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Lewis Lapham: Laughing Into Darkness

Mark Twain at work

Is there a Mark Twain for the modern age?

Not being Navajo, there were no “first laugh” ceremonies in my household.  But who could forget their child’s first laugh?  It’s like having one of the mysteries of life presented to you out of nowhere, right in your own house.  That laugh comes from some unknown place deep inside. It may be a response to surprise (peekaboo… now, I’m here, now I’m gone, now I’m back again!) or who knows what, but it’s granted to us, imprinted on us, with a kind of inexpressible joy. The Navajos evidently consider a baby’s first laugh the moment you become a social being, enter the human community, and join the rest of us — and the person who induces that laugh has the honor of holding the ceremony.  Anyone who has ever gotten a classic “belly laugh” out of a baby certainly has a sense that an honor has indeed been bestowed and that a ceremony should be in order.

The laugh is assumedly there to take you through a dark world without a total loss of joy, to join you to the rest of us in the conspiracy of life, and to give you a little distance on what passes for reality.  It precedes anything we would normally consider humor, reflecting the deepest comedy at our core.  Anyone who has had a child undoubtedly noticed that the laugh also precedes the punch line, that the form of the joke is somehow a pleasure even before you understand why a chicken crossing the road is funny or what that rabbi, penguin, and president were doing in a bar.  It’s far deeper and truer.

So true that Lewis Lapham in the Winter issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, grabs his Mark Twain and steps directly into the darkness of our present gilded age with the verve that humor arms you with. As always, his magazine unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic, in this case comedy. (You can subscribe to the Quarterly by clicking here.) As ever, TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham’s introduction to the new issue. Tom

The Solid Nonpareil
Why No Mark Twain for Our Second Gilded Age?
By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in “Comedy,” the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at with the kind permission of that magazine.]

Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. — Mark Twain

Twain for as long as I’ve known him has been true to his word, and so I’m careful never to find myself too far out of his reach. The Library of America volumes of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852–1910) stand behind my desk on a shelf with the dictionaries and the atlas. On days when the news both foreign and domestic is moving briskly from bad to worse, I look to one or another of Twain’s jests to spring the trap or lower a rope, to summon, as he is in the habit of doing, a blast of laughter to blow away the “peacock shams” of the world’s “colossal humbug.” [cont’d.]

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