Social and political satire is everywhere, in every time and every place. From the Ancient Romans to Stephen Colbert, in authoritarian states and free countries alike, writers and artists have engaged in it, and savvy citizens have consumed it in poetry, in the theatre, in novels, in cabarets, in newspapers, in film and television.
In this diary, I want to look at some satirists and social commentators working towards the end of the 19th Century and stretching into the mid 20th. As the title says, it's highly selective, highly subjective, and by no means comprehensive.
As the Daily Kos Light Opera Project gets underway (click on the link for the group's latest diary from yesterday), now is a good time to look at satirists of other ages as we at the DKLOP prepare to write and produce our own satirical musical production based on hate mail and pie fights from the Daily Kos archives.
Follow me over the divider-doodle for more...
A Note on the Daily Kos Light Opera Company Project:
The Daily Kos Light Opera Company is a working group with the goal of producing a short musical theatre work based on Daily Kos hate mail and famous pie fights to be performed coinciding with NN 12 in Providence, RI. As far as we know, this will be the very first musical production based on the actual contents of a blog.
This is a group effort comprised of Kossacks all over the country volunteering in every aspect of production, writing and performing. If you want to contribute to the effort, please send a KosMail to our group and we will be happy to invite you to join.
Satirists and Humorists Part 1: Satire in Print, late 19th-Mid 20th C.
Ever since I had the crazy idea to try to pull together Kossacks to produce a satirical musical based on Daily Kos content (kontent?), I have been perusing the works of some of my favorite social commentators and satirists. Below is a set of biographical introductions to some of them and their work.
The Americans: Peck to Mencken
George W. Peck (1840-1916)
George Wilbur Peck is a figure most people today have never heard of--and in my opinion, that's too bad. Peck, who served as Mayor of Milwaukee and later became a two-term Democratic Governor of Wisconsin was also a newspaper publisher and humorist. In his newspaper, Peck's Sun, he often editorialized--snarkily--about everything from politics to public transportation issues. Many of his stories center around the character of "Hennery"--better known as "Peck's Bad Boy"--a practical joker who manages to lampoon and insult every strata of society, their lifestyles and peccadilloes. A kind of rough-around-the-edges Mark Twain (if such a thing can be said) Peck's satire and humor was immensely popular at the turn of the 20th Century.
If you can find it, I suggest finding a copy of Peck's Sunshine. I own the second edition (first and second are both published 1883), which will give the reader an idea of both his newspaper and storytelling style. Well worth a read, and still funny today.
Mark Twain (1831-1910)
There is very little that I can say about Mark Twain that has not already been said--by Mark Twain himself. Imperialist turned anti-imperialist, critic of religion, racism and other forms of oppression and above all, critic of other critics, he accomplishes this by combining storytelling with biting wit. It is thought that one of the influences on Twain was the Maine-born humorist and Punch magazine contributor Artemis Ward. While I suppose Twain is, strictly speaking, thought of more as a realist writer than a strict satirist or social commentator, he achieves all of this throughout his oeuvres. The newly released Autobiography is a good resource when it comes to what Mark Twain thought (and quipped) about any number of things.
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?)
Perhaps best remembered as the author of The Cynic's Word Book--better known as The Devil's Dictionary--Bierce enjoyed a varied career as a military man, writer, journalist, satirist, and even erstwhile power broker in Washington. His biting wit is legendary. This little piece of verse, written after the assassination of Kentucky Gov. William Goebel in a Hearst newspaper created quite a stir:
"The bullet that pierced Goebel's breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier."
--Ambrose Bierce, 1900.
Bierce describes the origins and nature of The Devil's Dictionary thus in his introduction:
The Devil's Dictionary was begun in a weekly paper in 1881, and was continued in a desultory way at long intervals until 1906. In that
year a large part of it was published in covers with the title The
Cynic's Word Book, a name which the author had not the power to
reject or happiness to approve. To quote the publishers of the
"This more reverent title had previously been forced upon him by
the religious scruples of the last newspaper in which a part of the
work had appeared, with the natural consequence that when it came out
in covers the country already had been flooded by its imitators with a
score of 'cynic' books -- The Cynic's This, The Cynic's That, and
The Cynic's t'Other. Most of these books were merely stupid, though
some of them added the distinction of silliness. Among them, they
brought the word 'cynic' into disfavor so deep that any book bearing
it was discredited in advance of publication."
