognizable traits of Modernism, the one that helped cement its place in popular memory, is the way it sometimes had of speaking to the perils of the modern predicament.  This was a setup that was no stranger to members of the Round Table.  I think a good introduction to the Modernist style and outlook is provided by E.B. White in his essay Here is New York.

""New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.  Since I have been sitting in this miasmic air shaft, a good many rather splashy events have occurred in town.  A man shot and killed his wife in a fit of jealousy.  It caused no stir outside his block and got only small mention in the papers.  I did not attend.  Since my arrival, the greatest show in all the world took place in town.  I didn't attend and neither did most of the eight million other inhabitants, although they say there was quite a crowd.  I didn't even hear any planes except a couple of westbound commercial airliners that habitually use this air shaft to fly over.  The biggest ocean-going ships on the North Atlantic arrived and departed.  I didn't notice them and neither did most other New Yorkers.  I am told this is the  greatest seaport in the world, with six hundred and fifty miles of water front, and ships calling here from many exotic lands, but the only boat I've happened to notice since my arrival was a small sloop tacking out of the East River night before last on the ebb tide when I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.  I heard the Queen Mary blow one midnight, though, and the sound carried the whole history of departure and longing and loss...I mention these merely to show that New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle (13-15)".

I can't read those passages and not be reminded of the sense of disconnect that is the major theme in a lot of Modernist writings.  The illustration of this predicament that stands out to me the most is from the same essay.  White is in a diner when the following happens: "When I went down to lunch a few minutes ago I noticed that the man sitting next to me (about eighteen inches along the wall) was Fred Stone.  The eighteen inches were both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.  My only connection with Fred Stone was that I saw him in The Wizards of Oz around the beginning of the century.  But our waiter felt the same stimulus from being close to a man from Oz, and after Mr. Stone left the room the waiter told me that when he (the waiter) was a young man just arrived in this country and before he could understand a word of English, he had taken his girl for their first date to The Wizard of Oz.  It was a wonderful show, the waiter recalled - a man of straw, a man of tin.  Wonderful!  (And still only eighteen inches away.)  "Mr. Stone is a very hearty eater," said the waiter thoughtfully, content with this fragile participation in destiny, this link with Oz (12)".

A few paragraphs later, White seems to sober up and is able to admit, even to himself, "The quality in New York that insulates its from life may simply weaken them as individuals.  Perhaps it is healthier to live in a community where, when a cornice falls, you feel the blow; where, when the governor passes, you see at any rate his hat (16)"  These passages are neat studies in contrasts.  White admits to having all the opportunity in the world at his feet.  However, there's something about the whole idea of disturbing the universe that makes him look for solace in the kind of solitude that only the anonymous housing of Manhattan can offer.  The writer oscillates between wanting to apply Thoreau's maxim of living deliberately, while also wanting to achieve this lofty goal on the cheap.  White is straddling the line between man and coward.  He also takes care to point out that his predicament is multiplied ad infinitum by the others around him.  It's a note that plenty of other knights found ways to play and riff on. 

The work of the Tablers offer plenty other examples of the prototypical malaise that acted as a kind of trademark for that era.  Thurber in particular would scatter his stories with ineffective men and women caught up the processes of unhappy and unfulfilling marriages, or dead end jobs.  Some of these figures are often in search of either ways of escape from their lot, or else just hoping for a diversion from all the drudgery. Perhaps the most famous example is Thurber's amusing Mr. Mitty.  He is one of the few characters from this period that still maintains a certain level of familiarity with audiences.  Perhaps it's easy enough to see why.  The basic concept is relatable because of its very simplicity.  An average man goes about his day, trying to fulfill the requests of a demanding and domineering wife.  All the way he gives in to various flights of fantasy as a distraction from his lot.

While the story's premise makes it easy to engage with Mitty's progress, I think there's an element to the whole ordeal that most readers tend to ignore.  There's nothing really that spectacular about Mitty's musings.  They are not, in the strictest, or truest sense of the word, creative.  Instead, what the reader is treated to is a series of varying power fantasies with the protagonist at the center of them all.  Mitty's desire for retreat from reality is so complete that he experiences a familiar longing for escape, yet he proves to be pathetic even in his ability (or lack thereof) to dream.  Instead, the narrative reveals the main character to be little more than a poor player strutting upon an imaginary stage of his own devising, with himself as the ongoing feature attraction.  The vignette ends with Mitty pretending to bravely face down a firing squad, "defiant to the end".  However it is just possible to conceive that the fancies could, over time, begin to degrade into the worst sort of musings if some kind of positive change doesn't come along, and Thurber leaves us little doubt of how unlikely that is for his character.  Like Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, Mitty is the kind of guy who can't bring himself to change his own situation for the better, because he lacks the very nerve necessary to take charge of himself.  In other words, Walter Mitty is a perfect embodiment of the Modernist subject.

