Hyman Kaplan Revisited*
Everyone knows that humor has contributed richly to the makeup of the American character. Our literature, however, presents few great comic characters, possibly ten or twelve. In the nineteenth century, with the exception of Mark Twain’s Colonel Beriah Sellers and Joel Chandler Harris’s Brer Rabbit, the great comic characters are rogues: Johnson Jones Hooper’s darkly ingenious Simon Suggs; George W. Harris’s insatiable trouble-maker Sut Lovingood; and Twain’s two lovable frauds in Huckleberry Finn, the King and the Duke. Understandably, rogues flourished in a frontier society. But in the twentieth century there is no frontier, and humorous characters appear at various levels of civilized life.
In fact, what are to me the six outstanding humorous characters in our century represent five or six different levels of society. At the lowest level (who will dispute?) is Don Marquis’s cockroach Archy. Patronizing Archy from a domesticated but emancipated step above him is Archy’s companion character, Mehitabel the cat. (Incidentally, of the six, Mehitabel is the nearest thing to a nineteenth-century rogue, or picaro, being a female adventuress.) One step higher—now on the human level that was only symbolic in Archy and Mehitabel— is Leo C. Rosten’s irrepressible, middle-aged Jewish immigrant Hyman Kaplan, who is studying English at the beginner’s level. One rung above him (maybe only half a rung?) is Ring Lardner’s wild, bush-league pitcher, Jack Keefe. Of middle-class respectability, still another rung higher, is James Thurber’s "little man," Walter Mitty. On the top of the social ladder is Clarence Day, Jr.’s, impressive character portrayal of his well-to-do stockbroker father, Clarence Day, Sr., as found in several books and as reinforced by the play, Life With Father, by Lindsay and Crouse.
My purpose here is to take a unified look at the two Hyman Kaplan books and to urge my conviction that their hero belongs permanently in this select company—that is, to show that age cannot wither nor custom stale his inexhaustible ingenuity.
The two books are The Education of Hyman Kaplan and The Return of Hyman Kaplan, published in 1937 and 1959 respectively. They are really one book, and I should like to suggest that they be reprinted as Part I and Part II in a single volume under the first title, The Education of Hyman Kaplan. For The Return is simply an additional helping of
*Leo C. Rosten was on a fellowship working on a doctorate in political science when Hyman Kaplan insisted on being born. To conceal this diversionary activity from his professors, he published the first stories and the first collection of them under the pseudonym of Leonard Q. Ross.
the same delicious fare as that found in The Education. In this commentary, at least, I intend to make no distinction, treating them together as a single work.
The setting, as will be easily recalled, is the beginners’ grade of the American Night Preparatory School for Adults in New York. Some thirty more or less recent immigrants of possibly eight or ten different national and ethnic backgrounds make life challenging for their patient pedagogue, Mr. Parkhill. Although the book is fiction, it is not a novel. It gives us a series of separate, self-contained stories, all of them set in the same class-room and with the same cast of characters. Narration is in the third person, the teacher, Mr. Parkhill, being the point-of-view character in all but one of the twenty-six stories making up the two volumes. The episodes themselves don’t "go anywhere," as they would in a novel; everything is the same at the end as at the beginning. Complication is slight; all story movement is made up of shifting and dissolving classroom situations with no carryover or action from one story to the next. The only exception is a certain thread of ongoing feuding between the best student in the class, Miss Rose Mitnick, plus backers, and the most remarkable student in the class, Hyman Kaplan, and his several supporters.
Perhaps only a teacher can fully imagine the tensions experienced by Mr. Parkhill on having in class a scheming, ambitious, unpredictable, undisciplined, irrepressible, hero-worshiping, warm-hearted, clever, ignorant, proud, histrionic, self-centered, narcissistic dialectician such as Hyman Kaplan. By reason of his labyrinthine mental processes and his untutored but formidable forensic qualities, he is able to keep both teacher and class on tenterhooks as to the argument or strategy he will next employ. Even his brief absences are felt as keenly as his presence.
"This Mr. Kaplan," the author tells us, was in his forties, a plump, red-faced gentleman, with wavy blond hair, two fountain pens in his outer pocket, and a perpetual smile." He also carries a package of crayons, as evidenced by his name as it appears on exercises submitted to Mr. Parkhill. "It was printed in large firm letters with red crayon. Each letter was outlined in blue. Between every two letters was a star, carefully drawn, in green. The multicolored whole spelled, unmistakable, H*Y*M*A*N* K*A*P*L*A*N. The multicolored characters were more than a trademark; they were an assertion of singularity, a proud assertion of Mr. Kaplan’s Inner Self." Significantly, the seat he takes, and holds against interlopers, is in the center of the first row.
