As follow-up to Twain’s Innocents Abroad, I recently read Westward Ha! in the globe-trotting vein. Soon after WWII, a magazine named Holiday actually suggested and financed a year-long jaunt around the world for two, shall we say, neurotic New Yorkers. What a world!
One had recently scripted several Marx Brothers movies, the other was a caricaturist, two more unlikely and unfit men for the job not having been found. The year was 1947, with the dollar supreme and the U.S. economy contributing half of the world’s. While the intended audience may have needed humoring, was this really the time to parade around two funny-ugly Americans while most of the globe, including Europe, were still reeling from the war’s destruction?
S.J. Perelman would go on to become a regular for The New Yorker, contributing a light touch and an exhaustive vocabulary to every page. His cohort, Al Hirschfeld, became New York’s in-town cartoonist, hiding his daughter Nina’s name in the wavy folds of his drawings.
They leave from the west coast, after an appropriately surreal time in Hollywood, and to their credit take cargo ships for much of the journey. (This was not as bad as it sounds; many were outfitted to take a handful or more passengers, before the death of this travel mode by a hundred insurance cuts.) The saltiness of sea language, which of course has permanently since berthed throughout this fair land, astonishes even our Hollywood-hardened narrator, with the
…ability to interthread every third word with one of the breezier copulative verbs, but soon ennui supervened and we set off listlessly for the ship. [p.59]
The book is billed as a laugh a minute, including a blurb from Gore Vidal gushing, “The funniest writer in America since – himself.” Bill Bryson, in a forward to a re-issued collection called The Most of S.J. Perelman, calls him “the most brilliant comic writer of his generation.”
Perelman is often funny, with the da-boom mode of humor, jolting you at sentences’s end, such as this one:
…his hand shook and a drop of perspiration glinted on his forehead, almost obscuring it. [p.70]
But there were few belly-laughs in it for me, as I found the jokes relentless and too precious.
In a dancing scene which could be straight out of a Marx Brothers movie, he writes:
…Mrs. Ledyard suddenly gave way to an excess of animal energy. She caught up a springy iron clapper, and, since I am always in the trajectory of people like that, fetched me a lethal blow on the sconce, causing a goose-egg. I overlooked it at the time, realizing the woman was in wine… [p.128]
The self-deprecating humor, and the endless insults traded between our buddy-team of S.J. and Al, are endearing, such as this time when the author mistakes a banana peel which caught him sleeping on a train in Malaysia:
…when I felt the clammy embrace, I naturally assumed a fer-de-lance was pitching woo at me. [p.85]
One has to sympathize when he complains of the heat in Bombay:
The reader may get some approximate notion of the discomfort we underwent if he dons a cable-stitch sweater, swallows three gallons of hot lemonade, and locks himself in his shoe-closet on an August afternoon. [p.110]
Bryson calls the humor “zany, snappy, self-mocking, often wonderfully vicious,” which is true to a point, but oddly opines:
It is a strange thing, but in the early 1920s, for no very obvious reason, America suddenly got funny. Before that time American humour [sic] had nearly always brought to mind the musings of an amiable rustic sitting on a rail fence…
Perhaps Bryson spent too much time living in England, but hasn’t he read much Mark Twain?
Neither Bryson nor Perelman make any reference or allusion to his Innocents Abroad, which is so obviously the antecedent to Westward Ha! as to be the elephant on the boat.
Perelman suffers from the comparison. While he is “vicious” at times as Bryson claims, Twain, especially with his group of traveling buddies found on their circumnavigating ship, are bemused, while being wonderfully politically incorrect. While Perelman makes fun of Al and himself, Twain skewers himself and many of his fellow American pilgrims, far better capturing what it was like to be naive Yankees loose in a world of crazily un-American people. Twain takes aim at our own pretenders and sophisticates (roughly speaking, the New England elite at the time), while inviting them to laugh at the human nature absurdity of dealing with people so obviously unlike us. Instead, Perelman is practically one of those pretenders and sophisticates of his time, telling jokes for the Hollywood-Manhattan crowd. (Hirschfeld’s cartoons, many self-deprecating, are worth the book price.)
For Bryson, this bygone era is an enticing one,
…a world where people wear reefers and leggings and carry reticules, where officers [sic] are filled with stenographers and mimeograph machines, subway rides forever cost a nickle, people dine at Lindy’s and the Stork Club and Schrafft’s…
Whereas Twain is often filled with genuine emotion at visiting the Holy Land and European sites of his childhood dreams, Perelman only expresses true admiration towards book’s end, for the Italians and the Brits:
No monument or shrine I saw in central Italy, and I was fated to see nearly all of them, was half as impressive as the dogged industry with which the people were restoring their homes and workshops. [p.129]
Nevertheless, there were a couple of traits I observed often enough in my stay to believe that they must be basic national characteristics: courage and serenity. It needed plenty of both have endured the rigors of the foregoing seven years and to face an extremely dubious future… [p.144]
Too bad Perelman took so long to get real. It makes one think: what if, going the other way, it had been Eastward Ha! (The name, coincidentally, of a book he wrote 30 years later.)
(While no doubt a master craftsman, perhaps there’s a reason why Perelman is out of print.)
The tradition of American humor and, while traveling outwards, the shock of cognition is indeed a long and illustrious one. It struck me that an afterword to my old copy of Innocents Abroad calls the narrator “a schlemiel- or clown-Westerner.” How varied and deep is America’s cultural roots that Twain, a Protestant, could be called the Yiddish schlemiel, that would blossom into both the Marx Brothers and Perelman – even if some don’t recognize it.
[S.J. Perelman, Westward Ha!, or Around the World in Eighty Clichés, Burford Books, Short Hills, NJ, 1998]