Humor.

From what I can tell, it looks and sounds very much as if these explorations of neurotic malaise are what sticks out the most about the Algonquins in the popular imagination.  Walter Mitty has been a touchstone for so long that he's gone on to define the nature and image of the zeitgeist from which he originally emerged.  It's obvious enough that this very development says something about the capabilities and limits of the public perception of the arts.  What it seems to reveal is that the popular imagination cannot just understand any and every possible story under the sun.  If that were the case, then writers like John Fowles and John Gardner would never have faded into obscurity.  Instead, its all the popular imagination can do to recognize whatever stories it can, or is capable of.

Even if this is how it probably has always been, it doesn't erase the sense of regret when promising talent falls through the cracks, or else great names get lost in the memory.  Another side effect of the limits of the current popular imagination is that it also means a lot of the creative subtleties and and nuances of writers like White and Thurber tend to get lost somewhere in the shuffle of events.  We think we know the nature of Thurber as a writer because guys like Walter are easy enough to understand.  What more is there?  A closer look into the writings of the group reveals the answer to be a lot more than plenty, as it turns out.  This is true especially where the humor of the Round Table is concerned.

It is true that Thurber and other Tablers wrote stories that explored and spoke about the modern condition.  However there was something interesting about the Algonquins.  For some reason they were never content to let the gloom and shadows run away with the show.  There was too much of a lingering sense of irreverent glee, even in Thurber's most neurotic output, to ever let the Waste Land have the last laugh.  They seemed to have hit on the recognition that laughter is often a tonic, when used right.  Therefore it shouldn't be too much of a surprise to discover that the basic Round Table cures for, and way out of the modern predicament is to do what any self-respecting satirical humorist would do in just this situation: pull the rug out from under the whole damn works.  Points if the flowers are still left standing.

I've said that humor was the groups main weapon of choice, and that's true enough.  The trouble with humor, however, is that while it is universal, it can also be in and out of season.  This is down to the way audience tastes have changed over the years.  This is not the same thing as saying the humor of the Table was bad.  That's not the case at all.  There's genuine laughter to be found be found in this crowd.  The question is just how many people in the audience are willing to meet Table Knights on their own level?  It has to be remembered that behind closed doors, they could spout off one-liners and the kind of by now familiar insult humor that would sort of make them hints and glimmers of what would later become the original 70s lineup of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.  The trouble is it was also a time in which the envelope had yet to be incinerated, and our senses dulled to the degree they are now.  I can even recall one stand-up comic saying that things have progressed to the point where now all anyone has to do to get a laugh is drop an MF bomb.  The Round Table, on the other hand, had to use innuendo and suggestion in order to get their meaning, and hence their effect across.

This means a lot of their humor centers on an old format that relies on the absurdity of the situation, rather than on verbal or graphic humor.  Most of us are familiar with this style from the work of directors like John Hughes, where the cast and setting is natural, yet the results are often satiric.  One founding member of the Round Table, in particular, was very good at this sort of gag.  His name was Robert Benchley, and I think bringing Hughes into the picture can help the first timer get a good sense of the older comic's style and approach.  One of Hughes most frequent collaborator's was John Candy.  Now the actor is far from an unknown talent, even years after his unfortunate, all-too-soon passing. What's unique and makes him stand out from the rest of his contemporaries is just how much heart he was able to put into most of his best work.  While guys like Bill Murray could, believe it or not, engage in sentimentalism in a way that paid off, Candy was able to take it to greater heights.  This is best seen in his character arc from Plains, Trains, and Automobiles, which ends on a succinct note of genuine humanism that has made the picture a holiday classic to this day.

