John Kendrick Bangs
( Originally Published 1907 )
A DOZEN years or so ago, when Mr. Bangs faced at home an audience, which had gathered to hear his address on The Evolution of the Humorist," he said :
" I was born in and have resided in Yonkers for a number of years ; I have braved the perils of life in this community, and have endured, without a murmur, the privations common to all of us."
A modest biography, and withal an illustration of Mr. Bangs's philosophy. He takes things as they come — and leaves his imprint on them. Comparisons of skill aside, no man could do more.
John Kendrick Bangs was born in Yonkers, New York, in May, 1862. His father, Francis N. Bangs, was a prominent New York lawyer, in fact, one of the most prominent lawyers the New York bar has ever known. His grandfather was the Rev. Nathan Bangs, D.D., the first historian of the Methodist Church in this country, the first editor of a Methodist paper, and for many years president of Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut.
In 1883, after receiving such an education as any New York boy of a well-to-do New York family receives, young Bangs was graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy from the School of Political Science of Columbia University, New York. For a year and a half afterward he studied law in his father's office studied at long range," as he has said himself. But all the time he was impatient to go into literature. "I was more of a fighter," he says, " and it seemed to me that a man has enough battles of his own to wage without rushing after the battles of other people." Gradually his inherited fondness for literature smothered his zeal as a student of law. While contributing in his undergraduate days to the college paper, Acta Columbiana, he had enjoyed a taste of literary glory. So, between dips into his father's dry volumes, he wrote little sketches in his characteristic vein. These tentative works introduced him favorably to the managers of Life, and, late in 1884, he became associated with Mr. Mitchell in the editorship of that entertaining periodical. In addition to his editorial work he undertook. to maintain the attractive "By the Way" page, and to this valuable feature of life he contributed an extraordinary amount of original matter. What would not have been asked of many other men was requested of the new humorist in the most casual manner, for he quickly proved that, besides possessing a keen literary instinct and that kindly and delightful insight into human nature which, brought together, double the value of a comic paper, he also possessed remarkable energy and power of application.
In 1887, while still connected with Life, and shortly after his marriage, young Bangs went abroad, and during this absence from editorial work his first book, " Roger Camorden, a Strange Story," was published. It was an unusual and very promising tale of hallucination, and its success was encouraging. That same year, in collaboration with his friend and class-mate, Frank Dempster Sherman, he produced a series of satirical and humorous pieces, which were put into a volume under the title of "New Waggings of old Tales."
Soon afterward he resigned from Life, in order to devote more time to larger work.
The first product of the rising author's independent career was a travesty on " The Taming of the Shrew" called "Katherine," which he wrote for a dramatic association connected with the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard. It followed the Shakespearean construction rather closely, and, with its many quips and gags and jolly songs, made a first-rate libretto for a comic opera. The popularity of the travesty advertised the fame of Bangs from one end of Manhattan Island to the other. The following year, for the same organization, he wrote another travesty, "Mephistopheles, a Profanation " ; and this, too, won much popularity and further brightened its author's name.
The happy results of his experience as the father of three boys were noticeable in the book which Mr. Bangs published in 1891, " Tiddledywink Tales," the first of a series of amusing stories for children. The other divisions of this series are " In Camp with a Tin Soldier," " The Tiddledywink Poetry Book," and " Half Hours with Jimmie-Boy," books that have endeared their author to half the grown-up children in the land. It was by means of these books that he became a most welcome contributor to Harper's Round Table and to the juvenile departments of various literary syndicates. A novel, " Toppleton's Client," appeared in 1893, and in that year also appeared his first widely successful work, " Coffee and Repartee," a collection of Idiot papers, which has been described, and with good reason, as a mixture of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Bill Nye. Those were not, compared with the present time, enthusiastic literary days, and yet in a few years fifty thousand copies of the little book were sold. " Coffee and Repartee" was followed at regular intervals by " The Water-Ghost," " The Idiot," " Mr. Bona-parte of Corsica," and by the other books whose names have at sometime, been on every liberal reader's tongue,
One of the most entertaining of the New Yorker's books is " Ten Weeks in Politics," behind the writing of which is a story worth telling. In 1894 Mr. Bangs was nominated by the Democrats for Mayor of Yonkers. "No candidate, I sincerely believe," says his friend Mr. Corbin, ever entered a political campaign with greater seriousness or with a more strenuous desire to devote himself to the public good ; and except for any one of half a dozen accidents he would have been elected. To begin with, one of the cleverest of New York newspapers, the editorial policy of which has been suspected of personal prejudice, appeared to bear a grudge against Mr. Bangs, and persecuted him in prose and in verse with the implication that he was making a farce of politics. But the real cause of his defeat, as he explains with a quiet smile, was the fact that he refused one midnight to turn his house in-to a beer garden for the benefit of a local German band that serenaded him ; and in point of fact the votes of the musicians and their heelers were enough to turn the scale. Though Mr. Bangs is always willing to laugh at the figure he cut as a politician, he has never lost the sense of his duty as a citizen. His victorious rival had the magnanimity, which in such cases is scarcely to be distinguished from political wisdom, to offer him a subordinate position in his administration on the Board of Education, I think. Mr. Bangs had the magnanimity, which could not have contained the least scruple of policy, to accept the position and to fill it to the best of his ability, even while he was writing his ' Ten Weeks in Politics.' This episode is thoroughly characteristic."
