112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Childish Humor: Literary Childhood as a Source of Nostalgic Humor

Zachary Vance, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

This paper shall focus on the humor associated with literary depictions of childhood in the works of Twain, Thurber, and Salinger. While briefly surveying how America’s vision of itself is often exemplified in literary representations of childhood, this study shall primarily explore the powerful agent of humor in representations of American childhood.

Proposal: 

The concept of “childhood” whispers of a world we can no longer reach as adults, yet we nevertheless attempt to return to this utopian period through literature. Childhood is a state that all adults have experienced; however, it remains a strangely unknowable portion of life. It is the lone form of Otherness that we all have in common even as its familiarity fades with maturity. Literary juveniles express an intuitive understanding of this lost childhood. Often their inclusion in literature reveals a nostalgic longing to return to a world free of responsibility, a world of imagination as opposed to one ruled by the harsh realities of adulthood. Although investigations into literary childhood have become more prevalent as of late, these studies often overlook the significance of the humor associated with these literary children.

 

This paper shall focus on the humor associated with literary depictions of childhood in the works of Twain, Thurber, and Salinger. While briefly surveying how America’s vision of itself is often exemplified in literary representations of childhood, this study shall primarily explore the powerful agent of humor in representations of American childhood.

 

Twain employs irony within his texts to question the whole premise of the child, and presents a new kind of boy hero placed in a world in which adults often act like children and the children must act like adults. Ultimately, Twain is able to juxtapose boyhood with adulthood and demonstrate the incongruity between the two in terms of their opposing worldviews. Twain’s choice to narrate Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from a boy’s perspectiveenables his readers to view adulthood as a fall from innocence by featuring deformed adults during the eponymous hero’s adventures. Even within the realm of boyhood, Twain presents often humorous, divergent approaches to perceiving the world by contrasting Tom’s romantic idealism with that of Huck’s realistic pragmatism.

 

Thurber implements his theory of humor by recalling moments of emotional chaos from his youth and presenting them calmly and quietly in retrospect. This reflection is nostalgic even as it depicts the challenging nature of growing up from an adult perspective. Once again, boyhood is juxtaposed with problematic representations of adulthood in order to better illuminate the chaotic nature of maturation. By exploring his childhood in retrospect, Thurber is able to create comic distance through which he can humorously depict the lunacy of adulthood. Even though the fantastic and eccentric populate his literary world, the intention of Thurber’s comedy and humor is to help us better recognize and accept the reality of adulthood.

 

Likewise, Salinger explores the difficulties of transitioning from boyhood into adulthood in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s narrative, much like his literary counterpart Huck Finn’s, is full of irony and humorous moments that are not always funny to the narrator himself. Salinger utilizes dark humor to illuminate the difficulties of traversing the path that leads from boyhood into the adult world. Just like Twain, Salinger places a young male protagonist in direct opposition to a distorted and deformed adult world.

Topic Area: