Humour acted as an important point of contact between nineteenth-century Britain and America. By the 1870s, Victorian bookstalls groaned under the weight of imported American literary humour. The authors of these texts, such as Mark Twain and Artemus Ward, toured the country’s theatres and became household names. Columns of imported Yankee jokes appeared each week in bestselling Victorian newspapers and magazines and were published alongside articles dissecting ‘Cousin Jonathan’s’ distinctive sense of humour. At the same time, satirical magazines such as Punch, writers including Oscar Wilde, and a range of music-hall performers regularly made jokes about America – often at Uncle Sam’s expense. One of the recurring themes within this discourse was the humorous juxtaposition of a ‘British Past’ with an ‘American Future’. Wilde’s Canterville Ghost, for example, transplanted a modern American family into the unfamiliar setting of an old English country house, whilst Mark Twain imagined how a Connecticut Yankee might use his knowledge of modern technology to bewitch King Arthur’s Court. Crucially, these texts were written at a time when the United States was beginning to usurp Britain’s position on the world stage – a shift in transatlantic power relations which challenged long-established national identities and invested representations of the past and the future with heightened potency.
‘You Kick the Bucket; We Do the Rest!’: Jokes and the Culture of Reprinting in the Transatlantic PressBob Nicholson
In December 1893 the Conservative candidate for Flintshire addressed an audience at Mold Constitutional Club. After he had finished attacking Gladstone and the local Liberal incumbent, he ended his speech with a joke. He advised the Conservative party to adopt, with regard to the government, the sign of an American undertaker: ‘You kick the bucket; we do the rest’. How did a sign belonging to a Nevadan undertaker become the subject of a joke told at a political meeting in North Wales? This unlikely question forms the basis of this article. Using new digital archives, it tracks the journey of the gag from its origins in New York, its travels around America, its trip across the Atlantic, its circulation throughout Britain and its eventual leap into political discourse. The article uses the joke to illuminate the workings of a broader culture of transatlantic reprinting. During the final quarter of the nineteenth century miscellaneous ‘snippets’ cut from the pages of the American press became a staple feature of Britain's best selling newspapers and magazines. This article explores how these texts were imported, circulated and continually rewritten in dynamic partnership between authors, editors and their readers. It was awarded the Journal of Victorian Culture's Graduate Essay Prize in 2011.
Widespread popular fascination with America, and an appreciation of American culture, was not introduced by Hollywood cinema during the early decades of the 20th century, but emerged during the late-Victorian period and was driven by the popular press. By the 1880s, newspaper audiences throughout the country were consuming fragments of American life and culture on an almost daily basis. Under the impulses of the so-called ‘new journalism’, representations of America appeared regularly within an eclectic range of journalistic genres, including serialised fiction, news reports, editorials, humour columns, tit-bits, and travelogues. Forms of American popular culture – such as newspaper gags – circulated throughout Britain and enjoyed a sustained presence in bestselling papers. These imported texts also acted as vessels for the importation of other elements of American culture such as the country’s distinctive slang and dialects. This thesis argues that the late-Victorian popular press acted as the first major ‘contact zone’ between America and the British public. Chapter One tracks the growing presence of America in the Victorian press. In particular, it highlights how the expansion of the popular press, the widespread adoption of ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism, the development of transatlantic communications networks and technologies, and a growing curiosity about life in America combined to facilitate new forms of Anglo-American cultural exchange. Chapter Two explores how the press shaped British encounters with American modernity and created a pervasive sense of a coming ‘American future’. Chapter Three focuses on the importation, circulation, and reception of American newspaper humour. Finally, Chapter Four unpacks the role played by the press in the importation, circulation, and assimilation of American slang.
Cultural historians don’t like graphs. The linguistic turn and the advent of postmodernism have made us much more comfortable with the ambiguity, plurality and subjectivity of ‘texts’, but correspondingly suspicious about the rigidity of numbers. Rather than search for material or (dare one say it?) objective truths backed by hard data, we prefer to track the emergence of ideas, analyse representations, deconstruct discourse and develop nuanced interpretations of past cultures that can rarely be expressed in quantitative terms. This approach has served us well. Qualitative readings of Victorian culture have provided countless new insights into the ideas that shaped the period. It would be difficult to argue, for example, that Judith Walkowitz’s seminal study of sexuality in fin-de-siècle London would have been enriched by a pie chart. However, it is important to recognise that methodologies based on the close reading of Victorian culture have an important limitation. Put simply, there is too much of it to read. Google’s extensive (though by no means exhaustive) database currently lists at least 1.6 million books published in nineteenth-century Britain. To this we must add millions of pages of newspapers, magazines, periodicals, pamphlets, playbooks, advertisements, and other forms of printed ephemera. Even the most devoted scholars of the period will only read a fraction of this total. Faced with this mountain of print, we have two choices: to continue subjecting tiny fragments of Victorian culture to close reading, or to supplement this approach by exploring a much larger proportion of the archive through ‘distant reading’. This article offers a practical guide on how this kind of 'distant reading' might be accomplished.
During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, columns of American jokes became a regular feature of numerous British newspapers. The Newcastle Weekly Currant, for example, had a weekly column of ‘Yankee Snacks’; The North Wales Chronicle had ‘American Humour’; the Hampshire Telegraph its ‘Jonathan's Jokes’; and the Northern Weekly Gazette sported a ‘Stars and Stripes’ column. Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper introduced a regular column of ‘American Jokes’ in 1896, the same year it achieved an unprecedented circulation of one million readers. Almost half a century before Hollywood, here was a distinctively American form of popular culture which took Britain by storm. It has, however, received little academic attention. This article explores the development of the American humour column, considers the way in which it was consumed by British readers, and argues that these seemingly ephemeral jokes played a key role in shaping Victorian encounters with America.