What all this has to do with a humor columnist turned showbiz comedian is that when I see or read anything by Benchley, I often get the same vibes as I do from guys like Candy.  There's a similar sense of geniality, coupled with just wanting to lend a hand and have a good time into the bargain.  The only real differentiation is that Benchley had this sense of lettered sophistication about him.  You get the idea that if you asked this guy if he knew anything about, say, Cato the Elder, odds are he might be able to recite whole passages by heart.  However, he never let that get in the way of connecting with audiences, which accounts for why he was so popular in his day.  It also helps that not only was Benchley's material very similar to that of James Thurber.  Both men also literally worked in the  same office at the New Yorker, so it's no surprise that there was bound to be a certain amount of overlap in terms of style and material. 

It was this material that Benchley was able to take from the printed page and project onto the big screen in a series of short sketch films.  These pictures often cast Benchley with two roles in one. The first was a basic Everyman type who always seems to be caught off-guard by the growing complexity that modern life tends to throw in his way.  The second aspect of this role is where Benchley would take on the persona of an expert in daily living.  Today the phrase "Life-coach", or "Life-hacker" are two phrases by which this figure is known.  In this second role, Benchley's ostensible job was to try and help the modern man figure out his way through life.  The inevitable punchline is that the coach himself is just a much afloat and lost in the shuffle as the audience he is trying to help.  A good example is found during the course of a skit with the unassuming title of How to Sleep.  In the middle of what seems a trifling how-to manual, Benchley almost seems to pause his light-hearted monologue with the following observations:  "Chief among the methods of keeping blood in the brain is worry.  You can worry better sitting up.  Worry can be caused by putting your mind on any one thing.  No matter what it is you'll find it easy enough to worry about in the middle of the night (16)".

In another segment from a different short, Benchley seems to be deliberately channeling Thurber by bringing up a favorite subject of the latter scribe, How to Train a Dog.  "Now this is no way to make a dog respect you.  There's a certain amount of dignity involved in owning a dog and while the dog may pretend not to notice that you're making a fool of yourself, he has to face a lot of just such people in a dog-shop window during the day and he gets pretty sick of their saying "Oogie-boogie" at him through the glass (43)".   This was a basic setup to each of Benchley's sketches, and never seems to have wavered from first to last.  While the premise is simple, the underlying conceit does have an interesting timeless quality, as even back then people were still on the lookout for quick solutions to complex yet mundane problems.  Any similarity between Benchley's method of comedy and that of guys like Thurber is probably not entirely an accident.  Thurber once commented,, "One of the  greatest fears of the humorous writer is that he has spent three weeks writing something done faster and better by Benchley in 1919 (web)".

Another important element about the Algonquin sense of humor is that it can be expanded into a more familiar note.  If you take an average Round Table joke and stretch it to its further limits, then I believe you tend to wind up somewhere in the realm of the Looney Tunes, or at least something like it.  There is an element of caricature in the work of Thurber or Benchley that can be taken to that kind of animated slapstick level in the right hands.  If I had to say which Knight of the Round Table could best serve as a kind of thematic bridge between the real life humor the of group and the Tunes, then it would have to be Arthur "Harpo" Marx and his Brothers.  Together with Tabler George S. Kaufman, they sort of helped create one of the masterpieces of film comedy.  I wonder how many people know about A Night at the Opera as of this writing.  It's one of those films that always manages to find a spot on the Top whatever Best of Lists.  However I'm not sure that tells us how much awareness still exists around the picture.  The good news is that its one of those cases where lack of audience interest does nothing to erase the film's impact on the history of entertainment in general, and on the nature of modern comedy in particular.

Kaufman and Marx were drinking buddies at the same table at the Algonquin, and perhaps its a testament to the level of their camaraderie that when Marx and his siblings were signed onto a film deal at MGM in the 30s, Kaufman didn't appear to need that much persuasion to travel all the way out to the hills of Los Angeles and help Arthur and Julius (known on-stage as Groucho) to pound out a workable number of skits and routines into a viable feature-length format.  It was a very productive time for both Tablers, though their differing temperaments and approaches to composing the material often made for some amusing moments off-stage.  "For Kaufman...writing comedy was serious business. Biographer Scott Meredith describes him writing the first Marx Brothers musical The Cocoanuts in 1925: 

"If eating was an annoying interruption to him during leisure times, it often became an unbearable burden to be completely avoided during work periods. He much preferred to spend the time pacing the floors, lying prone on the carpets, picking up hundreds of pieces of lint, tying innumerable and permanent knots in window-curtain cords, and in general struggling over and perfecting every line and plot situation in the agonized way which once caused [Alexander] Woollcott to say about him, “In the throes of composition, he seems to crawl up the walls of the apartment in the manner of the late Count Dracula...Kaufman's painstaking approach to writing didn’t always mesh with the comedy team’s compulsive improvisation. As Kaufman summed it up: “The Cocoanuts introduced me to the Marx Brothers. The Cocoanuts was a comedy. The Marx Brothers are comics. But meeting them was a tragedy.”

