I can’t be the first amateur historian / comedy writer to get interested in this question.
Lincoln, as errbody knows, was watching Our American Cousin, pretty much a sitcom, at the time of his death.
The plot of Our American Cousin is a coarse but honest American goes to the UK to claim an inheritance and gets involved in the various shenanigans of his snooty distant relatives who are trying to keep up appearances and marry off daughters and so on.
Seems like a pretty good premise.
Our American Cousin was written by Tom Taylor.
He had a career as a lawyer and bureaucrat and magazine editor.
Our American Cousin doesn’t seem to have been his biggest hit, that might’ve been:
which isn’t a comedy. They made that one into a movie a few times, most recently in 1937.
Our American Cousin premiered in New York in 1858 and was a hit.
Stealing the show was Edward Askew Sothern as Lord Dundreary:
Askew Sothern almost hadn’t taken the part:
At first, he was reluctant to accept the role; it was so small and unimportant that he felt it beneath him and feared it might damage his reputation. He mentioned his qualms to his friend, Joseph Jefferson, who had been cast in the leading role of Asa Trenchard in the play. Jefferson supposedly responded with the famous line: “There are no small parts, only small actors.”
After a couple of unhappy weeks in the small role, Sothern began portraying the role as a lisping, skipping, eccentric, weak-minded fop prone to nonsensical references to sayings of his “bwother” Sam. His ad-libs were a sensation, earning good notices for his physical comedy and spawning much imitation and merry mockery on both sides of the Atlantic. His exaggerated, droopy side-whiskers became known as “Dundrearys”. Sothern gradually expanded the role, adding gags and business until it became the central figure of the play. The most famous scene involved Dundreary reading a letter from his even sillier brother.
Sounds funny enough. Kind of like this:
I can’t determine if Sothern was in the Ford’s Theater production, or if they got a different Dundreary.
Our American Cousin was produced by and co-starred Laura Keene, who was a theater legend at the time.
Mary Francis Moss married a former British Army officer who committed some crime or another and got transported to Australia on a prison ship. To support herself and her kids she became Laura Keene, a popular actress.
She appeared with Edwin Booth many times, they even toured Australia together.
At this point, she lined up investors, along with an architect who specialized in theaters, and a new theater was constructed to her specifications. Named the Laura Keene’s Theatre, it opened on 18 November 1856. In 1858, Our American Cousin debuted in Laura Keene’s Theater.
A badass, as they say. Some years later they revived the play for a kind of benefit night, and that’s how Lincoln ended up there.
John Wilkes Booth waited for a big laugh line he knew was coming:
Halfway through Act III, Scene 2, the character of Asa Trenchard, played that night by Harry Hawk, utters this line, considered one of the play’s funniest, to Mrs. Mountchessington:
Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.
Harry Hawk in costume:
I found that image through the website for The Persistence of Dreams, this four minute recreation movie of that night at the theater (warning: violence):
Sockdologizing was a made up word, invented in this play. It seems that around this time people found the word “doxology” to be funny. It may have been a play on that.
Anyway, I conclude that yes, the last joke Abe Lincoln heard was pretty funny, even if it may not be exactly hilarious to us these many years later.
From a capsule review in The New Yorker heard about this book:
What a cool way to bring Lincoln to life. Tell the story of six meetings Lincoln had that someone wrote an account of.
The six encounters:
- Lincoln’s first meeting, in the East Room of the White House, with Army officers, including Robert E. Lee
from that we examine Lincoln’s relationship with the military, and with the guy who’d end up being the leading general trying to defeat him.
- An odd event where Lincoln tried to raise an American flag on the South Lawn of the White House, but accidentally ripped it
from that we examine how Lincoln used humor and a sort of self-effacing charm
- Lincoln’s encounter with an abolitionist cavalry sergeant named Lucian Waters
which brings us to discussions of Lincoln’s views on race and slavery
- Lincoln’s meeting with Cherokee chief John Ross
from which we can examine Lincoln’s relationships with Indians, who got pretty hosed under the Lincoln presidency
- Lincoln’s meetings the powerful Anna E. Dickenson
which opens us up to Lincoln’s weird relationships with powerful women
- a bizarre encounter with this bro:
Duff Green, who wanted to talk to Lincoln about a scheme to help Southerners with their land via a federal bank or something.
from there we consider how Lincoln intended to begin the postwar process, if he hadn’t’ve gotten got a few days later.
Pryor uses these encounters to bring to life the odd, magnetic, awkward, charming, conflicted, pained, intense human man Abraham Lincoln, full of conflict and contradiction.
