Deadpan humor

I think deadpan humor is a terrific tool in the hands of a scholarly writer, a way to most pleasantly jolt a reader back into attentiveness. Neil Postman is a master of this, especially because he never telegraphs his jokes in any way, and manages to phrase them so that you’re not completely sure that he is joking.

Right now I’m reading a delightful book by Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life, which I will surely have much to say about in future posts. It is a social history, specifically a history of how attitudes in England developed from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries over the matter of what constitutes a good life. It’s rare that a historian spends much time discussing how people actually thought during a given period, and Thomas is very good at it.

But what I’m especially enjoying right now are the little barbs he injects every so often, just to keep things lively. I don’t own the book so I can’t mark them as they go by, but here are two of the most recent ones I noticed, both from a chapter about attitudes towards work as a possible source of fulfillment.

From Christianity came the doctrine that labour was an unpleasant and unavoidable form of expiation for Adam’s sin. With the Fall of Man, the earth had been cursed and no longer yielded its produce willingly. It was only by the sweat of their brows that Adam and his posterity could hope to eat bread; though, as early modern commentators hastily explained, in the case of magistrates, ministers, ‘men of high degree’, or those ‘of noble family and extraction’, ‘sweat of the brow’ was not to be taken too literally.


Here’s the other, from about three pages further on.

In the early modern period, craftsmen and laborers worked much longer hours than is usual today—seldom fewer than ten a day and frequently more. But they probably worked at a slower pace. In 1696 an observer said of the gangs mending the highway that they ‘work when they list, come and go at their pleasure, and spend most of their time in standing still and prating, and looking after their fellows, whom they send out from their work, most shamefully, to stop passengers for a largess’. Then as now, it was a popular pastime to watch other people not working.


3 thoughts on “Deadpan humor

  1. Yes, despite the controversy of much of what he has written, Thomas belongs to a generation of historians who still felt that entertainment was an important aspect of edification. This book has been much awaited among professionals.

  2. That kind of humor is why I love Dorothy Sayers so much. She never lets you know she is joking and sometimes you get the feeling she is laughing at you while you read.

    As to the quotes, I know this may seem like a contradiction to you because of my discussion of leisure, but one of the reasons we are in our current church is that the pastor showed up at a work day and ….didn’t make coffee and jokes…he worked.

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