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Toward Vernacular Humor

ISSUE:  Spring 1970


Humor itself is the first problem and had best be faced bluntly. First and last, humor is that form of life and literature which cannot be taken seriously. Whatever the sense of humor is, the non-sense of it is making it serious. Yet making it serious is the preoccupation of most critics—so much so that they evade the reality of humor wherever they confront it by means of shifty prepositional displacement, positing a prior reality “behind,” “beneath,” “beyond,” or “above” the humorous surface. And that prior reality inevitably turns out to be dark, somber, tragic—most of all, serious. The word serious is in its way inevitable in discussions of art since it functions as the chief value-giving epithet to forms of pleasure. By calling art or artists or writers serious, a person can, without making a single conceptual effort, shift completely from esthetic to moral grounds. Given the inexorable secularization of art and literature after the seventeenth century, the word comes more and more to be a substitute for the term religious, and is instinctively mobilized to lend gravity and profundity to objects whose chief end is pleasure. The term can be applied with the utmost complacency to tragedy, epic, and novel. But when comedy, burlesque, farce, and humor are under discussion, the value-giving term is so much at odds with the identity of the object that it denies the reality of the form.

The problem is intensified by the fact that comic forms are considered lower in the genre hierarchy and thus need transfusions of value in order to be elevated into the realm of serious art. Thus book reviews, quarterlies, and academic journals abound with reflexive references to serious art, serious artists, and serious literature. Thus humor is often tricked out as satire in many critical discussions, since satire, having ostensible moral purpose, is a more serious form. And thus current humorists are called black to suggest that they aren’t just humorists.

Which brings us precisely to the “just humorous” response to humor. The antithesis of the serious response, it embodies two attitudes: the patronizing attitude, which holds humor as a lower order of creation and as therefore “just” humor; and the defensive attitude, which proudly insists that humor, far from being decadently highfalutin, is just folks. In the face of the complacency exhibited by both attitudes, the wish to see humor as serious seems, for all its contradictions, not only inevitable but laudable. For the person claiming seriousness for humor is at least trying to bring it within the purview of the intelligence.

But since seeing the seriousness of humor inevitably obscures the humor, such a course, far from being fully meaningful, is a refuge from the meaning of humor. What follows is an attempt to approach American humor by exploring the vernacular forms of Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, and J.D. Salinger. Now I am not at all insisting that vernacular humor is the only humor, though it is well to remember that vernacular, being the “lower” language, offers itself readily as a possibility for the inversions and releases of “low” humor. Even more important, vernacular opens itself to the dramatization of personality, and humor—unlike comedy, burlesque, satire, or even parody—is not a literary genre but emerges from physiological and psychological theories of personality; and for all the changes the term has undergone since medieval times it has never really been dissociated from its sources in the personality of man. Thus, when we say that a man has a sense of humor we are defining his personality, and it is again well to remember, particularly in the light of what follows, that we mean he is a person who can not only tell a joke but take one.

Even so, I do not want to begin with the masters of American vernacular humor but with Chaucer, who seems to me the master humorist. I take it to be one of the world’s great jokes that, given the fact that Chaucer is the first distinctly great English writer, the English have been called a people lacking a sense of humor. That howler is equaled only by those who continue to say that the Puritans didn’t like imaginative literature in the face of our indisputable knowledge that the one irrevocable epic in English, “Paradise Lost,” was written by a Puritan. Though I shall not dwell on Chaucer as a vernacular writer, it should not be forgotten that he was indeed just that. In fact, his choice of the Midland dialect rather than French or Latin as his form of expression was as decisive for English literature and language as Dante’s determination to write in Italian was for Italian literature and language. But since we are so deep into the culture and language which Chaucer made possible, his great decision is beyond our immediate consciousness, and I shall therefore begin with what we helplessly begin with—his act of humorous narrative.


In his masterpiece of humor, “The Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer introduces a frame of reference which removes him from authority and puts the Host in his stead. By depreciating himself and elevating the Host, Chaucer is able to escape responsibility for, and at the same time release, the whole spectrum of reality which is “The Canterbury Tales.”

