Magazine article Humanities

The Comical and the Coffinly

Magazine article Humanities

The Comical and the Coffinly

Article excerpt

Writing in the Atlantic Monthly shortly after the Civil War, Thomas Wentworth Higginson made a "plea for culture," hoping that the country would curtail its endless toil and seek out the timelessness of the humanities. By the 1890s, the mood of the country seemed to be more open to culture in general but not, certainly, what Higginson had hoped for. A professor at Columbia University, Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen, noticed what he called a "plague of jocularity" among his students, who he felt were for the most part unable or unwilling to take high culture seriously. The age of burlesque, running roughly from the 1830s through the 1890s, had been satisfying the public appetite for humor for so long that artists in many instances felt the need to engage in levity as well, simply to be taken seriously by the upper crust and the hoi polloi alike. In Playing It Straight: Art and Humor in the Gilded Age, Jennifer Greenhill examines how this all came about.

Unifying the "comical and the coffinly" was the special domain of one artist in particular. Winslow Homer began his career by submitting illustrations of soldiers' lives during the Civil War to weekly magazines in New York. In her study, Greenhill reconsiders "the central importance of the gag' to Homer's dramatic sensibility. …

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