"Yet Kaufman came to respect their instincts and experience, as he explained in an address at Yale in 1939: "Morrie Ryskind and I learned a great lesson in the writing of stage comedy. We learned it from the Marx Brothers. We wrote two shows for them which, by the way, is two more than anybody should be asked to write. Looking back, it seems incredible that this was something we had not known before, but we hadn’t. We learned that when an audience does not laugh at a line at which they’re supposed to laugh, then the thing to do was to take out that line and get a funnier line. So help me, we didn’t know that before. I always thought it was the audience’s fault, or when the show got to New York they’d laugh (web).

I think there's more than one lesson that Night has to teach its viewers about the Algonquin sense of humor.  From the very start, the film sets itself up as contrast between the main cast of characters, and an entire social life that is snobbish, indifferent, and sometimes downright cruel.  The Marx Brothers, on the other hand, demonstrate a clear willingness to to knock the whole edifice of the high society of their time right into the ground.  In doing so, they are able to tell viewers a number of things.  One is that there is no cultural institution that can really escape their critique.  Another is that the social class of hoi-polloi are probably too removed from real life for their own good.  It's the third and final aspect of the film that I find more important however.  That lesson is not to be a snob, whether in art or life.  It's a topic I'll have to come back to.  For the moment its enough to realize it is a standard of value that seems to apply not just to the Marx Brothers, but also to the group of which they were kind of ironic extension.

It also displays a kind of pragmatic side to the group's sense of humor.  If awareness of the Modernist predicament was the starting point for their activities, comedy and laughter seems to have been one of their main sources for combating and deconstructing it.  They seemed to have learned early on the satire can be a powerful weapon if it can make its way into the right hands.  However, its the same egalitarian spirit that undergirds it all which seems the second most important aspect to the whole collective effort.  Before we can get that that, however, there is still one final aspect to the art of the Algonquin Round Table that still has to be placed under the microscope.  It's the one I find the most fascinating, the least studied, and perhaps the most important.

Myths and the Round Table.

In a way, it makes sense to transition from the humorous to the fantastic.  It just fits in the with the tenor of the group's style.  I said a while back that the Round Table's response to the challenges of the Modernist dilemma was to mercilessly use the items, concepts, and core elements in order to turn it all on its head.  They would mercilessly lampoon and satirize the Prufrocks of the world in a way that did more than just bring an occasional smile to their audience.  The whole point of turning one's life upside down is the added bonus of sometimes being able to view it from a new perspective.  At least this was always the underlying, unstated goal of the Tabler stories.

Everyone remembers Walter Mitty, even if you've never met him.  In a way, he's easy to recall because he's so forgettable.  However, I think its telling that while Mitty is often treated as some kind of Everyman poster boy, the downside of such popular perception is that it tends to obscure the other denizens and incidents that are going on all around him.  Part of the problem with Mitty is his utter self-absorption.  He's so dedicated to escaping into his own mind that if a ghost walked right up to him in the middle of a public street and started jumping up and down, pulling all the standard faces and making all the usual noises, I'm not sure that Walt would even notice.  It really does seem like a more forceful approach is needed to shatter the invisible wall that guys Mitty like to plant between themselves and reality.  We never do find out if Mitty had any sort encounter remarkable enough to shake him awake.  However, that's not to say that other inhabitants in the sphere of Algonquin scribblers don't have their own extraordinary tales to tell.

Take the case of The Night the Ghost Got In.  The whole story is told almost like the report on a tongue-in-cheek police blotter.  This is fitting as the local constabulary are drawn into the picture very much against their will when a series of strange noises begin to reverberate throughout the downstairs of an average suburban home.  It's the presence of this spectral visitor in the night that upends the whole structure of a typical Thurber household.  This means that things were fairly chaotic even before the specter puts in its unseen appearance.  However, it was a familiar chaos.  The problems of the Thurber household often revolve around a kind of routine that Walter Mitty would be familiar with.  The husbands are often weak and henpecked ineffectuals.  The wives and mothers dominate the roost with iron fists, and the old folks don't do nothing at all.  This sort of material is ripe for creative exploration, and Thurber is able treat it all with a comedic touch that is natural an unforced, even as the world comes unglued from its moorings.  However, it is notable that this same basic setup could just as easily translate into a scenario of straight up horror.