The Host, at once the representation and embodiment of the audience, demands above everything else to be pleased. But pleasure for this earthly Host does not consist simply of the “lower” pleasures. Being pleased, it turns out, is having the illusion of morality along with the ribaudrye. Thus, the Host wants fables as well as fabliaux; he wants the Knight’s Tale as well as the filler’s. And Chaucer too, by making himself “helpless” in the pilgrimage, wants the Miller’s Tale as well as the Knight’s. Indeed, the helpless laughter to which the Miller’s tale reduces the pilgrims is the perfect fulfillment which Chaucer’s imaginative act makes possible. To be sure, Chaucer reserves a certain amount of ironic license, but it is genial, not satiric, irony. Thus, when Chaucer says that he agreed with the Monk that monks should enjoy hunting, he is not simply exposing the monk but revealing the kind of agreeableness he himself had to have in order to draw the Monk out. This sociability of Chaucer the Pilgrim is not a trick but a trait, a quality and style of consciousness which are not only dramatized within the poem in the person of the pilgrim Chaucer, but are present in the conception of the artist Chaucer and make the poem possible. Chaucer is not role-playing but both being his true self and carrying out his poem—and any interpretation which evades this reality about him, whether by seeing him as persona or by seeing his poem as allegory, inevitably begins to see the prologue as a device rather than what it is: one of the great imaginative acts of literature.

Chaucer’s humorous act of reducing himself in order to enjoy the company gently but unmistakably reorients the whole system of values of the medieval world. Thus, the Pardoner, who is by all odds the worst or nearly the worst pilgrim, tells one of the best tales, whereas the Parson, surely the most virtuous figure in the group, tells the dullest tale. Reading it, we begin to understand—unless we are stricken medieval scholars seeking hidden significance—why Chaucer never got his pilgrims to Canterbury. For Canterbury is the place where the significance, the allegory, the morality, and the unbearable dullness would prevail. Chaucer casually determined to give his audience and all posterity the great tales instead. He even gave one of his greatest to the Nun’s Priest, a person denied any characterization in the Prologue. Finally, Chaucer himself had to have sense of humor enough to tell a dull tale and after being rudely, but not unjustly, interrupted, an even duller one. And no amount of scholarly interpretation can make “The Tale of Sir Topas” or “The Tale of Melibee” as marvelous as “The Miller’s Tale.”

The entire act of “The Canterbury Tales” is a pleasurable revolution in which the aim becomes not to get to Canterbury but to have fun on the road. Not only is Chaucer liberated from the conventional responsibility of finishing the ridiculous number of tales he promises into the freer form of finishing when he pleases, but the most serious activity in the medieval world, the pilgrimage, is beautifully reduced to direct, overt, and earthly pleasure. The cost of it all is there, of course. First, Chaucer does not finish, leaving critics who can’t see the humor or those who must see more than the humor the pleasure of plotting serious endings. Second, Chaucer writes his retraction. But if his failure to finish emphasizes the pleasure he has given and not its absence, his retraction is surely a last joke-one which, leaving God the problem of censoring those tales which tend toward sin, parallels his earlier joke of leaving his readers the responsibility of censoring the fabliaux.


Whereas Chaucer’s way of getting into his form is to put himself down as the helpless recorder of the tales, Mark Twain’s way—in his masterpiece—is to release a character and a language which will thrust him aside and take over. When that happens, and only when, what has formerly been dialect framed by literary language becomes vernacular. Although Chaucer is able to release with broad freedom the whole impulse of ribaudrye which Mark Twain so scrupulously censors, Mark Twain’s vernacular in turn releases a reality which scarcely exists for Chaucer—the reality of childhood. For childhood was, by virtue of Rousseau, Wordsworth, Dickens, and Mark Twain, one of the great expressions, not repressions, of the nineteenth century.

Now the reality of Huck’s language and the reality of his character are one and the same; to speak of one is to speak of the other. In its simplest terms, and these are the ones to hold to, Huck’s vernacular is incorrect, a “low” language evoking the illusion of illiteracy, yet a written language nonetheless. For Huck is writing his book, not telling it. Instead of being framed by conventional language, Huck’s vernacular implies it; his errors, characterized by his excessive double negative and his ignorance of tense distinctions, evoke as much as they deny the norm from which they deviate.

Coupled with Huck’s bad grammar is his bad action—freeing a slave in a society based on slavery. Now we can put it as a law that if the bad grammar and the bad boy are not really bad but represent approved morality and attitudes, then both are sentimental fictions instead of the powerful realities they are so often said to be. Yet precisely here the vision of “Huckleberry Finn” seems most conventional. For the entire mechanism of bad grammar and bad conduct operates on a principle of direct inversion, arousing the indulgence and moral approval of the reader. Thus the teacher who would not think of tolerating Huck’s “free” language on a student paper (and tolerates it today only because Mark Twain’s classic has made it respectable) and the parent who would be indignant to find his child filching a carton of Pepsi Cola from the local supermarket, not only indulge but wholeheartedly applaud Huck’s language and action.

The reason for their approval resides in Huck’s involvement in a one-hundred-per-cent approvable situation—a situation as safe, to borrow a line from Mark Twain, as a Christian holding four aces. For Huck, though fictively freeing a slave in the Old South, is acquiring all his virtue from an implied post-Civil War morality. The reason the reader indulges him is that, in addition to behaving nobly in terms of anti-slavery morality, Huck is a boy behaving nobly, and his action, by virtue of the inverted perspective, can be totally indulged by the adult reader. It is just this process of inversion which, constantly transforming Huck from bad to good boy, embodies what can best be called the moral sentiment sustaining the action. But this sentiment, even as it evokes approval for Huck, is directly at odds with his identity, for though the sentiment inverts his theft into a liberation, his cowardice into courage, his flight into a quest, and his lies into truth, Huck’s identity remains rooted in his profound belief that he is morally and literally bad.

The moral sentiment is nothing less than the powerful wish which Huck’s great language and his great journey arouse and which the ending of the novel frustrates. For in those last ten chapters the novel changes its direction from its seeming high purpose to crude horseplay, from great art to mere burlesque. Hemingway, who paid the book its highest compliment by calling it the first and best American book, warned readers to stop short of the ending which was, he said, “just cheating.” The reason he so confidently used and we so confidently accept the term is that Tom Sawyer, who indulges the romance of freeing Jim, actually knows that Jim is already free. Tom’s private knowledge—the real index to his contemptible and gratuitous pleasure in elaborately setting Jim free—is the reason, or at least the rationale, critics of the ending can use to expose Tom. Yet the ultimate irony is that Tom’s action in freeing a free Negro is directly analogous to the reader’s moral sentiment. For if Tom knows that Jim is free, so does every reader of the novel, and he has counted as heavily as Tom upon that central security. This crucial irony, which complaints about the ending invariably refuse to acknowledge, is, or at least can be, the means of getting back to the point at which the novel turned against the moral sentiment it had relied upon. 

That moment, I hope everyone will reluctantly acknowledge, is when Huck utters his grandest line, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell.” For this is the moment when Huck makes the choice which the moral sentiment applauds by sending him instead to the heart of heaven. Yet it is also the moment when Huck’s identity is fatally threatened. For with his choice his grand evasion ends. He does not, to be sure, go to a fire-and-brimstone hell in this novel which plays endlessly upon the absurdity of superstitious hereafters; he goes in­ stead to the only hell there is: adult civilization. And he is there within five minutes of reading time after his apparently heroic utterance. What has happened is that his decision, a positive choice instead of a doubly negative evasion, represents action based on principle and is actually—in style as well as substance—in the manner of Tom Sawyer, whose role Huck is about to assume. The best way to see the transformation at work is to see Jim converted from affectionate friend to image of guilt in the lyrical moment when Huck prepares for his grand line:

I … got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

This is the moment when the action of the novel becomes Huck’s reflection; it is also the moment when Huck’s instinct becomes his conscience.

