Syllabus: Good Grief: Humor and Tragedy in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature

Charlie_Brown_cryingThe German critic Bertholt Brecht wrote that “One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.” In this class, we will test this thesis by exploring the use of humor to tell stories of personal or social trauma in modern U.S. literature. We will also see how some critics have approached the mystery of what makes us laugh, and why laughter and tears seem to run so close together. We’ll consider multiple genres and modes of literary humor, like satire and parody, and we will consider what, if anything, is distinctive about “American” humor.

Required Readings

Besides the readings on Blackboard, these will be available for sale at Barnes and Noble on campus. Buy them there, or wherever you prefer to buy books.

Paul Beatty, ed. Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor

Fran Ross, Oreo

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Course Schedule  

All readings should be completed before class on the day noted. Readings marked with an * can be found in Hokum. Readings in italics should be completed by graduate students in the class, and are optional for everyone else.

Jan. 9

Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt: From an Interview,” New York Review of Books, Oct. 26, 1978

E.B. White, from the Preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor

Carter Revard, “The Secret Verbs”

Patricia Lockwood, “Is Your Country a He Or a She in Your Mouth?”

Peanuts, October 19, 1975

Jan. 11

Sigmund Freud, “Humor”

* Sterling Brown, “Slim at Atlanta”

* W.E.B. Du Bois, “On Being Crazy”

To watch in class: Drunk History, “Harriet Tubman”

Jan. 16

Simon Critchley, On Humor, chapter 1

* H. Rap Brown on the dozens, pp. 56-59

Yiddish Radio Project, “A Selection of Curses”

To view in class: Joan Rivers—a selection of her red-carpet insults

Jan. 18:

* Paul Beatty, “Introduction,” Hokum

Writing workshop

NB: Mon, Jan 22 is the last day to withdraw from classes with tuition cancellation.

 Jan. 23:

Henri Bergson, “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” chapter 1, sections I, II, and V

Watch in class: excerpts from Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

Your assignment: bring in your favorite GIF for analysis

Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, “Comedy Has Issues,” Critical Inquiry 43:2

Jan. 25:

Eric Lott, Love and Theft, pp. 3-5, 15-21

The Daily Show, “Reminder: Race is Not a Costume”

Chappelle’s Show: “The Racial Draft”

WE1 due: Why should Henri Bergson laugh at your GIF?

Jan. 30

* Bert Williams jokes

* Zora Neale Hurston, “Possum or Pig?”

* Elizabeth Alexander, “Talk Radio, DC”

Quiz on literary terms and concepts

Feb. 1

Joel Chandler Harris, Legends of the Old Plantation (excerpts)

Charles Chesnutt, “The Goophered Grapevine,” “Po’ Sandy”

Feb. 6

Chesnutt, “Dave’s Neckliss”

Glenda Carpio, “Black Humor in the Conjure Stories”

Feb. 8

Chesnutt, “The Passing of Grandison”

Feb. 10: WE2 (Why must Charlie Brown never kick the football?) due on Blackboard

Feb. 13

Dorothy Parker, “Interview,” “Love Song,” “Resumé,” “Little Words”

Watch: Saturday Night Live, “Debbie Downer: Thanksgiving Dinner”

Feb. 15

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Feb. 20

Heller, Catch-22

Feb. 22

Heller, Catch-22

Feb. 27

Flannery O’Connor, “Everything that Rises Must Converge”

WE3: Keyword analysis due in class

Mar. 1

Fran Ross, Oreo 

Mar. 6

Fran Ross, Oreo

Mar. 8

* Malcolm X, “Message to the Grass Roots”

“The Ballot or the Bullet,” King Solomon Baptist Church, Detroit, MI, April 12, 1964 (please listen to the recording here).

