Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor (1993) collects plenty of funny writing that will make you smile…and laugh out loud. Russell Baker wanted to give a historical flavor to this book so you’ll see pieces by Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Abraham Lincoln. Robert Benchley is well represented as is H. L. Mencken. The usual suspects are here: O. Henry, Damon Runyon, James Thurber, and Ring Lardner. But Russell Baker includes some unusual choices like Chester Himes and Mae West.

Cast your eyes on the Table of Contents and you’ll see some familiar pieces, but there’s plenty of humorous writing that I was unfamiliar with in this 598 page tome. Copies are available on-line at affordable prices. Do you have a favorite humor writer? Are they included in this anthology? GRADE: A
Introduction p. 15
SECTION ONE: Comical-Tragical Tales 15
“Clothes Make the Man” — Nunnally Johnson p. 29
“Jack Schmidt, Arts Administrator” — Garrison Keillor p. 41
“Ex Parte” — Ring Lardner p. 48
“Confessions of a Humorist” — O. Henry p. 57
“The Mourner” — Bruce Jay Friedman p. 64
“The Death of Julius Caesar”– Leo Rosten p. 70
“Broadway Complex” — Damon Runyon p. 78
SECTION TWO: Shameless Frivolity 89
“Contributors to This Issue” — Robert Benchley p. 93
“Hymn to Ham” — Roy Blount, Jr. p. 94
“Song to Bacon” — Roy Blount, Jr. p. 96
“Song to Grease” –Roy Blount, Jr. p. 97
“A Look at Organized Crime”– Woody Allen p. 98
“There Ain’t No Justice” — Chester Himes p. 101
“Wally Ballou Visits Sturdley House” — Bob & Ray p. 103
“Exam Time” — Robert Benchley p. 108
“Reader’s Digest Threatened . . .” — Bill Vaughan p. 110
“Captain Blood” — Donald Barthelme p. 111
“The Retort Transcendental” — E. B. White p. 115
“More Songs for Meller” — Robert Benchley p. 117
“A Strange Story” — O. Henry p. 119
“The Prisoner of Zembla” –O. Henry p. 120
The Horace Greeley Story — Mark Twain p. 122
“Maxims from the Chinese” — Robert Benchley p. 125
SECTION THREE: The Human Muddle 127
Briefly Speaking — Finley Peter Dunne p. 131
“Tain’t So” — Langston Hughes p. 131
“The Busy-Body, No. 4” — Benjamin Franklin p. 135
“The Drinker’s Dictionary” — Benjamin Franklin p. 138
“Add Hot Water; Serves Fourteen Million” — Thomas Meehan p. 143
“A Comedy in Rubber” — O. Henry p. 148
“How to Tell a Fine Old Wine” — James Thurber p. 152
“Fake French in Nine (Neuf) Easy Lessons”– P. J. O’Rourke p. 155
Briefly Speaking — Finley Peter Dunne p. 158
“Bye-Bye, Silver Bullets” — Russell Baker p. 158
Duke and Douphin Excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain p. 161
Emmeline Excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain p. 166
Briefly Speaking — Finley Peter Dunne p. 170
SECTION FOUR: This Sex Problem 171
A Perplexing Question — Fannie Flagg p. 175
Briefly Speaking — Mae West p. 177
“Fate Keeps On Happening” — Anita Loos p. 177
“How Much Should a Woman Eat?” — H. L. Mencken p. 185
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” — James Thurber p. 187
“What Did We Do Wrong?” –Garrison Keillor p. 191
Three Letters — Abraham Lincoln p. 198
“Old Mistresses Apologue” — Benjamin Franklin p. 203
“Somewhere a Roscoe . . .” — S. J. Perelman p. 204
SECTION FIVE: Parody, Burlesque, Criticism, and Pain 209
“What He Told Me” — Frank Gannon p. 213
“Pornocopia” — Michael O’Donoghue p. 216
“Cloudland Revisited: Roll On, Thou Deep and Dark Scenario, Roll” — S. J. Perelman p. 222
“A Talkative Jerk” — A. J. Liebling p. 227
“The Correspondent-School Linguist” — Robert Benchley p. 233
“How Love Came to General Grant” — Donald Ogden Stewart p. 234
“My Cat Book Won’t Come” — Roy Blunt, Jr. p. 242
“Sitting on a Seesaw” — Roy Blunt, Jr. p. 245
“Muck-a-Muck” — Bret Harte p. 249
“A Book Review” — Finley Peter Dunne p. 254
“The Making of Theodore H. White” — Nora Ephron p. 257
“From There to Infinity” — Peter DeVries p. 261
Briefly Speaking — Kin Hubbard p. 265
SECTION SIX: Family Life 267
“Society Wedding: A Swinging Social Soiree” — William Geist p. 271
“To Irving Hoffman” — Groucho Marx p. 274
Briefly Speaking — Finley Peter Dunne p. 275
Excerpt from Vital Parts — Thomas Berger p. 276
“How to Eat an Ice-Cream Cone” — L. Rust Hills p. 290
“A Hard Case” — Artemus Ward p. 295
“Stop Ironing the Diapers” — Barbara Ehrenreich p. 296
Four Dialogues — Erma Bombeck p. 299
“Ode to Thanksgiving”– Michael Arlen p. 304
Excerpt from Portnoy’s Complaint — Philip Roth p. 307
“To Harry Kurnitz” — Groucho Marx p. 310
SECTION SEVEN: Geographical Sneers 311
Briefly Speaking — Fred Allen p. 315
“The Hazards of Journalism…” — Billy Vaughan p. 315
“Can New York Save Itself?” — Dave Barry p. 317
“The Foolish Woman” — Ambrose Bierce p. 326
“A Nation of Shopkeepers Loses Three of Them through Contact with a Nation of Violence” — Calvin Trillin p. 327
“The Capital of a Great Republic” — H. L. Mecken p. 333
“Third World Driving Hints and Tips” — P. J. O’Rourke p. 334
Briefly Speaking — Fred Allen p. 338
“Texas Observed” — Molly Ivins p. 338
SECTION EIGHT: Politics and Patriots 343
“Man and Lightning” — Ambrose Bierce p. 347
Lieutenant Scheisskopf — Joseph Heller p. 347
“How Old Abe Received the News of His Nomination”– Artemus Ward p. 358
“A Romance – William Barker, the Young Patriot” –Artemus Ward p. 359
“The Draft in Baldinsville” — Artemus Ward p. 360
“Nasby Shows Why He Should Not Be Drafted” — David Ross Locke p. 363
“Nasby Writes His Flock from a Union Jail” — David Ross Locke p. 364
Cables from the White House — Abraham Lincoln p. 366
“Two Letters, Both Open” — E. B. White p. 368
“Woman Suffrage” — Finley Peter Dunne p. 372
“Salmagundi No. XI” — Washington Irving p. 374
“Coolidge” — H. L. Mencken p. 379
“Call This a Govment!” Excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain p. 382
“Backwacking: A Plea to the Senator” — Ralph Ellison p. 384
“The Great Starch Debate” –Roger Angell p. 389
Briefly Speaking — Finley Peter Dunne p. 394
“The Years with Navasky” — Calvin Trillin p. 399
“The XI P.M. Report” — Russell Baker p. 403
“Journalese, or Why English Is the Second Language of the Fourth Estate” — John Leo p. 405
“The Lowell-Hawthorne Incident” — Eugene Field p. 414
“Informed Opinion, the Lifeblood of Our Way of Life — Bill Vaughan p. 416
“Partners” — Veronica Geng p. 418
“Press Relations” — Art Buchwald p. 420
“A Matter of Style” — Larry L. King p. 425
“The Cape Codder” — Fred Allen p. 429
“Drill for a Rookie” — H. L. Mencken p. 431
SECTION TEN: Fable, Lore, and Fantasy 439
“The Patient Toiler Who Got It in the Usual Place” — George Ade p. 443
“The Fable of How the Fool-Killer Backed Out of a Contract” — George Ade p. 444
“The Fable of the Slim Girl Who Tried to Keep a Date That Was Never Made” — George Ade p. 445
“The Fable of the Copper and the Jovial Undergrads” — George Ade p. 446
“The Two Turkeys” — James Thurber p. 448
“The Tiger Who Understood People” — James Thurber p. 449
“The Lion Who Wanted to Zoom” — James Thurber p. 450
“The Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing” — James Thurber p. 451
“The Tortoise and the Hare” — James Thurber p. 452
Talking Mule Story — Zora Heale Hurston p. 453
Competition for a Girl –Zora Heale Hurston p. 454
Woman’s Strength Story –Zora Heale Hurston p. 455
Squinch Owl Story — Zora Heale Hurston p. 458
“the coming of archy” — Don Marquis p. 459
“mehitabel was once Cleopatra” — Don Marquis p. 461
“mehitabel and her kittens” –Don Marquis p. 462
“mehitabel dances with boreas” — Don Marquis p. 466
“How to Tell a True Princess” — Ring Lardner p. 470
“A Bedtime Story” — Ring Lardner p. 471
God Visits Hell — Stanley Elkin p. 474
Ten Primer Lessons — Eugene Field p. 477
“The Angel of the Odd” — Edgar Allan Poe p. 483
SECTION ELEVEN: Looking Back 491
“Uncle Dockery and the Independent Bull” –Joseph Mitchell p. 495
“Reunion in Gehenna” — S. J. Perelman p. 500
Uncle Harold — Russell Baker p. 505
“My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award” — Jean Shepard p. 511
“The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down” — Frank Sullivan p. 523
“Father and His Pet Rug” –Clarence Day p. 527
“The Night the Ghost Got In” — James Thurber p. 531
SECTION TWELVE: A Gnashing of Humorists 537
“Sauce for the Gander” — S. J. Perlman p. 541
Letter to John J. McCarthy — Fred Allen p. 545
“The Fundamentals of Contemporary Courtesy” — P. J. O’Rourke p. 546
Excerpts from The Devil’s Dictionary — Ambrose Bierce p. 552
“Fear of Flying Isn’t Groundless” — Mike Royko p. 554
“Manners” — Fran Lebowitz p. 556
“The Joggers’ Prayer” — Tom Wolfe p. 559
“The Waiting Game” — Arthur Hoppe p. 560
“Political Economy” — Mark Twain p. 561
“My Watch” —Mark Twain p. 566
“A Little Flight Music” — William K. Zinsser p. 568
“Uncle Edith’s Ghost Story” — Robert Benchley p. 571
Notes on the Contributors p. 575
Copyright Acknowledgments p. 587
Index p. 595