This new conscience is in reality his Northern or inner conscience in the act of displacing his Southern or social conscience. The Southern conscience had put him in flight from his society; his Northern conscience welcomes him into ours. It is just this new conscience which puts Huck in society during those last ten uncomfortable chapters. For the real tyrant of this novel which plays upon Negro slavery is the conscience—any conscience—whether Northern or Southern, whether terrorizing by fear or paralyzing by guilt. The action of the novel discloses that the conscience is at once the tyranny and the pleasure by means of which the adult civilization acts out its endless cruelties. Huck’s rejection of this civilization in the closing paragraphs of the novel is the radically negative vision which his doubly negative grammar embodies. 

Yet if the book is nihilistic—and surely it is—it is humorously nihilistic, which means that it must neither fulminate, satirize, nor complain, but continue to be acted out under the reader’s indulgence, affection, and approval. But the last ten chapters, instead of evoking a wholehearted approval for Huck, initiate a disturbed disapproval of Tom. With Huck’s fatal choice, Mark Twain had reached, though he probably could not afford to know how completely he had reached, the limits of his humor: that point at which humor’s necessity to gain indulgent and affectionate approval mortally threatened the very identity and character of his humor. Yet even here the form of his masterpiece saved him. For even as Huck chooses the Northern conscience, there is a dimension, an inescapable dimension, of his character which chooses to act not heroically because it is the best and right course of action, but helplessly because it is the easiest thing to do in a tight place. The good life for Huck has been, and remains, life based not on principle but on comfort, and he leaves civilization not because it is a sham but because it is cramped and smothery. Tom and the adult reader are the ones who have all the principle. Moreover, Huck goes into the territory not as an apostle of freedom but as a boy to play. And this is not all. The ending leaves the moralizing reader, if not in approval of the action, in a state of greater self-approval than at any point in the novel—complacently superior to the author’s “failure” and obtusely scornful of his own sentimental surrogate, Tom Sawyer. If it is not a perfect ending, it is as good as one can easily imagine for this completely humorous novel of reconstruction which brought not the Old South but an entirely new South back into the union, converting in the process the tragic issues of slavery and Civil War into the very sentiment which would so please the mind that Huck’s radical vision would pass pleasurably intact beneath the gaze of the rapt censor.


To see how Mark Twain reached the limits of his humor is to see where Ring Lardner had to begin. And he did begin there, coming to his particular vernacular efforts much more quickly than Mark Twain had done. If Mark Twain entered the ranks of successful authors as reporter of the first organized pleasure trip from the New World to the Old, Ring Lardner became successful just at that moment when the playing of games was becoming a profession of entertainment on a national scale. Lardner’s vernacular is, on the face of it, much like Mark Twain’s. Whether it is the busher Jack Keefe, the young girl in “I Can’t Breathe,” the old husband in “The Golden Honeymoon,” or the evasive correspondents in “Some Like Them Cold,” Lardner’s characters speak or write a language hopelessly distant from “correct” usage. 

Yet it is, on examination, startlingly different vernacular from Huck’s. Lardner’s characteristic error of grammar is not the double negative, though he employs it abundantly. He evolves a series of errors—misplacement of first-person pronoun (I and Florrie has made it up), case error of first­ person pronoun (“Between you and I”), elaborately non­parallel constructions (“I have not got nothing against him though because he married her and if he had not of I probily would of married her myself but at that she could not of treated me no worse than Florrie”)—which intrude unassimilated correctness and abortive formality into the primitive illiteracy which Huck had mastered. These errors are not at all the errors of one, like Huck, who don’t know no better, but of people who, incipiently straining to be right and proper yet remaining helplessly wrong and awkward, develop a hopeless self -consciousness. Lardner’s characters, far from being boy law-breakers in flight from society, are adult failures trying to keep their social and financial balance yet steadily losing it. Caught in the discrepancy between their capacities and their desires, they fabricate larger and larger self-deceptions. Instead of lying to others as Huck does, they lie to themselves in acts of humorous self-exposure. Their styles are the boast, the impotent threat, and the alibi; their ultimate way of escape is quite likely to be the bottle. 