I think it's a testament to Thurber's genius that he was aware of the malleability his typical setting could have, and I do know of at least one instance when he decided to set aside the clown suit and let the horror take control of the situation.  This would be in the short story, A Friend of Alexander, where a typical Thurber husband is caught up in a series of recurring, progressive dreams, in which he meets and befriends Alexander Hamilton, only for both of them to keep running afoul of Aaron Burr.  As his dreams continue the husband begins enact its consequences in the real world.  He becomes more aggressive.  He's often unable to talk about anything except the way Burr mistreats and disrespects Hamilton.  He even equates the late Founder with his deceased older brother.  The narrative takes a dark turn when the husband buys a gun, and decides to take a vacation in the country for the sole purpose of target practice.  By now the reader is aware that the husband has somehow been drawn into repeating a familiar and unfortunate event in American history.  At this point the story's climax is almost pre-ordained.  The husband is found dead in a clearing in a field.   His heart has stopped, the gun lies beside him, yet it hasn't been fired.  "Sen. Burr" never gave him a chance.

It's almost easy enough to imagine the husband as our old acquaintance, Walter.  Like Mitty, he is a Modernist protagonist in the sense of being someone who has let himself become a victim of modernity.  Unlike Mitty, something happens that makes everything topsy-turvey.  It's as if a door was left open somewhere in reality and the past is able to exert a deadly pressure on the present.  The curious part about it is the exact kind of effect that an encroachment of a traditional Gothic element has on the typical Thurber setting.  What would happen if Walter Mitty encountered a real ghost?  In Alexander's case, the figure of Burr acts as an interesting kind of spur to the husband at the tale's center.  He's a feckless individual in the usual Thurber mold, yet the appearance of Burr gives him an ironic sense of purpose.  He's someone the husband can take a whole lifetime of frustrations out on.  However, the trajectory of his life is also that of a Gothic protagonist, and his ultimate fate is well in keeping with the tragic morality of such a tale.

The spirit at the heart of The Night the Ghost Got In is lot more of a puckish prankster than Burr.  It's single reason for being there appears to be just to have a bit of unorthodox fun.  If there's any kind of logical character motivation to be had, then I'll have to go out on a limb and suggest it was all a combination of boredom laced with recognition.  The spirit was bored enough to get into mischief, and it could read its target like a book.  The family at the heart of Thurber's ghost story once fits the typical pattern of his domestic households.  The marriage ranges from neurotic to dysfunctional.  The father is absent, or just plain missing in action, and the mother is a strange mix of domineering and hysterical.  The curious part is I'm never quite sure just how strong willed she is.  She rules the household like a benevolent dictatorship, and yet the minute a real challenge is thrown her way, her first response is to try and get others to handle the problem.  For some reason she makes it easy to imagine the ghost laughing in its sleeves (if it has any).

In any event, the title character is able to have its skewed sense of fun.  As the narrator recounts in the very first line, "The ghost that got into our house on the night of November 17, 1915, raised such a hullabaloo of misunderstandings that I am sorry I didn’t just let it keep on walking, and go to bed. Its advent caused my mother to throw a shoe through a window of the house next door and ended up with my grandfather shooting a patrolman. I am sorry, therefore, as I have said, that I ever paid any attention to the footsteps (web)".  The whole thing reads like a wild yarn or romp, and that's generally the reputation it has among critics and audiences.  However, I think the story's simplicity masks an interesting idea, one that makes it (and other narratives like it) almost a kind literary antidote to the general dilemma that most of Thurber's protagonists find themselves in.

If the it's the nature of a typical Thurber figure to be a self-defeating neurotic, then any intrusion of myth or the fantastical into the narrative means a necessary disruption not just of their routines, but also sometimes of their whole outlook.  Perhaps the best illustration of this is with the intrusion not of a haunt, but of an all out mythical beast.  One day another Walter Mitty type is sitting down to breakfast while his shrew of a wife grouses in bed.  He's busy digging into his morning repast when a glance out the window reveals the unicorn munching on a flower bed.  From there, the plot consists of the Husband trying to get the wife to look at the unicorn.  "You are a boobie," is her final word on the matter, "and I am going to put you in the boobie hatch".  With that, she proceeds to phone the nearest psychiatric ward to have them come over and pick her husband up.

