IN pursuing humor over a wide area, as in the nation, certain pitfalls lurk for the unwary. An antiquarian interest is likely to develop. An old piece of humor is discovered, and one turns it over like a worn carving or figurine, with mounting pride if one can name it as pre-Jacksonian, early Maine, late Arkansas, or perhaps not American at all but of doubtful origin, say neo-French. But other interests may transcend this beguiling pedantry, for humor is one of those conceits which give form and flavor to an entire character. In the nation, as comedy moves from a passing effervescence into the broad stream of a common possession, its bearings become singularly wide. There is scarcely an aspect of the American character to which humor is not related, few which in some sense it has not governed. It has moved into literature, not merely as an occasional touch, but as a force determining large patterns and intentions. It is a lawless element, full of surprises. It sustains its own appeal, yet its vigorous power invites absorption in that character of which it is a part.
Of late the American character has received marked and not altogether flattering attention from American critics. "It's a wretched business, this virtual quarrel of ours with our own country," said Rowland Mallett in Roderick Hudson. The quarrel seemed to begin in that period within which James laid his story, soon after the Civil War; traces of it may be seen even earlier. It has deepened; it has occa- sionally grown ponderous; it has often been bracing; at times it has narrowed to a methodical hilarity. Since the prevailing note has been candid, candor may be offered in turn. This book has no quarrel with the American char- acter; one might as well dispute with some established fea- ture in the natural landscape. Nor can it be called a defense. Some one has said that a book should be written as a debt is gratefully paid. This study has grown from an enjoyment of American vagaries, and from the belief that these have woven together a tradition which is various, subtle, sinewy, scant at times but not poor.