Such characters could, of course, be fit objects of satire, but Lardner at his humorous best deflects his own and the reader’s impulse toward moral judgment in two ways. First, he gives his characters so much more justice than they de· serve that the reader is saved from supplying his own. Their self-deceptions are not therefore pretenses so much as they are humorously resourceful defenses, providing—to follow Freud—a direct gain of pleasure by means of an economy of pity. Second, and equally important, Lardner almost inevitably finds his characters at play—whether at baseball, bridge, horseshoes, a social gathering, or a barbershop interlude. Thus, for all their ridiculous traits, they can never quite be taken seriously. Though Lardner habitually involves these overgrown children in ineffectual and abortive confrontations of courtship or in the hopeless toils of marriage, he displaces erotic content with innumerable variations on popular jokes about nagging wives, awkward adolescents, bumbling swains, impossible children, and defensive husbands. 

Neither Lardner’s vernacular nor his vision plays upon the complete inversion which Huck so beautifully exploits. Thus, whereas Huck’s malapropism for Tom’s planned invasion is “evasion,” Lardner’s busher converts the World’s Series into the World’s Serious. That deviation, far from meaning that baseball is really serious, discloses that every­ thing serious is really a game. By restricting his action to the world of overt play, Lardner saves himself from the threat of the moral sentiment and maintains a direct correlation between situation and form. But such a restriction denies him the opportunity of being taken seriously. If Mark Twain is likely to be taken too seriously, Lardner is likely always to be treated as a mere humorist. Indeed, there will be readers who question his presence in this discussion, preferring to remember him as a minor writer in the age of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It was just this identity which Fitzgerald had in mind when, in paying tribute to Lardner’s memory, he observed that no matter how richly Lardner managed to develop his world it still retained the dimensions of Frank Chance’s baseball diamond. Lardner himself, for all his characteristic, self-depreciation (the humorist’s necessary strategy of self-protection), was restive in his limited world and often threatened to convert his play into a night­ mare in an effort to extend the range of his humor. This dark side Lardner tended to reveal in two ways: by abusing his characters with satire or by making them abuse themselves to the point of madness. Beyond these dramatizations of sadism and masochism, Lardner moved toward a world of nonsense, writing plays in which the elaborately illogical connections of humor were displaced by absurd disconnections. 

But Lardner’s satire, epitomized by such stories as “Champion,” “The Love Nest,” “A Day with Conrad Green,” and “Ex Parte,” is extremely heavy-handed, depending as it does upon melodramatic structure. Like Mark Twain, Lardner lacked the mind for satire and therefore could not displace the anger and indignation which stand behind satire with the wit and analysis which are its constituents. The very reason that both writers descended into the vernacular form was that it freed them from the constraints imposed by conventional morality, logic, and syntax. The “unconscious” vernacular character actually becomes their form, evoking from the reader a corresponding unconscious indulgence of the limitations, inadequacies, and the freedom of the “low” language. The conscious superiority to and dissociation from the victim, so utterly essential to the judgment and exposure of satirical narration, are thus suspended in favor of indulgent feelings—the precise emotional equivalents of pleasures felt to be repressed by the correct, mature, and logical syntax of adult society. 

Lardner’s mad humor (“My Roomy”) and his black humor (“Haircut”) are products of the satiric impulse working within and against the vernacular consciousness. Instead of fulfilling Lardner’s imaginative impulses, the satiric irony invariably threatens to curtail them. Thus, the bitter strain in “Haircut” tends to mechanize the repetition compulsion at the heart of humorous invention. The irony of the story, by working against the narrator, fixes his identity, threatening always to reduce him to a caricature instead of releasing him as a character who is at once the form and narrative—the principle and the invention—of the story. Though such satiric irony exposes the sadistic element in his humor, it runs athwart the creative force of the story, which is the humor. As for Lardner’s nonsense plays, though they can be seen as forerunners of the Theater of the Absurd, they are actually extreme forms of withdrawal—and withdrawal not toward but away from a world of invention and imaginative energy. They may be good enough to satisfy critics like Gilbert Seldes and Clifton Fadiman, who are pleased to find Lardner’s serious side, but they are not good enough for anyone who believes that Lardner, like Mark Twain, had great moments of complete humor. 