Workshop on outlines: please bring a reverse outline of WE3

March 13-15: Spring break

Mar. 20

Mandatory screening: When Jews Were Funny (dir. Allen Zweig)

Mar. 22: No class meeting: final paper rough drafts due

April 3

Zweig discussion; begin The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

April 5

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

April 10

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

April 12

Lauren Michelle Jackson, “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs” Teen Vogue

Brandy Monk-Payton, “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness,” Feminist Media Histories

April 17

Sianne Ngai, “The Zany Science,” from Our Aesthetic Categories

“Parks and Recreation,” from season 2, episode 10: “Leslie Gets Grilled by Local Sheriff”

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, “Ernestine the Telephone Operator Calls General Motors”

Excerpts from I Love Lucy, “Job Switching”

April 19

Luis Valdez, Los Vendidos

final project workshop


Close-reading exercise #1: GIF analysis

Length: at least 1 double-spaced page

In “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” Henri Bergson repeats a central image ofhis theory of what makes us laugh: “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” We laugh, he says, “when a person gives us the impression of being a thing.” Write a one-page analysis of a funny GIF that relates Bergson’s criteria to explain what about it makes you laugh. You may, if it helps–and if you know–consider the source material for your GIF. You may also consider it in context, i.e., as a reaction to a particular social-media conversation.

Writing exercise #2: Charlie Brown’s football

Length: At least two double-spaced pages 

This exercise continues to practice the skill we developed in WE1: using critical tools to analyze cultural texts. In this case, I want you to make an argument not just about why Charlie Brown’s endless struggle against Lucy and her football is funny, but what the significance of the humor is. Is this cartoon about gender politics and sexism, and if so, how do you read Lucy’s character and her motives? Is it a nihilistic warning against ambition and the inevitability of our disappointment, or a sympathetic portrayal of an indomitable underdog? Consider one of the theorists of humor we’ve discussed already (Arendt/Brecht, Freud, Critchley, Carpio, or Bergson) and make a concise, detailed argument about what Charlie Brown’s struggle is, why it is important, and why it is important to address it in the form of a joke. For this assignment, closely analyze the plot and language of at least two Peanuts cartoons—you are encouraged to read as many as you can find, of course.

Close-reading exercise #3: keyword analysis

Length: at least 2-3 double-spaced pages 

This paper develops close reading skills by focusing your attention on a very specific piece of textual evidence. Here I want you to narrow your focus to a single word. Identify a keyword from any of the primary texts we have read thus, and use it to make an argument about its significance in the text. You might prefer to focus on a poem, which because of poetry’s economy of language and its emphasis on wordplay often rewards a close reading of a particular word or specific line, but you can also examine one of the prose works we’ve read thus far.

What is a keyword? Think about the word “key” in both of its senses: as something of great importance and as a tool that opens up a room to closer examination. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “keyword” in these ways, as “a word serving as a key to a cipher or the like” and as “a word or thing that is of great importance or significance.” The literary scholar Raymond Williams described keywords as “binding words,” terms that draw together related concepts and themes.

The word you choose may be important because it establishes a central metaphor or symbol. It could be important because other terms refer back to it. It may draw your attention because it is a particularly ambiguous term, whose meaning demands interpretation; conversely it might stick out because it only appears inconsequential or straightforward on first glance. It might be used consistently, or its meaning might change in an important way which your paper might trace. You are free (indeed, encouraged) to quote from the text, even parts of the poem that do not include your keyword, as long as you explain why you are doing so.

The keyword you choose may be simple, or complex; it could be a multisyllabic word or it could be a little tiny pronoun. It could be repeated (in which case you would want to discuss the repetition) or it could only appear once. You should provide a dictionary definition only if a definition will help you get at something not immediately apparent in the text. If you do, cite the Oxford English Dictionary. Your paper should use your keyword to help you answer an interpretive question, which will be in first paragraph.



I came across a 2013 article from the New York Times old Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, about the paper’s use of the word “entitlements” to describe Social Security, Medicare, and other federal “outlays,” to use the more technical language that once drove coverage of tax policy. Sullivan agreed with a reader that “entitlements” is a partisan, sneering term for federal retirement benefits. It suggests that beneficiaries are claiming an unearned privilege.

So I looked into the word’s history in the New York Times, and it may not surprise you to learn when “entitlements” entered the political lexicon.

Continue reading “Entitlements”

Exciting announcement!

Keywords for the Age of Austerity will be published in good old fashioned book form sometime (hopefully) next year! I’m very excited that it will be published by Haymarket Books, one of my favorite publishers and the perfect place for it. In order to create an artificial scarcity of essays on the culture of austerity, I will be suspending new posts for a while to drive up the market for my book!