Meanwhile, once the unicorn takes its leave, the husband is a bit too stunned by the whole affair.  It's all he can do to just grab a seat under a tree, and ponder and wonder about a lot of things left unsaid because perhaps they don't really need to be.  By the time a psychiatrist and a group of orderlies arrive on the scene, the man is still lost in contemplation under the tree.  The wife, however is more than happy to fill in all the details.  The shrink and warders listen to her recount her husband's experience, all while sharing meaningful looks between one another.  When she's finished, the shrink knows just what to do and gives the order.  The orderlies spring into action and before the wife knows it, she's wrapped in a straight-jacket.  When the husband finally walks in from the garden, the psychiatrist conveys his sincerest apologies, it seems his wife is not at all well.  The husband seems very understanding of all this.  Before he leaves, the shrink asks the husband if he really did see a unicorn in his garden?  The husband just gives a very knowing smile, and throws his wife's words back at everyone, "The unicorn is a mythical beast".  No one bothers to pay attention to the way he says it.  Thurber ends his fable with a moral: "Never count your bobbies before they've hatched.   

Guys like Walter Mitty might think there is nothing to be done, but then the same author wrote about the ghost.  And true to its archetype, that shaded trickster was there for just one reason.  To shakes the cage of complacency and get people out of their comfort zones.  Taken together, it presents a picture of a world where people often think reality is often smaller on the inside.  Meanwhile, the real world has other plans, and a whole lot of surprises up its sleeve.  There's a kind of gleeful, impish quality to the fantasies of the Round Table.  I think it's this quality of being let in on the joke that makes them so enjoyable.  The Walter Mitty's of the world have secretly convinced themselves that the world around them is a silent, dumb book that offers little in the way excitement.  Yet that ghost was loitering around somewhere, and it knew just how mess with guys like Walt.  And the fact that it was even there meant there were more things in Thurber's secondary world than are dreamt of by the majority of its inhabitants.

It's an outlook Thurber was able to take to even greater heights in books like The Wonderful O and The 13 Clocks.   However, he was not alone in displaying an easy rapport with imaginative romanticism.  Even Robert Benchley participated in a story with I Married a Witch for a title.  However, another author in or associated with this group to follow on the same trajectory is E.B. White.  Most audiences are still familiar with the title Charlotte's Web, the open question in my mind is just how many know who wrote it?  Does anyone still know it's a book for that matter?  Either way, lack of awareness isn't enough to change the fact that it was White who was responsible not just for a tale about a spider, but also a human shaped like a mouse and a voiceless swan who played the trumpet as good as anything by Louis Armstrong.

Both Stuart Little and The Trumpet and the Swan are less well known or revered as the adventures of Charlotte and Wilbur, however there is a sense of thematic continuity between all three books that helps give a sense of White's standpoint as an author.  I think Michael Sims gave as best a summation of this aesthetic position when he wrote his book-length study, The Story of Charlotte's Web.  Sims's words on White's literary contributions are important, as they help highlight an aspect not just of White's endeavors, but also those of other Tablers that just gets too little notice in this day and age.

"The book for which most people cherish him fits into a long-standing tradition in literature - tales of animals who think and speak like human beings.  From Aesop's ungrateful eagle through the trickster fox Reynard in the Middle Ages, from the autobiography of Black Beauty in the nineteenth century to the quest of Despereaux in the twenty-first, talking animals have accompanied us throughout history.  Folklore around the world laments our loss of innocence in the golden age of humanity, when we could speak with our fellow creatures.  In Charlotte's Web this lost era is childhood.

"Remember that writing is translation," White wrote to a student while composing this tale about the animals in his barn, "and the opus to be translated is yourself."  According to Sims, in composing his story of the Web, "White translated his own passions and contradictions, delights and fears, into a book that has had an astonishingly broad appeal across age groups and natural boundaries.  He knew that empathy is a creative act, an entering into another's reality.  Empathy and curiosity happily coexisted in his spacious imagination.  He studied the lives of spiders for a year before writing his novel.  "I discovered quite by accident," he explained, "that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows (4)".   While some writers attached to this group were less experimental than White or Thurber, there is this general sense of a liking for the literature of fantastic.  It does seem to have been a shared trait that they were very positive on fairy stories for the most part.  It might not sound like much, yet for a bunch of older writers to have this kind of open attitude to the literature of once upon a time is quite frankly remarkable for its day.  It's also something that counts for a great deal in my book.

