The Humor of Twain, Poe, and Hawthorne

Comparing the humor of Twain, Poe, and Hawthorne would be an excellent way to introduce middle school students to classic literature. It’s hard to imagine a topic that would be more interesting to middle school students than humor. You just know a classroom discussion about humor would be fun for teacher and students. And it would be educational too, of course. Humor takes many forms that are worth knowing about. And Twain, Poe, and Hawthorne are worth knowing about too, and the sooner the better. All of them used humor to make or enhance classic stories that have added texture and relief to our culture. Thank goodness for them.

Now, every American either knows or will discover that Mark Twain was an outstanding humorist, probably the greatest humorist the world has ever known. But the other two authors, Poe and Hawthorne, were not known as humorists. They certainly did not attain their fame that way, but each did spot-in humor to great effect in their literary works. And it’s interesting to consider the humor they used differed from the humor that made Twain funny, and that the humor of Poe differed from the humor of Hawthorne. These differences in humorous technique reward attention, consideration, and discussion, even in the middle school classroom.

Twain made his mark as a funny guy (and much more than that, to be sure), but what made him funny? What did he do to make people laugh? As I briefly summarized in a previous post, he used two complimentary techniques, exaggeration and understatement, over and over again. So exactly what are these techniques and how do they work?

Edgar Allan Poe made his fame as the inventor of the detective story and, most especially, for his tales of terror. But he also possessed an outstanding sense of humor, and he infused humor into almost all the intriguing and terrifying stories he wrote. How did he do that, and why? And just what type of humor could a terrifying or intriguing story withstand or support?

Nathaniel Hawthorne addressed serious topics in his novels, and most of his stories, too. But Hawthorne, like Poe, also folded humor into some stories. He wrote one story grounded in humor, and another liberally laced with it. What type of humor did Hawthorne use in his stories? Was the humor he folded into serious stories a different type than he would use in a lighter-toned story?

In future blogs I hope to answer these questions by pinpointing the types of humor Twain, Poe, and Hawthorne used. And I will try to answer how and why their approaches differed. Maybe those blogs will inspire someone to write a lesson plan for middle school students about literary humor in classic literature. Let’s hope so. Understanding humor should improve their sense of it. And a good sense of humor will help them endure various situations, including classic literature.

Hawthorne, Poe, and Twain

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