Serious and respectable writers do not write simply to amuse readers; in fact, to read the more serious writers (yeah, Henry James, I’m lookin’ at you), a person might suspect amuse was missing from their thesauri. (Right, thesauruses is a perfectly acceptable and adequate plural for thesaurus, but thesauri just looks more… dare I say, serious? No, I daren’t. Actually, thesauri looks funny, which is why I chose it.)
I do like that word, amuse. Always thought it originated either in muse or in music. Quick check with the dictionary. Amuse traces back to Old French muser, about the time of Columbus. (I know CC was not French; I’m simply trying to give you an historical framework for all this useless data.) Muser meant — and still may mean — “to stare stupidly.” So okay. Staring stupidly might amuse people. If not the starer, then the staree.
As I was saying, serious writers tend not to be amusing, which may explain the popularity of the other kind. Twain and Vonnegut, as noted below. Also as noted below, George Ade, whose fables hide a deal of seriousness inside a bunch of amusement.
Where this is all going: years ago I was host of an all-day Listener Request program on public radio. People called in, talked with me about music for a few seconds or a few minutes and told me what they’d like to hear, and I put it on the air. Today, though I don’t think of SOG as a request blog, I’m willing to honor a request now and again, like this one, for “The Fable of The Wise Piker Who Had the Kind of Talk That Went.”
Once there was a man who wore a Six Hat and had a Head shaped like an Egg Plant. He had not found time to sit down and absorb Culture. Yet he had to go out and meet the high Mansard Foreheads. Sometimes he found himself in the Front Room where every one was expected to discuss Literature, Art, Music and the Difficulty of getting good Kitchen Help.
This Man was a Pin-Head in a good many Respects, but he was Wise as a Serpent.
This Man was what Edmund Clarence Stedman would call a Piker. A Piker is one who gets into the Game on Small Capital and Lets On to be holding back a huge Reserve. A Piker is usually Safe when he sagatiates among the Well-Bred because they are too Polite to call a Bluff.
A Piker always has his entire Stock of Goods in the Show Window.
When it came to Music, the Piker did not know the difference between a Fugue and a Cantata. Such knowledge of Literature as he could boast was picked up by reading the Posters in front of Book-Stores. The average Katy-Did had about as much Art Education as he could have Spread had it come to a Show-Down. He had as much Business in an Assemblage of cultivated Chautauquans as a man with a ragged $2.00 Bill would have in Wall Street. Yet he managed to cut Figure Eights over the Thin Ice and he had the name of being one of the Brainiest Gentlemen that ever accepted an Invitation to the Evening Session of the Olympian Circle of Hens.
The Piker knew the Value of the Stock Phrase. And the way he could raise a Dust and dodge out of a Tight Place was a little Bit of All Right.
One evening the Piker went to call on Mrs. Hester Kazam, author of many unpublished Poems, and the boss Diana of the Tuft-Hunters. At the Kazam Home, which is rigged up with Red Blankets and Green Lamps so as to be Oriental, he bumped into Henrietta Hunter Haw, who will be remembered as the Young Lady who poured at the Afternoon Reception to F. Hopkinson Smith.
Miss Haw reclined at half length in the Turkish Corner and asked the Piker what he thought of Sienkiewicz. The Piker knew that he had heard that name sprung somewhere before, but if he had tried to Pronounce it, he would have gone to the Floor. He didn’t know whether Sienkiewicz was the author of “Lovers Once but Strangers Now” or “The Gentleman from Arkansaw.” However, he was not to be Fazed. He knew the kind of Conversational Parsley that is needed to Garnish a full-blown Intellectual Vacuum, and he passed some of it to Henrietta.
He said he liked Sienk, so far as the Psychological Analysis was concerned, but it sometimes occurred to him that there was a lack of Insight and Broad Artistic Grasp.
That is the Style of Vapor calculated to keep a Young Woman anchored right in the Turkish Corner and make her believe she has met the Really and Truly Gazip.
The Piker unreeled a little more of the same kind. He said that the Elaboration of Incident showed a certain Modicum of Skill, but there was not enough Plus-Human Sympathy in the Coloring of the Subtle Motives. When the Piker got rid of this he was always Relieved, for it is an Awful Thing to Memorize and carry around with you.
Afterward Miss Haw went out and told her Girl Friends that the Piker was Terribly Deep.
When they brought up Music, that was where the Piker lived. He could get in early and stay late and never Trip himself up. He had attended a couple of Concerts and at one time boarded with a Lady who played the Autoharp.
One Evening when he was out with a few People who were such Thorough Musicians that they seemed Sour about something all the time, a Tall Man with a Low Collar asked him if he had heard that latest Thing by Tschaikowsky.
If he had made it Charles K. Harris, the Piker might have been with him. But he never turned a Hair.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” he said, having learned how to Spar for Wind, without leaving an Opening.
“Yes, but it didn’t get into me the way Vogner does,” replied the Tall Party.
This was the Cue for the Piker to insert his Speech on Vogner.
He said he preferred Vogner any day in the Week on account of the distinct Appeal to the Intellectual Side and the Atmosphere of Mysticism, whatever that was. He said he couldn’t listen to Vogner without going into a Cold Sweat and Chewing the Buttons off his Gloves, particularly if the Interpretation was made with a Broad and Comprehensive Virtuosity and such Mastery of Technique as to abolish all suggestion of the Intermediary and bring one into direct Communion with the Soul-Moods.
Then the Tall Man would know just as much about it as the Piker did.
Among the Acquaintances was a Lady named Wigley, who was Crazy about Art. In her Parlor she had one of her own Works entitled “Sunset on the Little Miami River,” with a Frame that cost $26.00. It was Miss Wigley who read the Paper before the Raphael Suburbanites, setting forth that the Highest Effects could not be obtained by the Use of Crayon. She loved to hear the Piker cut loose about Art. Even when he got in over his Head, she was right there swimming along after him and never missing a Stroke.
Mrs. Wigley was stuck on his Conversation because he said so many things that could be Thought About later on. Nearly every one who heard him went Home and Thought about what he had said and Wondered what he had been Driving at.
Mrs. Wigley had a Theory that an Artist who is any Good at all should be able to suggest through the Medium of Colors all that he or she felt and suffered during the Throes of Execution. So she called in the Piker to size up her Picture of the Little Miami River at Sundown and asked him what Emotion, if any, was stirred up within him as he gazed at the Effort. The Piker said it gave him a touch of Sadness. Then she knew he was a real Critic all right.
The Piker kept it up until after a while he began to think that possibly he was something of a Sassy Savant.
He was elected Director of a Museum and was invited to sit on the Platform at Lectures. And at last he departed this Life, with only a few Relatives and Intimate Friends being on to him.
MORAL: For Parlor Use the Vague Generality is a Life-Saver.