Meantime, too, some of the enterprising humorists of the country
had helped themselves to such parts of the work as served their needs,
and many of its definitions, anecdotes, phrases and so forth, had
become more or less current in popular speech. This explanation is
made, not with any pride of priority in trifles, but in simple denial
of possible charges of plagiarism, which is no trifle. In merely
resuming his own the author hopes to be held guiltless by those to
whom the work is addressed -- enlightened souls who prefer dry wines
to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang.
A conspicuous, and it is hope not unpleasant, feature of the book
is its abundant illustrative quotations from eminent poets, chief of
whom is that learned and ingenius cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape,
S.J., whose lines bear his initials. To Father Jape's kindly
encouragement and assistance the author of the prose text is greatly
(Note:This material is in the Public Domain)
From The Devil's Dictionary a definition to offend everyone equally:
Conservative(n.) A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
Ambrose Bierce disappeared without a trace while traveling as a journalist observer with Pancho Villa's revolutionaries in Mexico in 1913.
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)
H. L. Mencken was, among other things a columnist, English expert, editor, German sympathizer, arch-conservative and champion of Ayn Rand. Enamored of the philosophy of Nietzche, he was also heavily influenced in his wit by Bierce and Twain and I suppose--in politics and love of the English language--was the godfather of William Safire (who's politics, compared with those of Mencken, were positively tame).
As a liberal, I have to say that I find his positions on everything from the Kaiser to his opposition to the New Deal to be pretty detestable. As a devotee of snark, however, I have to admit that it is very, very difficult to beat the biting wit and unrelenting satire in Mencken's output. Though again, I disagree with many of his pronouncements, the acerbic wit is on par with Bierce and Wilde. Though he was a critic of many things Kossacks hold dear, he was also an outspoken critic of religion, medical quackery and of course, lawyers.
More about Mencken can be found HERE.
Across the Pond: One Irishman and an Anglo-American
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
While Wilde was known in his lifetime as a playwright and poet, his biting, snarky one-liners are often quoted still today and appear in dialogue in many of his plays. I need not say too much, I don't think, about Wilde and his wit. Though it is worth noting that in the events leading up to his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry and the buggery trial which followed, the Marquess certainly did not play by his own rules, cold-cocking his own son--Wilde's lover--in public.
Wilde, following his imprisonment, died broken and broke in Paris in 1900. Ironically, the Marquess died the same year. On his deathbed, Wilde's wit remained intact: he is reported to have said, about his digs: "This wallpaper is killing me. One of us has got to go."
P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)
P.G. "Plum" Wodehouse wrote everything from light, humorous stories (think of the Jeeves and Wooster series, and those featuring Archie Mulliner) to lyrics with Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Sigmund Romberg. He was also a contributor to Punch magazine, among many others. Wodehouse also has screenwriting credits in Hollywood. Born in Britain, he lived abroad--principally in the US--much of his life, becoming a US citizen in 1955. Influenced by, among others, W.S. Gilbert, he was greatly admired by contemporaries and younger British writers, including Evelyn Waugh.
Wodehouse's opus is characterized by his satire of the pre-WW II British upper classes, which are often depicted as daft and helpless and at the total mercy of their maids, butlers and valets. Seeing as how he was born of the privileged class, his particular kind of satirical humor (with it's many ridiculous plot premises) is particularly delicious.
The Wikipedia article on Wodehouse is particularly good and discusses the controversy surrounding his alleged collaboration with Nazi Germany, of which he was later exonerated.
Coming in Part 2: "On the Continent: Karl Kraus, Ilf and Petrov and Satire in 20th Century Europe"
Who are your favorite satirists, humorists and cultural commentators with a snark factor in the period covered in this diary? Have we forgotten anyone? Please, say your piece in the comments!