- What's So Funny?Humor in the Writing of Walter R. Brooks
"Humor," E. B. White once wrote, "can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. . . . It [humor] has a certain fragility, an evasiveness, which one had best respect. Essentially it is a complete mystery" (xvii-xviii).
What White had to say about humor is worth heeding, for he was himself not only a noted humorist whose editorial presence was a mainstay of The New Yorker magazine for decades but also the creator of one of the great humorous characters of American children's literature: the pig Wilbur, a creature whom generations of readers gladly remember as "SOME PIG!"
"TERRIFIC" though Wilbur may have been, he is not the subject of this paper. Instead it is another pig whom the spider Charlotte, had she known him instead of Wilbur, would surely have heralded as "PEERLESS PORKER."1
I refer, of course, to Freddy the Pig, a talking animal hero whose multifaceted career was chronicled by his faithful Boswell, Walter R. Brooks, in a series of 26 books published by Alfred A. Knopf from 1927 to 1958, the year of Brooks's death.
Freddy was a pig of many parts: poet, politician, pilot, detective, newspaper editor, banker, cowboy, pied piper, and more.
However diverse his roles, though, his adventures had at least two things in common, both of which are neatly epitomized by his publisher on the dust jacket of Freddy's sixth adventure, Wiggins for President: the books, Knopf noted, were "All by Walter Brooks" and they were "All Funny."
In fact, the series as a whole deftly demonstrates the diversity of what most theorists agree is funny, and though theory may be best left to the theorists, some modest musing about E. B. White's "complete mystery" is surely in order. For it is the ineffable humor of the Freddy books which continues to command readers' loyalty and elevates them to the status of [End Page 131] classics of modern American children's literature. If they have been traditionally undervalued and neglected by the critics, that is surely not Freddy's fault but is instead due to the fact that humor is usually relegated to the cheap seats at the back of the critical house: "The world likes humor," E. B. White went on to note, "but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with brussels sprouts" (xviii).
As for readers' loyalty, consider that Freddy may be the only pig, fictional or otherwise, to boast his own fan club. The Friends of Freddy, formed in 1983, now numbers nearly 200 loyalists living in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Due in part to their importunings, Knopf has reissued eight of the Freddy books in new trade paperback editions, all of which demonstrate that Freddy and his Bean Farm cronies continue to command the gift of laughter.2
"I'm not continually trying to be funny, thank goodness!" their creator, Walter R. Brooks, testily told a reporter in 1938. "My fun is confined to my writing" (Utica Observer Dispatch 12). In addition to the Freddy books, that writing included one comic novel for adults (Ernestine Takes Over, Morrow, 1935), the rather bawdy humor of which was often compared to that of Thorne Smith, and some 200 short stories for adults; 23 of that total starred another talking animal, a horse named Ed, the inspiration for the '60's television series Mr. Ed.
Brooks often claimed that his "short stories in the adult magazines are really nothing but children's stories, changed a little. There's no difference in the method, just in the things you refer to" (NY Herald Tribune, 2). What he most often referred to in the short stories was the battle of the sexes, the war between (married) men and women. He viewed this connubial contest from a satirical remove, and the stories he concocted about it have the brittle, wisecracking, sophisticated, and occasionally zany tone of the screwball comedies of 1930's movies and may, in...