Continue to watch this space for occasional new posts, though, and all of your old faves.

The Gospel According to the Job Creators

In the beginning–roughly 1990–there were the Job Creators. All good things were made by them; without them there was not any thing made. And then came Obama.

Before the coming of the age of the Job Creators, though, men knew only “job creators” as industries: the pharmaceutical industry, for example, was a job creator, and small businesses were job creators. The first Bush presidency appears to have been a watershed in the transformation of “job creators” from an institutional, collective noun to the personalized, quasi-messianic, and often mocked but still resilient character of the Job Creator we know today. One of the first such usages of Job Creators as individual capitalists to make it into the New York Times comes from the first President Bush, who linked “job creators and innovators” with that lovable underdog, the “small business.”

President s Address to Nation on Federal Deficit and the Budget Agreement; Oct 3, 1990; New York Times pg. D28
“President’s Address to Nation on Federal Deficit and the Budget Agreement,” New York Times, Oct 3, 1990

That same year, the apartheid South African parliament debated internal migration in the country and concluded that the Whites–already the master race–could also lay claim to the title of “job creators.”

Screen Shot 2017-09-30 at 12.21.40 PM
Debates of Parliament, Volume 9, Issues 18-20. South Africa: Government Printing Office, 1990

I’m not sure what came first–the racist mystique of the apartheid job creator or the elitist messianism of the American Job Creator–and I wouldn’t assume any causal link between them. But they do work together nicely. A search of the New York Times archive shows the term spiking dramatically around the re-election campaign of Barack Obama in 2011-12.

Screen Shot 2017-09-30 at 12.50.52 PM
 “War of Ideas on U.S. Budget Overshadows Job Struggle,” New York Times, June 3, 2011

“Job creator” is the well known rhetorical means of framing plutocratic dispossession as an economic stimulus–and as a favor bestowed from on high by a class that loves us. Tax cuts = job creation, goes the familiar formula; this is how a pro-Trump group calling itself the “Job Creators Network” understands the President’s proposed new tax plan, for example. (You can find the them on the web at, of course). “Creation” is a way of talking about “jobs” without talking about “production,” class, or actual work. And while “Job Creators” may be a euphemism for “rich person,” its modern history makes pretty clear that really alludes to a particular kind of rich person: just ask the Boers. Or Donald Trump.


Defining “innovation”: sometimes it’s easy

The New York Times has a fun little “national health care systems” bracket tournament in its print edition today, so you can compare how successfully or not various countries on the planet monetize their citizens’ sickness and mortality. Or to put it another way, “which of these nations has the best health system?” (The winner, for some reason, is Switzerland.)

Not even a panel heavily weighted towards “health-care economists” could see the United States past the second round, where it lost narrowly, 3-2, to an eventual finalist, France. (The United States defeated Singapore in the opening stage.)

In the U.S.-France showdown, the advantage of France is described as “access”–by which is meant affordability and widespread availability of low-cost health insurance and medical care. The virtues of the United States are “innovation,” which is not defined at all, as is so often the case. So we have to try and read between the lines. It’s not too hard: a reader would need to discern that, for its advocates, “innovation” in the U.S. health care system means “medical technology.” Given the privatized nature of the U.S. health sector, it follows that what what we are really talking about here are “profitable medical technology corporations.” As if the function of a national health-care system is to facilitate the profitability of manufacturers of medical machinery. As if there were no other ways to incentivize such manufacture outside of an unequal, byztantine, and inconvenient privatized system.

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 12.53.29 PM.png

I wonder if you replaced “innovation” with “profitable medical technology corporations,” though, if it would still get 2 votes even in this field.

On Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit

I finally saw Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s film on the Algiers Motel killings, and I have to say I came out of the theater quite shaken by it–it’s visually exhausting, thanks to the frenetic, riotous movement of Bigelow’s camera throughout. And a viewer familiar with the Algiers Motel killings can only watch the unfolding drama with an awful sense of dread, knowing as one does in advance the fate of the dead, and the rough order in which they will die. This puts an extra dramatic burden, at least for me, on the necessity of bringing those victims to life, of making them more than just the soon-to-be-dead-of-the-Algiers, which is a burden that the film doesn’t meet. So even though it’s emotionally grueling, given the brutality it depicts, there’s also something unfeeling about it.

