THE OXFORD BOOK OF HUMOROUS PROSE: FROM WILLIAM CAXTON TO P.G. WODEHOUSE, A CONDUCTED TOUR, by Frank Muir, New York: Oxford University Press, 1,162 pp., $35 THE Oxford University Press has done plenty in the past to anthologize humorous, comic, and light verse; but not, until now, ``humorous prose.''
By inviting a professional humorous writer to compile this book - and one of Frank Muir's rich humor, tolerance, and affections - rather than a stilted academic or some coolly dispassionate editor who sees no need to either justify or elaborate on his choices, the Press has happily broken some traditions.
Muir presents his historical survey as ``a conducted tour'' - and his contextual introductions to the vast array of authors, classic and forgotten, major and minor, are not in the least one of the lesser delights of the book. He speaks warmly about writers our century no longer finds funny; he loves a literary anecdote, a bit of informative gossip. His introduction to the whole book is a fascinating discussion of humor as a distinct category of literature.
In the end, humor is allowed to be completely personal, something that may result in uncontrollable gusts of laughter, or a mere smile, but is somewhat unpredictable and actually inexplicable. It is a way of balancing the unbalancable. Of bringing a sense of proportion to the disproportionate - or vice versa.
Only in two instances does Muir include unintentional humour - ``The Young Visitors'' by nine-year-old Daisy Ashford (an innocent piece of fiction that her own adult self later found hilarious), and a piece from a ``novel'' by Amanda McKittrick Ros who had ``an Olympian lack of humor'' but elicited a fair degree of sophisticated ridicule by believing she was a serious author.
In this case one tends to wince rather than laugh: Her novel is all too accurate a demonstration of Samuel Johnson's humorous definition of that literary genre as ``a small tale, generally of love.''
Muir raids the great man's dictionary for a number of quotes as amusing as this one. But what Mark Twain (also here in strength, naturally) called ``Hogwash Literature'' is rightly kept to a minimum. Most of what Muir has chosen knows it is humor, but doesn't insist too vehemently on the fact.
To this point was something P.G. Wodehouse wrote to Muir about the early plans for his book: ``I think,'' he said, ``I can recognize humor when I see it but that's as far as I am prepared to go.'' Muir, inevitably, has had to go much further - an anthology with a definitive title demands justification for every item in it. Some, however, with engaging mischievousness, Muir included simply on the grounds: ``I like it.'' And why not?
If this book points in a general way to some sort of notion of humor's difference from anything else in the universe, perhaps it's something like this (though perhaps not): Most humor, dare one say it, seems to elicit genial rather than bitter feelings, a sense of tolerance rather than cynicism. And humor is able to reduce what might cause offense to the oversensitive to simple giggling funnyness - a very useful social device.
Muir quotes ``The Times Literary Supplement's'' comment on the (very!) minor American classic ``The Specialist'' (1930) by Chick Sale: ``... we cannot recommend this book to fastidious people'' observes the writer. But then adds: ``For our part we find it too genial to be offensive.''
It's a comment that might be applied with some frequency to Frank Muir's anthology. It's often the treatment of a subject, not the subject itself, that matters. Humor, after all (seriously), is an alternative way of viewing the world, even when we can't stand it. Could be the better way.