American humor and fish stories

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PERHAPS one key to President Reagan's popularity has been his sense of humor. At news conferences, formal speeches, and his Saturday morning radio addresses, he has illustrated that disposition for levity that sets well with an American populace. Humor did not come readily to early Presidents. George Washington was conspicuously serious in public, as were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Not until Abraham Lincoln was the White House the scene for humorous stories told by its main occupant.

Yet, an American humor grew in early history, aided and abetted by newspapers and almanacs that attempted to balance the serious problems confronted by the colonists. No American did more to advance levity in early times than Benjamin Franklin, who made humor a sort of best seller after 1732, when the first edition of ``Poor Richard's Almanack'' appeared.

There were serious matters in the Almanack, but the adages that Franklin disseminated in his own inimitable style (``Fish and visitors stink in three days''; ``Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half-shut afterwards'') were the passages that could be long remembered and retold. Franklin made up characters whose up-and-down lives were certain to entertain readers. Perhaps most of all, he contributed the straight-faced story that Americans, including President Reagan, still employ with effect. Franklin's best illustration of this model concerned the cod and whale fisheries in America:

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``Ignorant people may object that the upper lakes are fresh, and that cod and whales are salt-water fish; but let them know, sir, that cod, like other fish, when attacked by their enemies, fly into any water where they can be safest; that whales when they have a mind to eat cod, pursue them wherever they fly; and that the grand leap of the whale in the chase up the Falls of Niagara is esteemed, by all who have seen it, as one of the finest spectacles of nature.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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