Zinsser on Friday

Rescued by Humor

By William Zinsser | May 21, 2010


More thoughts on less seriousness. . .

Humor is not a sweetener to be added when a sad story needs a few laughs. It’s a special angle of vision, given to some people and not to others, integral to their personality, and for memoir writers it’s a lifesaver.

In the second sentence of his best-selling memoir Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourt wonders how he survived his boyhood in the slums of Limerick. I think I know: he was saved by humor. I’ve never heard of a childhood more squalid than McCourt’s, yet his book is repeatedly funny. A special angle of vision enabled him to see beyond the poverty to the black comedy of a social structure gone so disastrously wrong, and when he wrote his memoir, half a century later, that vision was still intact, enabling him to recall his early years with love and forgiveness. Without humor he couldn’t have survived his childhood, and without humor he couldn’t have written his book.

One of my favorite memoirs is V. S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door, which takes its title from the carriage that always seemed to be waiting outside to whisk the family to new lodgings, just ahead of his father’s creditors. Sent away from home in his teens and apprenticed to the London leather trade, Pritchett had a 19th-century boyhood, Dickensian in its hardship. Yet he recalls those years with a certain merriment and even with gratitude. No whining.

Whining crept into the American memoir in the mid-1990s. Until then the world of letters adhered to an agreed-upon code of civility, drawing a veil over emotions and events too private or shameful to reveal. Then talk shows were born and shame went out to the window. Memoirists sprouted from the American soil like dandelions. Using memoir as therapy, they bashed their parents and brothers and sisters and relatives and teachers and coaches and everyone else who ever misunderstood them–a new class of self-appointed victims. Today nobody remembers those books; readers won’t put up with whining. But V. S. Pritchett survived his boyhood to become one of the master writers of the 20th century, his stories and essays a reservoir of wisdom and compassion.

For me, an enlisted man in World War II, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is the book that most closely captures the everyday lunacy of military life, just as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is the movie that most closely captures the insanity of the nuclear arms race. Like Heller’s Captain Yossarian, maniacally trapped by official decisions that began in logic and imperceptibly crossed over into the absurd, I often asked myself, as has every soldier going back to Hadrian’s legions building a wall across northern England, “How did I end up doing this?”

One day, at my army base in Algeria, our unit commander, Colonel Monro McCloskey, never a stickler for the separation of military and personal business, ordered some of us GIs to build him a rock garden outside his tent. How funny is that.

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