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William M. Thackeray
by [?]

Had the Reverend Mr. Mather possessed but a mere modicum of humor he might have exorcised the cat, but I am sure he would never have troubled old gran’ma. But alas, Cotton Mather’s conversation was limited to yea, yea, and nay, nay–generally, nay, nay–and he was in dead earnest.

In the Boston Public Library is a book written in Sixteen Hundred Eighty-five by Cotton Mather, entitled, “Wonders of the Invisible World.” This book received the endorsement of the Governor of the Province and also of the President of Harvard College. The author cites many cases of persons who were bewitched; and also makes the interesting statement that the Devil knows Greek, Latin and Hebrew, but speaks English with an accent. These facts were long used at Harvard as an argument in favor of the Classics. And when Greek was at last made optional, the Devil was supposed to have filed a protest with the Dean of the Faculty.

The Reverend Francis Gastrell, who razed New Place, and cut down the poet’s mulberry-tree to escape the importunities of visitors, was in dead earnest. Attila, and Herod, and John Calvin were in dead earnest. And were it not for the fact that Luther had lucid intervals when he went about with his tongue in his cheek he surely would have worked grievous wrong.

Recent discoveries in Egyptian archeology show that in his lifetime Moses was esteemed more as a wit than as a lawmaker. His jokes were posted upon the walls and explained to the populace, who it seems were a bit slow.

Job was a humorist of a high order, and when he said to the wise men, “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you,” he struck twelve. When the sons of Jacob went down into Egypt and Joseph put up the price of corn, took their money, and then secretly replaced the coin in the sacks, he showed his artless love of a quiet joke.

Shakespeare’s fools were the wisest and kindliest men at court. When the master decked a character in cap and bells, it was as though he had given bonds for the man’s humanity. Touchstone followed his master into exile; and when all seemed to have forsaken King Lear the fool bared himself to the storm and covered the shaking old man with his own cloak. And if Costard, Trinculo, Touchstone, Jaques and Mercutio had lived in Salem in Sixteen Hundred Ninety-two, there would have been not only a flashing of merry jests, but a flashing of rapiers as well, and every gray hair of every old dame’s head would have been safe so long as there was a striped leg on which to stand.

Lincoln, liberator of men, loved the motley. In fact, the individual who is incapable of viewing the world from a jocular basis is unsafe, and can be trusted only when the opposition is strong enough to laugh him into line.

In the realm of English letters, Thackeray is prince of humorists. He could see right through a brick wall, and never mistook a hawk for a hernshaw. He had a just estimate of values, and the temperament that can laugh at all trivial misfits. And he had, too, that dread capacity for pain which every true humorist possesses, for the true essence of humor is sensibility.

In all literature that lives there is mingled like pollen an indefinable element of the author’s personality. In Thackeray’s “Lectures on English Humorists” this subtle quality is particularly apparent. Elusive, delicate, alluring–it is the actinic ray that imparts vitality.

When wit plays skittles with dulness, dulness gets revenge by taking wit at his word. Vast numbers of people taking Thackeray at his word consider him a bitter pessimist.

He even disconcerted bright little Charlotte Bronte, who went down to London to see him, and then wrote back to Haworth that “the great man talked steadily with never a smile. I could not tell when to laugh and when to cry, for I did not know what was fun and what fact.”