Those moments-best represented by “You Know Me, Al,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Zone of Quiet,” “Some Like Them Cold,” and “The Golden Honeymoon”—embody much more total criticisms than any of Lardner’s satire and much more absurdity than any of his nonsense. For in such stories he rejects adult civilization as totally as Mark Twain had done. Lardner rejects it, however, not in the name of the conscience but in the name of boredom. The adult world—the world of marriage, money, ownership, and work—is a world where people are waiting “like something was going to happen but it don’t.” That is why they find themselves at ball games, at horseshoes, at cards, at the bar, at play. The play world, as institutionalized by the adult world, is that arena where something can, or at least may, happen—where narcissistic fantasies can be fulfilled, where losses are the order of the day but are not final, where hope—however fatuous an illusion—is the helpless dream of the perennially gullible player. 

Lardner is at his best when, as in “You Know Me, Al,” his characters are professionally located inside that world. For then their work becomes playing for a living, reversing the adult dream of making work the pleasure of the world, and revealing that the true work of the world is play. Baseball is Lardner’s glory because, in the world of professional baseball as Lardner beautifully conceived it, the children’s game becomes the adult institution offering refuge from adult “reality,” particularly marriage. Marriage is, after all, the social institution which concentrates, controls, and utilizes erotic pleasure yet in the process ironically represses the childhood it is designed to produce. But Lardner’s ball-players and their vernacular diffuse erotic pleasures and forms into a world of narcissistic play. This does not mean that they triumph over their girls or their wives. They are more often the victims of love and marriage since, in the last analysis, they are provisionally adults. But, because they are essentially baseball players, their courtships and marriages are merely the problems which complicate their careers in the baseball kingdom. For love is the force which imperils the gullible rookie and must be elaborately manipulated into its proper, subordinate rôle by the manager and the old pros. Romance, marriage, and children, instead of being the ends of action, are the means which impoverish the ball­-player, keeping him enslaved to his work—which is play.

Lardner’s great force in portraying the baseball world lay in his recognition that its essence, instead of being mythical or serious, was indeed play. It was not a play element in culture, but culture as play. Totally comprehending its meaning and fully committing himself to it, he accomplished the difficult task of humorously inverting his language and perspective, thereby equaling the genuine social reality he recognized in the world of sports. Freed from symbolic strategies of representing the serous reality behind the face of the game, Lardner gained the fine economy of having the game as it was. Thus, his players, except for his central characters, are “real,” bearing their historic names, personalities, and legends. And his bats, instead of being the phallic symbols which Malamud’s characters swing, seem always to be genuine Louisville Sluggers. It is not his world which is fictive, but his narrator, whose language must perpetually render the world of baseball not as his fiction but as his life—that form of childhood pleasure indulged by the adult society where, from within the confines of the ball park, adults both in the stands and on the field helplessly convert loss, despair, and boredom into direct and overt gains of pleasure. In the process of such a major conversion, it is small wonder that Lardner converted, and thereby redeemed, the epistolary novel, which Richardson had boldly used to keep middle-class virgins precarious maidens, into a form for keeping adult children from becoming mere adults.


The humorous inversions and conversions of Lardner and Mark Twain provide the background for seeing Salinger’s literary heritage and discovery. Like Mark Twain and Lardner, Salinger has established himself as a vernacular writer; like them, he too has been so popular as to have been restive under the threat of his insatiable audience. But whereas Mark Twain and Lardner indulged and exploited their popularity—the one as lecturer, the other as journalist—Salinger has retreated into a self-imposed isolation from the popularity which relentlessly pursues him. Moreover, Salinger—unlike Mark Twain, who announced his humorous identity in his pseudonym, and unlike Lardner, who gained fame as a sportswriter and inventor of the Busher—began his career as a serious writer. By 1948 he had written “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the story containing the tragic suicide which he has been painfully, patiently, and tediously reconstructing for the past decade. Between the time of its appearance and his extensions of it came his vernacular form, “The Catcher in the Rye,” the book which is, for all feelings and wishes to the contrary, his masterpiece, capable of sustaining comparison (which it invited and inevitably received) to “Huckleberry Finn.” 

