On my own side of the Atlantic I often marvel at our extraordinary tolerance and courtesy to one another in the matter of story-telling. I have never seen a bad story-teller thrown forcibly out of the room or even stopped and warned; we listen with the most wonderful patience to the worst of narration. The story is always without any interest except in the unknown point that will be brought in later. But this, until it does come, is no more interesting than to-morrow's breakfast. Yet for some reason or other we permit this story-telling habit to invade and damage our whole social life. The English always criticise this and think they are absolutely right. To my mind in their social life they give the "funny story" its proper place and room and no more. That is to say--if ten people draw their chairs in to the dinner table and somebody really has just heard a story and wants to tell it, there is no reason against it. If he says, "Oh, by the way, I heard a good story to-day," it is just as if he said, "Oh, by the way, I heard a piece of news about John Smith." It is quite admissible as conversation. But he doesn't sit down to try to think, along with nine other rival thinkers, of all the stories that he had heard, and that makes all the difference.
The Scotch, by the way, resemble us in liking to tell and hear stories. But they have their own line. They like the stories to be grim, dealing in a jocose way with death and funerals. The story begins (will the reader kindly turn it into Scotch pronunciation for himself), "There was a Sandy MacDonald had died and the wife had the body all laid out for burial and dressed up very fine in his best suit," etc. Now for me that beginning is enough. To me that is not a story, but a tragedy. I am so sorry for Mrs. MacDonald that I can't think of anything else. But I think the explanation is that the Scotch are essentially such a devout people and live so closely within the shadow of death itself that they may without irreverence or pain jest where our lips would falter. Or else, perhaps they don't care a cuss whether Sandy MacDonald died or not. Take it either way.
But I am tired of talking of our faults. Let me turn to the more pleasing task of discussing those of the English. In the first place, and as a minor matter of form, I think that English humour suffers from the tolerance afforded to the pun. For some reason English people find puns funny. We don't. Here and there, no doubt, a pun may be made that for some exceptional reason becomes a matter of genuine wit. But the great mass of the English puns that disfigure the Press every week are mere pointless verbalisms that to the American mind cause nothing but weariness.
But even worse than the use of puns is the peculiar pedantry, not to say priggishness, that haunts the English expression of humour. To make a mistake in a Latin quotation or to stick on a wrong ending to a Latin word is not really an amusing thing. To an ancient Roman, perhaps, it might be. But then we are not ancient Romans; indeed, I imagine that if an ancient Roman could be resurrected, all the Latin that any of our classical scholars can command would be about equivalent to the French of a cockney waiter on a Channel steamer. Yet one finds even the immortal Punch citing recently as a very funny thing a newspaper misquotation of "urbis et orbis" instead of "urbi et orbos," or the other way round. I forget which. Perhaps there was some further point in it that I didn't see, but, anyway, it wasn't funny. Neither is it funny if a person, instead of saying Archimedes, says Archimeeds; why shouldn't it have been Archimeeds? The English scale of values in these things is all wrong. Very few Englishmen can pronounce Chicago properly and they think nothing of that. But if a person mispronounces the name of a Greek village of what O. Henry called "The Year B.C." it is supposed to be excruciatingly funny.
I think in reality that this is only a part of the overdone scholarship that haunts so much of English writing--not the best of it, but a lot of it. It is too full of allusions and indirect references to all sorts of extraneous facts. The English writer finds it hard to say a plain thing in a plain way. He is too anxious to show in every sentence what a fine scholar he is. He carries in his mind an accumulated treasure of quotations, allusions, and scraps and tags of history, and into this, like Jack Horner, he must needs "stick in his thumb and pull out a plum." Instead of saying, "It is a fine morning," he prefers to write, "This is a day of which one might say with the melancholy Jacques, it is a fine morning."
Hence it is that many plain American readers find English humour "highbrow." Just as the English are apt to find our humour "slangy" and "cheap," so we find theirs academic and heavy. But the difference, after all, is of far less moment than might be supposed. It lies only on the surface. Fundamentally, as I said in starting, the humour of the two peoples is of the same kind and on an equal level.
There is one form of humour which the English have more or less to themselves, nor do I envy it to them. I mean the merriment that they appear able to draw out of the criminal courts. To me a criminal court is a place of horror, and a murder trial the last word in human tragedy. The English criminal courts I know only from the newspapers and ask no nearer acquaintance. But according to the newspapers the courts, especially when a murder case is on, are enlivened by flashes of judicial and legal humour that seem to meet with general approval. The current reports in the Press run like this:
"The prisoner, who is being tried on a charge of having burned his wife to death in a furnace, was placed in the dock and gave his name as Evans. Did he say 'Evans or Ovens?' asked Mr. Justice Blank. The court broke into a roar, in which all joined but the prisoner. . . ." Or take this: "How many years did you say you served the last time?" asked the judge. "Three," said the prisoner. "Well, twice three is six," said the judge, laughing till his sides shook; "so I'll give you six years."