  1. Cap'n Bob Napier

    Why shouldn’t Mae West be included? She wrote a lot of funny lines!

    Mt favorite humorist is George Kelley! Cracks me up every time! Come to think of it, he has the same name as you!

    1. george Post author

      Bob, you’re thinking of George Kelly, best known for his satiric comedies, including The Torch-Bearers (1922) and The Show-Off (1924).

  2. Jeff Meyerson

    Dave Barry (obviously), Bill Geist, Groucho Marx, Nora Ephron, Jean Shepherd (Jean Shepard is a country singer), all jump out. Some of the others are surprising to see on a “humorist” list but still good. I never heard of this one but will check it out.

    1. george Post author

      Jeff, I’ve had RUSSELL BAKER’S BOOK OF AMERICAN HUMOR on my shelf for decades. In 2020, I finally decided to read it. Well worth it and lots of fun between these covers!

  3. Steve Oerkfitz

    Humor is an acquired taste. A lot of good stuff here though. Glad to see Thomas Berger and Peter Devries(who wrote a lot of bestsellers but is largely forgotten now). Can’t say I ever found Garrison Keillor or Erma Bombeck funny.

  4. Michael Padgett

    I used to be a big de Vries fan and read most, maybe all, of his novels many years ago. My memory isn’t good enough to reliably pick favorites, but one that stands out is “Reuben, Reuben”. Oddly enough, his most highly regarded novel is the tragic “Blood of the Lamb”.

    1. george Post author

      Michael, I have a copy of REUBEN, REUBEN around here somewhere. I’ll have to dig it out and read it for an FFB. I will, of course, give you credit for recommending it.

      1. Michael Padgett

        Steve, I THINK it was “Madder Music”, but I’m far from sure. I started reading De Vries in the late 60s and pretty much kept up with them as they were published, which means the latest I read any of them would have been the early 80s when the last few appeared. So my memory of the individual books is very hazy and I hope I’m not leading George astray on “Reuben, Reuben”, but something just stands out about that one.

      2. george Post author

        Michael, fortunately I have all my De Vires books on the shelves instead of in boxes (where a lot of my books reside, sadly). Space is a problem here.

  5. Art Scott

    Mencken, Perelman, Thurber & Shepherd occupy several shelves on my bookcases, and I revisit them often. Nice to see Bob & Ray get a nod, though they were radio performers, and their bits miss a lot when merely read on the page (also, much of their best material was written by Tom Koch).

    1. george Post author

      Art, Russell Baker mentions the many stand-up comics missing from this volume. But, as you (and Baker) point out, the comedy diminishes on a page without the body language and performance.

    2. Art Scott

      For the above-named, off the top of my head, I’d name as favorites: Mencken, “Chiropractic” (HLM used humor as a rapier, to wound, not to tickle ribs); Perelman, “Captain Future, Block That Kick” (a tie with”Roscoe”); Thurber, “The Night The Bed Fell”; and Shep, “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories”. For B&R, where to begin?


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