1876: Max Adeler
This week I'm thinking about Max Adeler's 1876 "novel without a plot," Elbow-Room. "Max Adeler" was the pen name used by newspaperman and novelist Charles Heber Clark, after the usual manner of nineteenth-century American humorists like Josh Billings, Artemus Ward, and most famously Mark Twain, Adeler's nearest rival and publishing nemesis. Both men accused one another of plagiarizing their work in the 1880s, but where Twain has gone on to everlasting glory as something much greater than a cracker-barrel comedian, Adeler has been consigned to obscurity, read only by period or genre obsessives.
I don't want to say, precisely, that it is a fate he deserves; I haven't read his entire output, some of which was not particularly humorous. But on the strength of Elbow-Room, his second "novel" pieced together from miscellaneous tall stories and small-town anecdotes, he's certainly no Twain, not even comparable to the early, funny Twain. Which isn't to say he's not funny at all: he's a master of the droll, laconic Yankee humor that pervaded nineteenth-century American literature. But that's about all he is: at least on this showing, there's little more to his work than an agreeably overwritten exaggeration of the foibles and eccentricities of people who have a bit more space to spread themselves than those confined and conformed by the pressures of urban density do.
That's the premise of the book, anyway: a fairly typical period diagnosis of the influence of geography on personality, and one which would take a less hilarious and more psychological turn in early modernist works like Spoon River Anthology or Winesburg, Ohio. Adeler essentially describes a fictional town located somewhere north of South Jersey inhabited by fools and cranks who latch on to various crazes of the time with supposedly-riotously lamentable results. Once you've read a couple of chapters you pretty much know how the rest are going to go. Which is fair enough: you can't say his subtitle didn't warn you.
His favorite device is to have one very enthusiastic and garrulous person describing the sidesplitting action or preposterous achievements which occasion the anecdote, and their more laconic interlocutor occasionally interjecting as how they don't care and would prefer to not be so buttonholed. Very occasionally, he hits on a manner of describing some unlikely scenario that contrasts so much to the slapstick action that he achieves actual literary irony; but more often he merely describes with occasional foolery as a brocade. I'm not sorry I read it — all investigation into the humorous traditions which eventually consolidated into light fiction is worthwhile — but I'm not sorry to go on to something else now.