Here is the first sentence of the author’s introduction:
To look again with open eyes at a subject we think we know is never straightfoward.
Pryor does a fantastic job of bringing Lincoln into focus. Some highlights:
Getting the mitten:
Down to the raisins:
A very impressive, dense work of history. Stunned when I opened the book and learned the author had been tragically killed in a car crash before publication:
Seems like an amazing woman.
Her obituary in the NYT by Margalit Fox speaks also of her work on Lee:
Though Lee is often cast by history as a brilliant general, Ms. Pryor, examining the strategic errors that led to his retreat at Antietam in 1862 and sweeping defeat at Gettysburg the next year, judged him “bright but not brilliant.”
Addressing Lee’s stance on slavery, she acknowledged, with other historians, that he harbored deep misgivings on the subject. However, Ms. Pryor wrote, those misgivings stemmed not from his opposition to the institution itself, but from his resentment of the managerial burdens it could place on white slave owners.
As a slaveholder, Ms. Pryor showed, Lee was a cruel master, once forcing a runaway slave to endure 50 lashes and then have brine poured on the wounds. He routinely sundered slaves’ families if selling a slave was expedient, and by 1860 “he had broken up every family but one” on his Arlington plantation, she wrote.
The Lincoln book my friend the presidential biographer, Lincoln scholar and former rock star Ted Widmer recommends is Herdon’s Informants.
Herndon was Lincoln’s law partner, and after he died he wrote to everyone who’d ever met Lincoln pretty much and asked for what they remembered of him.
Following Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon began to collect stories of Lincoln’s life from those who knew him. Herndon aspired to write a faithful portrait of his friend and law partner, based on his own observations and on hundreds of letters and interviews he had compiled for the purpose. He was determined to present Lincoln as a man, rather than a saint, and to reveal things that the prevailing Victorian era conventions said should be left out of the biography of a great national hero.[nb 2]
In particular, Herndon said of Lincoln’s “official” biographers, John Nicolay and John Hay: “They are aiming, first, to do a superb piece of literary work; second, to make the story with the classes as against the masses.” He felt that this would represent the “real Lincoln about as well as does a wax figure in the museum.”
Particularly damning was the denunciation of the book by Robert Todd Lincoln, whose grudge against Herndon stemmed largely from Herndon’s recounting of Ann Rutledge as the only romantic love of his father’s life.
Herndon didn’t care for Mary Todd, I guess:
Even though she was considered a bit of a catch for a guy like Abe.
When you think about the stuff that happened to Mary Todd, it’d be a wonder if she didn’t go insane. Three of her children died, her husband got assassinated sitting next to her. Her half-sister was married to a Confederate general who died at Chickamauga.
He was a commander of the Orphan Brigade:
At the Battle of Stones River, the brigade suffered heavy casualties in an assault on January 2, 1863, including General Hanson. Breckinridge—who vehemently disputed the order to charge with the army’s commander, General Braxton Bragg—rode among the survivors, crying out repeatedly, “My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans,”
The stuff people go through!
When did you begin reading adult fiction?
In 1959 probably, after we had moved back to Maine. I would have been twelve, and I was going to this little one-room schoolhouse just up the street from my house. All the grades were in one room, and there was a shithouse out back, which stank. There was no library in town, but every week the state sent a big green van called the bookmobile. You could get three books from the bookmobile and they didn’t care which ones—you didn’t have to take out kid books. Up until then what I had been reading was Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and things like that. The first books I picked out were these Ed McBain 87th Precinct novels. In the one I read first, the cops go up to question a woman in this tenement apartment and she is standing there in her slip. The cops tell her to put some clothes on, and she grabs her breast through her slip and squeezes it at them and says, “In your eye, cop!” And I went, Shit! Immediately something clicked in my head. I thought, That’s real, that could really happen. That was the end of the Hardy Boys. That was the end of all juvenile fiction for me. It was like, See ya!
(Stephen King over at the Paris Review)
Ray Dalio, billionaire founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds.
That’s a 30 minute video he made about how the economy works, nbd.
A brilliant person with an atypical mind who lays out their worldview in a kind of manifesto can pretty much always get my attention.
Three of his Dalio’s beliefs:
- “algorithmic decision-making is coming at you fast”
- evolution is good
- to achieve success you must face and accept harsh realities
A lot to think about in Ray Dalio’s Principles.
BUT: let’s limit our discussion today to one moment in his TED Talk above. We’re going to talk about a joke and the audience reaction to it.
