As you may have noticed if you are a regular reader of this blog, I like teh funny, and even if my sense of humor ain’t exactly your cuppa joe, I like to write to amuse myself, at least. My problem now is that I can’t find a lot of humor in the book I’m writing. I wrote a book about guys and guns and warfare in the Northeastern borderlands of what’s now the U.S. and Canada, so although that wasn’t a happy story for most of the people I wrote about, there were a lot of really fatuous English men and women I could mock in that book. I realize it’s a low trick, but having a mockable bad guy or set of bad guys in your book is one way to leaven the story and add a little humor. After writing about warfare for the better part of a decade, I looked forward to what I imagined to be a retreat into the relative safety and comfort of the cloister in order to write about a little English girl (Esther Wheelwright, 1696-1780) who was taken captive by the Indians at 7 and wound up in the Ursuline convent in Quebec at the age of 12, where she remained for the rest of her life.
But, the problem for me right now is that there just isn’t a lot of humor in the story of a little girl whose life was filled with warfare and trauma for her English family, and the starvation, disease, and eventual destrution of her Indian family. She arrived safely at the monastery and lived to the age of 84, but early modern nuns are just so earnest with their apostolic missions, such do-gooders that I haven’t found a lot of humor or texture in that part of the story, either. They were not late medieval mystics who wrote long, fantastic narratives or offered descriptions of the various ways in which they mortified their bodies. They were not aristocratic European nuns who flaunted their wealth and had men jumping in and out of their cells in between secret plots to make another Borgia prince the Pope. They were teachers! I’m a teacher, and many of you reading this are teachers–you know how boring and earnest we all are! Who wants to read about about a bunch of teachers?
In short, I have a humor problem with this book, and no really obvious bad guys to target for the cheap yuks. (At least I’m having a hard time making scurvy and smallpox variola take the fall for everything.)
Last week I had lunch with a colleague who writes about one of the most humorless topics in world history: the African diaspora and New World slavery. He certainly sympathized with my problem, and suggested that I might look for humor in some of the cross-cultural misunderstandings between French missionaries and Indians. I thought that was a great suggestion. I talked to another friend of mine who writes American Indian history, and he told me that maybe I shouldn’t look for humor in a story that’s about warfare, famine, and disease. I certainly take his point, because if one writes anything besides political or intellectual history, American history is for the most part a very un-funny story about the tragic lives and exploitation and abuse of the many by the few. Then again, another friend who is a European medievalist suggested that there can nevertheless be humor in widespread suffering and certain death–she said that in the face of the Black Death, Europeans made a brave face with gallows humor.
Yesterday, I consulted another historian who recently published a biography of Emilie du Chatelet in which she was able to turn Voltaire–a character who is almost universally loved and admired by modern, secular historians because of his irreverent humor–into the bad guy. She counseled that I’m just “clogged” right now, and that I should push on and get a draft of the book finished so that I can go back and find the humor, or at least the ironic moments, in my story. I think that’s what I’ll do, but I’d really like to hear from the rest of you what you historians or cultural studies types think about this problem of finding humor in the history you write. Do you also look for humor, or do you think that it’s perfectly OK or even preferable not to look for humor when writing about really heavy subjects?
All I know fer sure is that I need to find a pretty funny subject for my third book, because the history I’ve written so far that that I’m writing right now is, like, totally bumming me out. (Any suggestions?) I may need to migrate into nineteenth century U.S. history, because that place was a veritable freak show of wacko religious beliefs, communes, colonies, and filibustering misadventures. (On top of all of the continuing misery, exploitation, and abuse, that is–but by comparison to colonial history, it was a laugh riot.)