Salinger’s vernacular is vastly different from Mark Twain’s or Lardner’s. Though Holden Caulfield, like Lardner’s characters, often produces an awkward “I and Allie,” or, like Huck, a double negative, what makes his language different from theirs is his insistent use of four-letter words—the words which Chaucer freely used and which Mark Twain and Ring Lardner insistently avoided, at best managing to make jokes of the circumlocution they so assiduously practiced. Yet Holden’s language is not rebellious or shocking; rather, it is the new vernacular which can be indulged, just as Huck’s “ain’ts” could be indulged in the nineteenth century. As a matter of cultural fact, Holden’s language, more than that of any other literary character since World War II, repeats in its rhythm, attitudes, and substance the language of the GI. By making that language the very consciousness of a prep-school adolescent, Salinger, far from being guilty of the class betrayal so-called liberal critics charge him with, actually realized the experience of the war as the consciousness of the new generation instead of treating it as the experience of the old.

Not only can Holden’s language be indulged by his readers; Holden himself indulges it to the point of endangering his vernacular, for his indulgence brings him precariously close to slang, the perennial threat to the vernacular. Vernacular is the linguistic struggle of an impoverished character to speak the best he can; slang is the metaphorical excursion of a privileged character indulging his imagination. The one leads, as in “Huckleberry Finn” and “You Know Me, Al,” to a powerful illusion of social reality; the other, as in “A Connecticut Yankee,” “Henderson the Rain King,” or “On the Road,” to journeys into fantasy. If the measure of Huck’s indulgence of his style is to be found in his tendency to play Tom Sawyer, the measure of Holden’s indulgence can be charted in his repeated impulses toward literary or movie fantasy. At such times, both characters move to­ ward the threshold of slang fantasy and are vulnerable to the loss of their essential identities. 

But Holden, as much as Huck, is a vernacular character. He is in bad trouble and doing the best he can. The reason that he resembles Huck more than Lardner’s creations is that he is in open conflict with the adult world and thus seems involved in a serious rather than a humorous action. But Huck was helplessly against the adult world; Holden seems much more aggressively against it. Yet if the irony of Huck’s flight is that the indulgent drift of the great river bears him deeper into the slavery of society, the irony of Holden’s criticism is that it carries him forward into adult literary sensitivity. Thus, the more positively rebellious he becomes the more correct and literary his language becomes and the more he is likely to tell us about Old Eustacia Vye and Old Thomas Hardy—the more, in other words, he threatens to be the ultimately good bad boy who grows up. What saves him from that fate is his swearing. Instead of being a rebellious and indulgent slang, his profanity is his instinctive way of ex­ pressing himself. It is not so much an aggression as it is a protection, for it serves to convert erotic content into anal joke, and thus endlessly saves Holden from the sexuality of adolescence.

The other significant aspect of Holden’s vernacular is his helpless repetition, whether through recurrent epithets (“Old Phoebe,” “Old Ackley,”), repeated words and phrases (“phony,” “You know”), and habitual emphatic utterance (disclosed in the text by excessive use of italics). These repetitions not only give the illusion of spoken language—and Holden, unlike Huck, is apparently speaking—but they also reveal Holden’s limited linguistic resources at the same time they perfectly reflect the circular dilemma of his life. For Holden, unlike Mark Twain’s boy and unlike Lardner’s adult children, is an adolescent directly faced with adult sexuality. All the world beckons him to go forward into its pleasure; he even tells himself to enter. Yet confronted by the prostitute in the hotel room, he rejects entry into manhood, and takes instead the pleasure of a beating, imagining even amid the pain of receiving it that he is in a movie scene. 