It's writings like these that present a remarkable and critically ignored panorama hidden in a tucked away corner of American letters.  Sometimes it sounds vaguely like Neil Gaiman, and other times it comes off as a continuation of the kind of story Ray Bradbury was trying to tell during those same years.  However, I think Peter de Vries is able to provide a better  description of this particular creative zeitgeist better than I can.  His focus remains firmly on the work of Thurber, yet I'd like to maintain that it also speaks to the nature of the group of writers more or less as a whole.  In describing the particular secondary worlds of the Modernists, de Vries starts by claiming that the citizens of these places are always "living half the time in the real world...and half in the haunted wilderness of medieval legend".  Thurber too is half the time God knows where.  "One's head may be stored with literature but the heroic prelude of the Elizabethans has ironic echoes in modern...streets and modern..drawing rooms."  Reality in Thurber undergoes filterings and transmutations as curious and as abrupt...Confronted by details, moments, of that dull environment with which he is long weary of coping, he contrives his own little substitutions, and his transformer is always at work altering, to suit his fancy, the currents of experience...

"A connoisseur of mispronunciation, he was happy when (one of his characters, sic) called (an) ice-box "doom-shaped", thus investing it with a quality which fascinated him for days, and by a similar alchemy...there are warbs in the garrick, grotches in the wood and fletchers on the lawn - all details possessing a charm with which their real-life counterparts cannot compete.  To make the transformation complete, the maid has only to step on his glasses.  Then do the flags of South American republics fly over the roofs of Manhattan banks, cats cross the street in striped barrels, old women with parasols walk through the sides of trucks, bridges rise "lazily into the air like balloons."  "The kingdom of the partly blind," he assures us, jesting of his affliction, "is a little like Oz, a little like Wonderland, a little Poictesme."  He never drives alone at night "out of fear that I might turn up at the portals of some mystical monastery and never return (156-7)    

Conclusion: The Legend and Legacy of the Round Table.

The denizens of the Algonquin Round Table were remarkable in their ability to amass a great deal of work on both stage, screen, and the printed page.  In fact there's such a great deal of output that it often goes overlooked.  If anyone is lucky enough to find the artistic remains of this literary group, there soon comes a moment where a lucky few will pause to take stock and ask themselves what, if anything, was in back of it all.  What could make a bunch isolated, individual talents coalesce into this kind of satirical story making machine?  What drove them on, in other words?  I think the first part of the answer to that question is to keep in mind that while they could never be as splashy and loud as the creative talents of the later 60s and 70s, the Algonquins were nevertheless still rebels and bohemians of their day.  

In this sense they are like riffs on a constantly recurring trope in history.  Every now and then, someone, or a group of folks will come along who are able to find unique ways of standing out from the maddening crowd.  The key with such historical figures is the way they are able to capture their moment of time and hit upon ways to shape and define it.  The Beatles did this when their cultural moment was right.  It seems like the Algonquins were able to have the same effect, albiet in a more quiet, yet definitive way back during the height of Modernism.  They recognized the nature of the times they were living through, were able to examine it, see what worked, and what was wrong or could use either improvement, or else just a good, old fashioned critical roasting.  In this regard, satire was their main tool in the Modernist movement.  While they were not political in any definite way, this was to their advantage.  As it allowed them to attack their targets in a more universalist sense.

In addition to this, like any good Modernist, they found ways of taking old tropes and using them in ways that made audiences pay attention again.  This is the one element that is the most fascinating about the group.  What I find amazing is that they were willing to engage with elements of myth at all.  There was no snobbery about any of it.  They were able to approach the fantastic mode of writing with an open-mindedness that seems to have been guided by little more than a basic and vital artistic enthusiasm.  If myth is what the story called for, use it.  If it didn't work, back to the drawing board.  Perhaps the greatest facet of the Algonquin Round table is that they were able to create their own bridge between the literary and popular cultures of their day.

This is an element of their work that strikes an interesting chord.  For the longest time there's been idea in my head, one that comes from slow development as I've made my way from one book to the next.  I've been lucky in having the time and opportunity to read the leaves of the past mixed in on an equal basis with more recent scribblings.  One of the elements I've picked up on is how there was a time when the popular and the literate had a brief moment of easy relations between them.  There was a time when the one didn't look down on the other.  This was surprisingly true of works written during the Victorian period.  People like Kipling and Rider Haggard weren't snubbed by the literati of their day for indulging in Nursery Tales.  That had all changed by the the time the Tablers were in their prime.  However, that's what makes them endearing in a way.  They were as close to the creme de la creme in American Letters as they could get.  It could have been so easy for them to take the way of snobbery and turn up their noses at myth and its history of tropes and methods.  Instead they were willing to incorporate the fantastic in their work in a sophisticated way that also managed not to be ashamed of their own liking for the material of legends.