Mr. Bangs has spoken of that defeat as the greatest blessing that he ever met. '' In later years," he says, '' when I saw how I would have been forced to abandon my chosen profession for politics, when I learned that the mayoralty would have taken every moment of my time, I was glad that I had been defeated. I saw, for the first time, the truth in the saying that a man can do more to bring success within his grasp by standing by his original proposition, even if it be a humorous one. And politics and humor do not mix, unless you happen to be a cartoonist."
Politics and humor mix well enough in the right man ; but it is not to be doubted that literature has been the gainer by the result of that election in Yonkers. The defeated candidate would probably have made an excellent Mayor. He certainly would have made a conscientious Mayor ; and by reason of this conscientiousness the reading public would have missed books which have made us certain that Mr. Bangs is a gifted humorist.
Mr. Corbin, by the way, tells another interesting story of his friend's characteristic activity. " Once when I went to Yonkers," says Mr. Corbin, "he appeared as the proprietor of a livery stable. He explained that the business had been running down when he took it, and that by charging himself a thousand or two a year for cab hire he was making a ' go' of it; and that moreover, as he paid his account to himself it did not cost him anything to ride. The plain fact seemed to be that his ready purse and his business sense had saved a humble neighbor from misfortune."
Before closing the political chapter of Mr. Bangs's career it may prove interesting to quote from a " send-off " which a Yonkers paper gave him on March 10, 1894, just before the German band episode.
"Mr. Bangs," it said, "is a Democrat of the strictest kind, and can always be relied upon to care for and advance the interests of his party, while at the same time he will so guard and guide the municipal ship as to avoid the rocks of reckless expenditure, and pass safely into the harbor of wise economy. With such a candidate the Democracy believes it can surely re-capture the mayoralty, and at the same time secure for the city a young, able, and in all respects a competent, honest, and faithful chief magistrate.
" Mr. Bangs is popular in the club life of the city, being a member of the old Palisade Boat Club and the Yonkers Lawn Tennis Club. In the latter he is the Chairman of the Entertainment Committee, and also a member of the Building and Book Committees. He is not only one of the best lawn tennis players in the club, but in the alleys of the boat club has proved himself a skillful bowler, having figured conspicuously in the recent annual tournament. He recently proved himself a public speaker of no mean order when he delivered his lecture on ' The Evolution of the Humorist from Adam to Bill Nye,' for a charitable object. He also took prominent part in the last charity ball, which is the social event of the season in this city."
How that catalogue of social and athletic qualifications must have appealed to a man of the victim's sense of humor !
Mr. Bangs takes his own medicine. He firmly believes that humor sweetens life. " Show me a man who does not appreciate humor," he said once, " and I will show you a man who is morbid, cynical, unresponsive to every fine impulse of nature. Such a man is worse than a pessimist, and more to be pitied. Take some of the greatest and most successful men in the world. Humor has always played an important part in their lives. Often a funny incident has marked the turning-point of a great man's career; often some ridiculous position has been the impetus of a new start in life. Humor is as necessary to the home as is the cooking stove. I mean good, healthy humor. It eases the mind and it becomes an educator ; it fills and makes pleasant many a long night ; it gives encouragement to the wanderer ; it relieves the tired mother of the burden of her cares ; it encourages men and women to look on the bright side of life, and the bright side is the only side which should be exposed to view. Literature is the best vehicle of humor. In literature it lives the longest, and in literature it can be studied and appreciated to the best advantage. Someone has said that literature robs humor of its spontaneity ! A mistake ! A great mistake l A good, solid humorous book, or passage in a book, can be appreciated a hundred times over. The mind retains fun longer than it retains cold facts. You will hear a man repeat some-thing funny that he read, years after, when he couldn't, for his life, tell you the rudiments of the mathematical problems which he spent years in trying to master. A good man looks upon a good book as a friend. He goes to it for consolation whenever he feels blue and sullen, whenever nostalgia claims him as her own. How quickly do the careworn, the tired, the strugglers, the successful ones as well, find rest in the realms of humor ! "
In the course of his busy life — to give some facts not to be found in the Yonkers eulogy— Mr. Bangs has been vestryman of a church, a purchaser of books for a public library, a journalist, and a director of a private school. At present he is giving brilliant service as editor of Harper's Weekly. Meantime, his pen, or his typewriter, is not idle at home, as the publication a few months ago of " The Idiot at Home" attests.