Having rejected adult heterosexuality, he finds himself threatened by the homosexuality and phony maturity of Mr. Antolini, after which discovery he determines simply to run away from the hopeless adult world awaiting him at every turn. But before departing, he returns home in the dead of night for a secret good-bye to his sister Phoebe. At this marvelous moment, what would be the bedroom scene in the novel of seduction, the assignation in the romance, and the erotic, tormented, and incestuous longings in the bildungsroman (e.g., “Werther” and “David Copperfield”) becomes the pathos of Holden Caulfield. For pathos is, as every nineteenth-century humorist knew, the “high seriousness” of humor. In Holden’s meeting with Phoebe, the passion, secrecy, and fatality of erotic and romantic love are converted into the tenderness, fidelity, and helplessness of childhood affection. 

But Holden cannot remain with Phoebe and die with her as if they were the Babes in the Wood. Her real function is to elicit from him the true direction of all his wishes. Confronting her stark doubt that he loves anyone, Holden finds himself disclosing that, aside from Phoebe herself, his dead brother Allie is the sacred object of his heart’s desire. And it is toward Allie, toward Death, that Holden’s sentiments lead him as he departs from Phoebe. His visit to the museum—long a place of privileged retreat for him—marks the height of his self-pity. There, in the tomblike depths of the Egyptian section, he arrives at the center of his fantasy of dying. But at the selfsame moment he reaches the destination of his vernacular—the “Fuck you” scrawled as if literally across the tomb he has imagined for himself. That scrawl—surely the same scrawl which Nick Carraway’s feet had romantically rasped from the steps of the dead Gatsby’s mansion in the distant literary past—is of course the crass reality of the world’s sensibility. But much more important, it is the glorious end of Holden’s vernacular, the remorselessly inevitable last reach of his profanity. He faces the oldest and surely most common invective in the world’s language—that instinctive insult which converts erotic act into anal metaphor—and makes it the climax of the novel, the “poetry” of humor. And it is indeed the poetic moment of this masterpiece of humor, the triumphant interlude when the reality of Holden’s language, which has been his life, beautifully saves him from the serious death his and our indulgent sentiments might have brought upon him. Though bringing off such a triumph may have almost killed Salinger as a writer, as “Huckleberry Finn” almost killed Mark Twain, the fact remains that just as Holden’s humorous vernacular literally displaced his death wish, it also displaced Seymour Glass’s suicide, that elaborately gauzy event which Salinger’s super-conscious Jamesian style discovered well before Holden’s complete act of life and has been re­ constructing ever since. 

Released from suicide, Holden emerges from his “ordeal” to go a little mad with delight at watching the essence of the pleasure he cannot leave–his sister whirling on a carousel. I say he goes a little mad advisedly. Although the serious-minded adolescent will want him to have descended into the soul’s dark night, it is impossible to tell how serious his malady really is. And although the serious-minded adult may complain that rich little Holden didn’t have a real rebellion and didn’t go mad enough but sold out instead, the truth is that Holden had a real rebellion all right. Like his forebears in the realm of American vernacular humor, he rejected adult civilization. Not however under the sign of Mark Twain’s conscience or Lardner’s boredom, but under the sign of sexuality. Though it is of course possible for psychological criticism to lament these rejections as regression, and for theological criticism to moralize them as the dangers of innocence, the point is—if our contentions are somewhere near the mark—that the rejection is the most total criticism of our lives in the form of the greatest gain of direct and overt pleasure. 

That pleasure is the miracle of humor, which, far from being serious or evasive, is an invasion into the very temple of seriousness, reducing us, as working adults, to the helpless laughter from which all our seriousness happily cannot save us. To be so reduced is not to be transported back to childhood where play was reality, but forward toward the last possibility of adulthood. For in the adult world, work is reality and play is indeed pure and purposeless play. It remains for the sense of humor to transform the realm of work into the realm of play—and not childhood play, which was real, but adult play, which is pure. Thus, when children disclose a genuine sense of humor, they are not “being” children but are already losing childhood. For it is always and for­ ever the lossof childhood play which vernacular humor converts into the gain of purest pleasure. There is no sense of humor in childhood.






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