I would also just say, for starters, that whenever you put “Detroit” in the title of a thing (see also: Detroiters) it’s a good sign that the thing in question is not going to be about Detroit in any serious way, but just some generic urban placeholder for something else: “race relations,” “urban crisis,” “gentrification hijinks,” etc. This is not new or unique to Bigelow’s film–elsewhere, I’ve written more about the way in which Detroit serves as a metonym for various other national fantasies or fears. This can, of course, be true of any city but the effect is intensified in Detroit, the film, which uses an introductory Jacob Lawrence montage to introduce the rebellion as an explosion of dashed black hopes and reactionary white backlash in the wake of the Great Migration. Detroit, in this film, is every northern city, which isn’t untrue. But because the film lacks much political perspective, and because of the narrative restrictions of depicting an hours-long ordeal in a single room, and for some other reasons (see below), Detroit as a distinct place, landscape, economy, culture, and so on, never really appears. There’s not even a midwestern accent in the whole film.

The film’s feeling of placelessness, along with its almost non-existent characterization, really made me appreciate John Hersey’s narrative decisions and granular focus on the participants’ backstories in The Algiers Motel Incident. (I wrote more about these here, in Guernica) The film’s focus on a singularly talented victim, the Dramatics singer Larry Reed, really makes the movie into the sort of “tragedy” Hersey said he wanted to avoid: a routinized spectacle of black suffering, which predictably elicits what Richard Wright called the “consolation of tears” in its audience. Everyone in the movie feels like a myth or a caricature–the innocent victims, the monstrous cops. The only exception–and this is a telling misstep by the writers–is one of the white characters, the brave white maybe-prostitute, Juli, who talks back to the police.

This, to me, misses a big part of what makes the Algiers Motel story so compelling and scary to me: the normality of the participants, which is what Hersey emphasizes. The victims for him were just regular kids, or at least they were trying to be, in a city and country determined not to allow them. And the cops weren’t uniquely awful people, like the villain in the film. What’s worse is that they were rather typical white Detroiters who, in a moment of crisis, just “did what came naturally to them,” as one reviewer of the book put it.

And some specific points:

  1. What was the point, really, of the Mel Dismukes character, played by John Boyega? If the film sets out to exonerate him, I don’t think it succeeds. His character makes very little sense: he’s treated as an innocent peacemaker who is also improbably a fly on the wall, witnessing all of the police torture and even trying to forestall it. But why would the police–especially police as paranoid as these are made out to be–allow a black security guard to just hang out while they beat and murder people, unless he’s complicit with them?
  2. A perhaps historically pedantic point of information: one of the film’s obligarory sympathetic policemen is a homicide detective who, early in the film, says that he is going to recommend murder charges for the character played by Will Poulter, who seems to be based on the real-life Detroit cop David Senak. Senak was a vice squad officer implicated in the Algiers killings who also shot a looter in the back in the early days of the uprising. Narratively, this episode establishes the Senak character’s unhinged violent streak, but it also suggests that the forthcoming charges motivate his wild behavior later–he’s got nothing to lose anymore. Yet it wasn’t actually illegal at the time for cops to fire on fleeing suspects who refused an order to stop, even those suspected only of looting.  Murder charges would never have been forthcoming–and Senak’s motivations must have been deeper, or more complicated, than the film allows.
  3. Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 12.54.36 PM.png
    1967: Death in the Algiers Motel and Beyond, 2017, Rita Dickerson, acrylic on canvas.

    I was suspicious of some of the Twitter critiques I read of the film’s lack of black female characters, for the reason Bigelow herself offered: there were no black women present in the Motel itself. But after seeing the film, I would say that the character of Pollard’s mother should have been more prominent–and not just to check off a box. Rather, her advocacy for her son was such a prominent part of the real-life Algiers Motel case (which Hersey, again, emphasizes) and featuring her would have given the movie some of the political and emotional heft it just doesn’t have.