You’ll have to watch about one minute of the talk. Start at 14:30.
Dalio is describing a complex system where everyone in his company rates each other and is radically transparent with each other. Everyone can rate each other, in different areas. Even a lowly employee can rate Ray, creating charts like this:
At 14:46 he says that because of this, at Bridgewater there is no politics.
Which: Ray Dalio is 100x smarter than me, but I’ll bet ten dollars there are indeed politics at Bridgewater Associates, probably insane, high-order, wildly weird politics.
At 15:13 Ray Dalio makes a joke. This being his TED talk, no doubt a joke he had practiced. Radical transparency, he says, doesn’t apply to everything.
You don’t have to tell somebody their bald spot is growing or their baby’s ugly.
People laugh a little bit. Dalio continues.
I’m talking about the important things.
People laugh a LOT.
Dalio seems even thrown by how much the audience laughs at the second part, not the intended punchline.
The audience laughs because Dalio is missing the point.
Dalio inadvertently reveals he doesn’t know what the important things are to most people.
What are “the important things?” Making sound investment decisions? Tweaking the algorithm properly? Workplace communication?
Whatever, yes, in theory.
But really? No. To most humans whether your bald spot is growing and whether your baby is ugly are the important things. It would hurt way worse to be told either of those than that you’re ineffectively communicating in the meeting. That pain is a measure of importance.
The audience is expressing laughter / disbelief at the fact Dalio assumes workplace discussion is more important than stuff like whether your baby is ugly.
Perhaps Ray Dalio doesn’t get it because he’s trained himself not to feel that kind of sensitivity. That’s one of the points of Principles, to train your mind to get that nonsense out of the way. It’s served him very well as an investor.
But it’s a little robotic, and a little detached, and a little inhuman.
If I worked for Dalio, I suspect I’d rate him low in the category of “empathy / compassion / understanding for what matters to people / sensitivity.”
But then, are those categories even in the algorithm?
Oh btw James Comey used to work for Ray Dalio, and also Dalio recently recommended allocating 5-10% of assets to gold.
looked it up at Online Etymology, my new fave site.
algorithm (n.)1690s, “Arabic system of computation,” from French algorithme, refashioned (under mistaken connection with Greek arithmos “number”) from Old French algorisme “the Arabic numeral system” (13c.), from Medieval Latin algorismus, a mangled transliteration of Arabic al-Khwarizmi “native of Khwarazm” (modern Khiva in Uzbekistan), surname of the mathematician whose works introduced sophisticated mathematics to the West (see algebra). The earlier form in Middle English was algorism (early 13c.), from Old French. Meaning broadened to any method of computation; from mid-20c. especially with reference to computing.
The man from Khwarizmi.
Few details of al-Khwārizmī’s life are known with certainty.
He worked in Baghdad as a scholar at the House of Wisdom established by Caliph al-Ma’mūn, where he studied the sciences and mathematics, which included the translation of Greek and Sanskrit scientific manuscripts.
Found this picture on Thomas Ricks’ blog. USA! USA!
170831-N-KL846-150 VIDOR, Texas (Aug. 31, 2017) Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Jansen Schamp, a native of Denver, Colorado and assigned to the Dragon Whales of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28, rescues two dogs at Pine Forrest Elementary School, a shelter that required evacuation after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey reached its grounds. The mission resulted in the rescue of seven adults, seven children and four dogs. (U.S. Navy Video by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher Lindahl/Released)
Reminded of a claim that Goebbels was forever frustrated the Nazis couldn’t make propaganda as good as what the USA churned out.
Worth signing up or whatever you need to do to read Ricks’ blog.
Here’s a good post about the situation in Afghanistan.
Here’s a good one about “15 assumptions about the behavior of North Korea’s Kim family regime”
And his reliefs and suspensions specials never fail to have one or two that would probably make a compelling movie. At a secret Air Force base in Tunisia, a beloved commander lets his guys drink as much as they want and forms a dangerous relationship with a teenage subordinate.
I made the syllabus!
He once wrote poems in French and then translated them back into English in order to avoid customary word associations. (The poems are called, of course, “French Poems.”)
In an interview with The Times in 1999, Mr. Ashbery recalled that he and some childhood playmates “had a mythical kingdom in the woods.”
“Then my younger brother died just around the beginning of World War II,” he added. “The group dispersed for various reasons, and things were never as happy or romantic as they’d been, and my brother was no longer there.” He continued, “I think I’ve always been trying to get back to this mystical kingdom.”