"D-a-v-y Da-vy Crockett," Commentary, February 1960. (A review of Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor by Kenneth S. Lynn.)
There is nothing quite like American humorous writing in the literature of other nations. Nowhere else is humor so central to the literary tradition, so intimately revealing of the national experience, so representative of what the nation truly believes itself to stand for. It is not that Americans as a race are so gay or jolly. Indeed, much of this humor has little that is noticeably gay or jolly about it. There is a barely suppressed streak of hysteria and, conspicuously, an edge: more often than not the fun is at someone’s expense. There is, to be sure, an undeniable vigor and exuberance that is remarkable, perhaps unique. But this signifies no mere overflowing of high spirits and good nature. If we are fond of regarding it as simply such, this is because we like the idea of deriving American humor from a special kind of candor and irreverence that have something important to do with the democratic way of life. The idea is true enough; but not in so straightforward a fashion. Behind the blithe irreverence there lies an ill-concealed aggressiveness and belligerency. American humor is certainly a distinctive expression of American democracy; yet it also expresses a historic tension within that democracy itself.