Chicago's Public Wits:
A Chapter in the American Comic Spirit

A Review

as submitted in a DePaul history class, March, 1996

Book Review
Chicago's Public Wits:
A Chapter in the American Comic Spirit
Edited, with commentaries by
Kenny J. Williams and Bernard Duffy
Louisiana State University Press, 1983 $12

Exploring a genre that has precious little prominence in literature, Chicago's Public Wits does so eloquently and thoroughly. Divided into three parts, the book is organized chronologically, and therefore may also serve as a satisfactory resource of Chicago history.

There are three important elements to note that this book covers. Besides Chicago history, celebrated authors from specific time periods are profiled, and samples of their work are included. Naturally, I did not find everything I read here to be funny, some not even amusing. Of course, I did not expect to, as different material will make different people laugh from different times, countries, even communities. A profusion of topics in comedy is perused here. Writings cover genres such as ethnic humor, political humor, and defensive humor. This book seeks to facilitate understanding of what was humorous to Chicago's citizens in different time periods.

The first part, "Early Chicago and the Comic Spirit," covers Chicago's public wits from the early 1840's until roughly the last decade of the century. Integration of history and the book's subject matter was accomplished skillfully. When introducing new time periods, topics, and even authors, pertinent historical tidbits would be provided. Events noted include Fort Dearborn, the Massacre of 1812, Chicago's incorporation in 1837 (which will include frequent population updates as the book progresses), the Chicago Fire, and the Columbian Exposition.

Most of the humor in this section was either over my head, or just did not strike me as funny. There was a significant section on ethnic jokes. Most ethnicities from Chicago at that time are represented in the sampler provided here, with all text seemingly unedited. The funniest aspects of these jokes are trying to read them as they are printed, as they are written phonetically, to reflect the accent of the speaker's nationality.

The second part, "The Heyday," begins its introduction with a short synopsis of Chicago media, including newspapers and magazines. The most interesting of the historical notes was the discussion of Chicago's change physically (including the rebuilding after the fire, the famous structures that were constructed during this time (Orchestra Hall, Fine Arts Building, to name a few), and reversing the flow of the Chicago River). Naturally, I was taken with the paragraph on the Plan of Chicago.

Many selections spotlighted here also contained phonetically written text. My favorite author of the section was no exception. Ring Lardner, to whom I am partial due to his musings on the best Chicago baseball team of the late teens, published twenty volumes of material, which included essays, plays, letters, articles, and short stories. He is given his due, as the book features 12 pages of his work.

The third part, "The World Changes," also contains a detailed introductory section with valuable Chicago history. Topics discussed include political corruption, A Century of Progress, and more tales of development throughout the city and the suburbs.

I suppose that I am not surprised that this chapter showcases the most writers with whom I am familiar. Highlights include Langston Hughes, Bill Granger, and Mike Royko.

One form of humor that was underrepresented in the book is the (political and otherwise) cartoon. I always enjoy reading those, and I was hoping for many more to be featured here. Unfortunately, there were precious few illustrations, just appearing sporadically in each section.

I would venture to suggest that, due to its considerable historical content, this book could be used as a supplementary textbook for students at the high school level. But it should also be utilized for reading the old-fashioned way-for fun!