P.G. Wodehouse, Great American Humorist?

PG Wodehouse cover

Should P.G. Wodehouse be considered an American humorist as well as a master of British farce? Based on his voluminous fiction, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE (1881-1975), known as “Plum” to his friends, certainly comes across as the quintessential Englishman. And it was precisely his farcical take on England that gave him such a fanatical readership in the U.S., a country that continues to eat up his felicitously written, masterfully-plotted, humorous tales of idiotic toffs, sagacious butlers, eccentric Earls, assorted bounders, ditzy golfers, ferocious aunts, sordid blisters, and a prized pig known as the Empress of Blandings, among many other characters, including Old Boys with Old School nicknames like Stinker, Pongo, Beefy, Mugsy, Bimbo, and Barmy.

But, as Deepika Karle reminds us, Wodehouse spent much of his adult life in the U.S. As a pre-World War II transatlantic creative, he worked in Hollywood and on Broadway. And after World War II—things had gotten pretty hot for him in Britain because of the radio broadcasts he made for the Nazis as a captive in 1941—he lived in the U.S. until his death. He became an American citizen in 1955.

The key to P.G. Wodehouse’s continuing appeal, says one scholar, is that he made of America what he made of England.

Wodehouse’s fiction is peppered with references to America and American slang, like “zippiness, hotsy-totsy, ritzy, dude, lame-brain, syncopated, zing, and hooched.” Several of his works take place in New York or Los Angeles, with various nods to the wide-open spaces in between. According to Karle, he was fascinated by “the enterprise and the wealth, the power and the glory of the New World, the relative paucity of history and a sense of the past, and the bustling cities inhabited by millionaires and smooth-talking gangsters.” He “unabashedly capitalizes on the reputation America had for being somewhat prone to violence and crime” and makes most of his American characters millionaires, “the creatures of most value to the impecunious English gentry.”

Key to P.G. Wodehouse’s continuing appeal, says Karle, is that he made of America what he made of England: “too rarefied a world to admit creatures too real.” Edward L. Galligan seconds this, nailing down the formula Wodehouse worked from the Teens to the Sixties: “That form is essentially the American musical comedy of the first quarter of [the 20th] century adapted for fiction. It must be light—or, to use the word favored by reviewers, frothy—devoid of any content that anyone of a mental age beyond eight might be tempted to label serious. ”

“Quite possibly” Galligan concludes, “Wodehouse saved the world from something monstrous when he devoted his own high intelligence to the making of “frothy” farces.” Or, put another way, in the master’s own words:

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?'”

“The mood will pass, sir.”

JSTOR Citations

A Reader's Guide to P. G. Wodehouse's America

By: Deepika Karle

Studies in American Humor, New Series 2, Vol. 7 (1989), pp. 32-44

American Humor Studies Association

P. G. Wodehouse Master of Farce

By: Edward L. Galligan

The Sewanee Review, Vol. 93, No. 4 (Fall, 1985), pp. 609-617

The Johns Hopkins University Press

Matthew Wills

Matthew Wills has advanced degrees in library science and film studies and is lapsed in both fields. He has published in Poetry, Huffington Post, and Nature Conservancy Magazine, among other places, and blogs regularly about urban natural history at matthewwills.com.

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