It marks them out as unique in the history of both literate and popular fiction.  They were boundary breakers for their time, able like Mark Twain to charm the Ivory Tower and the child's tree house all in the same writing.  Something tells that's going to be a rare feet no matter what the age.  It's also the main reason for this attempt, however minor, to bring a greater sense of awareness to this circle of authors, and the creative output that made them famous.  This is all by way of bringing things to a close in perhaps the only way the group would have accepted and respected.  I'd like to make a brief toast, if possible, to forgotten and absent names.  Here's to the Algonquin Round Table.

2 comments:

  1. (1) I have not read this, but as a fan of the New Yorker's old self (before it became the horrid imposter it became in the late 90s and continues to be today) I've read a few books oN Harold Ross' tenure at that once-august institution, as well as ponying up for the Complete New Yorker on cd-rom (although I don't even know if I can get any of my computers to play them anymore), which at one point I was making a studied effort to make my way through from the beginning to the end. (Didn't get far - yet!)

    (2) I also recommend Garrison Keillor's LOVE ME as an adjunct to the above; it's a love letter to the magazine and quite funny/ insightful to boot.

    (3) As for all of these characters, a big obstacle for me was just never finding any of them (Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, EB White, whomever) very funny. Reading them is like listening to someone reading a story and pausing every so often for the laughter, but each time annoys me more because the laughter is not earned or shared by myself. I will, however, happily recommend Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos. That's more my style, I guess. Regarding the efforts of the aforementioned, it's really that: just a diference in style/ framing.

    (4) Modernism is a big topic. It's tough to cover in one post. I think you might need a book, or several.

    (5) Have you seen Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle? It's a mostly unsuccessful attempt to turn all this into a movie. But, worth seeing if you're fan and student of the period.

    (6) I've never actually seen the Marx Brothers outside of some clips here and there and a few stretches of whatever was on TCM when I'd turn it on randomly. I keep meaning to rectify that. One of these days.

    (7) I've tried with Thurber, I wish I responded to it more. It just doesn't do much for me, unfortunately.

    (8) My own experiences aside, I join you in your toast to an indelible and inspirational group of early-to-mid-twentieth-century Americans. Skaal.

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    1. (1) Part of what made me set this whole article down was the negative reaction I had to Michael Vineguerra's "Cast of Characters". It told the story of the "Yorker" under Ross's years, and yet I just came away from that one with the impression that he was just selling the whole group of writers who created that magazine short. Hence, what you see printed above. However amateur it is, I'd like to think I've stuck up for some negelected reputations.

      (4) I also don't think its a subject you can just exhaust with one article. I expect it to crop up every now and again on this blog. Most often when I'm not even looking for it.

      (5) I watched the trailer for that film, and I came away thinking it wasn't worth the effort. I think it's a testament that despite how bad the Orson Welles biopic was, that one at least was able to hook my interest.

      (6) For shame sir. Shaaaaaaaaaaaaaammmmmme! Seriously, though, they're like an upscale version of the Three Stooges, and yet there's always a bit more going on on those films. Note: this is not meant to look askance on the artistic achievements of the three noble wiseguys. Without Messers. Howard, Fine, and Howard, the world would be a lot emptier. The truth is probably that both comedy troupes stand on equal footing, and are there to be picked up depending on where the mood takes you.

      (3,7) Interesting about the style/framing difference. For me, the reaction was the exact opposite. It was like figuring out that an old Warner Bros. cartoon could exist in written format. I can recall my reaction to Thurber, for instance, quite clearly. It went, roughly, as follows:

      Me: (Reads through a passage) (snickers) (reads some more) (chuckle) (keeps reading) (a full, out-loud burst of laughter). I recall the last bit because my basic thinking was that he'd just nailed something fundamental about life, the universe, and towels in general.

      I might suggest a switch to his fairy tales as an alternative place to start. However, whatever. That style/frame is still one of those topics I'm having trouble finding the right words for, or the right way in. Maybe someday, perhaps.

      ChrisC.

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