Reading Eagle/June 23, 1946
I must commend “Short Takes,” a volume recently published by Whittlesley House, as a sort of textbook for all young column writers. The author is Damon Runyon, and the volume is a collection of columns written by him for newspaper publication in the course of upwards of 30 years.
I do not commend the book for its literary qualities. It contains enough gummed-up syntax to patch hell a mile. But as s study of the art of carrying water on both shoulders, of sophistry, or writing with tongue-in-cheek and of intellectual dishonesty, I think it has no superior since the beginning of time.
If I had edited the collection, I would have omitted much of this and would have included only the columns written by Damon Runyon in the spirit of humor. They are not all really humorous, but that is their spirit. Not one in ten attempts at humor by any writer actually comes out that way, lacking the essence of humor, which is spontaneity, but if the spirit is there, it helps.
Damon Runyon is not a humorist per se. He is more of a dramatic writer, but in a simulation of humor he often manages to say things which, if said in a serious tone, might be erased because he is not supposed to say things like that. By saying something with a half-boob air, by conveying an air of jocularity, he gets ideas out of his system on the wrongs of this world which indicate that he must have been a great rebel at heart but lacking moral courage.
Ideas must be stated seriously to get anywhere and, when stated jocosely, or with a smile, it shows one’s wish to eat one’s cake and have it, too—to entertain the ideas and not get in trouble about them. You cannot impress readers when you remark lightly, and as if it were of no consequence, that a world in which millions are starving and millions of others have too much to eat, is all dead wrong.
You cannot impress them when you say with a grin that a nation in which some men are paid $1,000,000 per year and other men are not paid enough to live on is all cockeyed.
The late Bill Rogers and the late Finley Peter Dunne in his “Mr. Dooley” said many a great and bitter truth in the guise of humor, and all of it put together had no such effect on humanity as a few sentences in serious vein uttered by her philosophers.
The newspapers of today are full performances of highwire walkers like the Runyon of “Short Takes.” He did not originate it, he revived a fashion of long ago of newspaper essays in a light vein, now pursued by scores of writers, though it seems to this viewer that he might better have seen set to doing writing of a type that did not compel him to resort to the subterfuge of airiness in baring the soul of a natural born revolutionist.
It is clear to this reviewer that here is a writer who may have subordinated some of his rather small talent to mere dross. Indeed, he has said in so many words that he is a hired Hessian of the typewriter. This may be the truest thing he has said, bar his prophecy that the veterans of World War II would be kicked around more than the veterans of World War III.
He is a disguised defeatist in that he is always saying with a sort of smirk, as if he is half kidding, that the world will not change as long as we have human greed and man’s inhumanity to man; that dames will continue to double cross the husbands and sweethearts and vice versa; that politicians will continue to rob the public and that the public will remain as dumb as ever; but these are generalities to which no one is apt to object and the saying of which is not calculated to disturb the author’s status quo, if you get what I mean.
The brighter side of “Short Takes” will be found in the little essays on problems that do not deal with the economic or social and these should be of special value to the young columnist, as they display singular adeptness in the borrowing of ideas from Montaigne, Plato, Carlyle, the Lambs, Addison, and many other old and new essayists. All the youngster has to do is to file the volume away until the moss is commencing to collect on the author’s tomb, then take it out and dip in as Runyon dipped.
He has one not easily acquired trick, which is conveying a thought by indirection. He makes it appear that he is not personally responsible for the thought, but there it is. This has something of the form and something of the effect of dropping rumors on someone where it will do the most harm. I tell you Runyon has subtlety, but it is the considered opinion of this reviewer that it is a great pity the guy did not remain a rebel out-and-out, even at the cost of a good position at the feed trough.
The works of Damon Runyon and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.