Introduction: This volume does not aim to contain all “the best American humorous short stories”; there are many other stories equally as good, I suppose, in much the same vein, scattered through the range of American literature.
have tried to keep a certain unity of aim and impression in selecting these stories. In the first place I determined that the pieces of brief fiction which I included must first of all be not merely good stories, but good short stories. I put myself in the position of one who was about to select the best short stories in the whole range of American literature, but who, just before he started to do this, was notified that he must refrain from selecting any of the best American short stories that did not contain the element of humor to a marked degree.
But I have kept in mind the wide boundaries of the term humor, and also the fact that the humorous standard should be kept second–although a close second–to the short story standard.
No book is duller than a book of jokes, for what is refreshing in small doses becomes nauseating when perused in large assignments. Humor in literature is at its best not when served merely by itself but when presented along with other ingredients of literary force in order to give a wide representation of life. Therefore “professional literary humorists,” as they may be called, have not been much considered in making up this collection.
In the history of American humor there are three names which stand out more prominently than all others before Mark Twain, who, however, also belongs to a wider classification: “Josh Billings” (Henry Wheeler Shaw, 1815-1885), “Petroleum V. Nasby” (David Ross Locke, 1833-1888), and “Artemus Ward” (Charles Farrar Browne, 1834-1867).
In the history of American humor these names rank high; in the field of American literature and the American short story they do not rank so high. I have found nothing of theirs that was first-class both as humor and as short story. Perhaps just below these three should be mentioned George Horatio Derby (1823-1861), author of Phoenixiana (1855) and the Squibob Papers (1859), who wrote under the name “John Phoenix.”
As has been justly said, “Derby, Shaw, Locke and Browne carried to an extreme numerous tricks already invented by earlier American humorists, particularly the tricks of gigantic exaggeration and calm-faced mendacity, but they are plainly in the main channel of American humor, which had its origin in the first comments of settlers upon the conditions of the frontier, long drew its principal inspiration from the differences between that frontier and the more settled and compact regions of the country, and reached its highest development in Mark Twain, in his youth a child of the American frontier, admirer and imitator of Derby and Browne, and eventually a man of the world and one of its greatest humorists.” Nor have such later writers who were essentially humorists as “Bill Nye” (Edgar Wilson Nye, 1850-1896) been considered, because their work does not attain the literary standard and the short story standard as creditably as it does the humorous one.
When we come to the close of the nineteenth century the work of such men as “Mr. Dooley” (Finley Peter Dunne, 1867- ) and George Ade (1866- ) stands out. But while these two writers successfully conform to the exacting critical requirements of good humor and–especially the former–of good literature, neither–though Ade more so–attains to the greatest excellence of the short story. Mr. Dooley of the Archey Road is essentially a wholesome and wide-poised humorous philosopher, and the author of Fables in Slang is chiefly a satirist, whether in fable, play or what not.
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