Whenever Mr. Kaplan is called to the blackboard, his smile becomes "something beatific and imperishable. . . . It was his moment of glory." He also loved to stand and recite. "In fact, he loved any activity in which he was the single center of attention." During the correcting of his work on the blackboard, "He seemed to be proud of the very number of errors he had made. . . ."
With Mr. Kaplan the English language was at a decided disadvantage.
Our two most famous "Prazidents" he listed as "Abram Lincohen" and "Judge Vashington." The principal parts of the verb "to fail" he gives as "fail, failed, bankropt"; those of "to die" as "die, dead, funeral." The opposite of "new" is "second hand," and the comparative degrees of "bad" are "bad," "worse," and "rotten." His wife, he says, suffers from "high blood pleasure." One of Kaplan’s sentences in a business letter to an uncle reads, "If your eye falls on a bargain please pick it up"; and when a classmate presumes to ridicule the sentence, Mr. Kaplan’s triumphant rejoinder is "Mine oncle has a gless eye." When in a burst of eloquence Kaplan uses a "beauriful" word (the word is "megnificent"), an admiring Mr. Bloom asks him after class, "How you fond soch a woid"? "By dip tinking," answers Mr. Kaplan, striding out like a hero.
Several conventional sources of humor in these stories are inextricably interwoven: situation humor, verbal humor, and humor of character. The basic classroom situation is pervasive, with the rivalry of mixed national and ethnic types and with the consequent volatile emotional outbursts. Characterization appears almost exclusively through the spoken or written word of the students themselves. Among conventional sources of humor, only action finds little place simply because the conflicts are verbal, and are resolved either psychologically by individual students or academically by the teacher in invoking rules of grammar or customary usages.
Thus, most of the overt humor is an easy and natural result in a beginners’ adult class studying language. In fact, the possibilities of verbal humor are, given the situation, virtually endless; its very ease is both its weakness and its strength. A writer dramatizing such a situation would be grievously tempted to put verbal ineptitudes into the mouths of his characters rather than require the humorous language to emanate from character. One such example might be Mr. Kaplan’s use of the word "hobo" for "hobby," an inept malapropism that is the somewhat unconvincing core of one whole episode. To Mr. Rosten’s credit, this happens seldom. Only rarely are the characters used simply as marionettes speaking the author’s linguistic cleverness.
In these stories, verbal humor takes the form of mixed immigrant-American dialect. While there are frequent, competently-used snatches of dialect by speakers of Italian, Russian, Greek, Polish, German, and Spanish lineage, the amount of Jewish dialect outweighs all of them. And it is the Jewish dialect, particularly from the mouth of Hyman Kaplan, that is the crown of these stories. It is at all times brilliantly vivid and convincing to both eye and ear. Rosten is a creative artist and may well have drawn this wonderful language from experience and intuition. But he is also a scholar of his craft, as is shown by the remarkable Preface which he furnished for the second book, The Return of Hyman Kaplan. He does not merely write effective dialect; he knows the rationale for it.
"Comic dialect," he writes, "is humor plus anthropology. . . . It must carry a visual promise to the reader that what he does not instantly recognize can be deciphered with ease and will be rewarded with pleasure. . . ." "Dialect," he says further, "is not transcription. Nothing is more depressing than a passage of broken English exactly transcribed from the spoken. The ‘accurate ear’ for which a writer is praised is as inventive as it is accurate. It is creative, not literal. . . ." If the testimony of a noted linguistic scholar is needed to support Mr. Rosten’s views, here is what Professor George Philip Krapp, author of the two-volume study The English Language in America, has to say:
A broader comment by Professor Krapp on the nature and quality of immigrant dialect humor can be seen to apply not only to the Hyman Kaplan stories, but also to a wide range of regional dialect humor— Southern, Western, Negro, but particularly the Jewish, as heard with some frequency on today’s television programs:
Returning to my earlier comments on the character of Mr. Kaplan, I do not wish to give the impression that this is a one-man book, even though the protagonist is indeed an impressive character creation. It is even true that all the other characters have their being in relation to him. But all of them serve the reality of the created scene and at least two achieve stature. The "terribly staid" Mr. Parkhill (as the author refers to him in the Preface to The Return) has just the right degree of diffidence, of anxiety, of pedagoguery, of firmness, to allow Mr. Kaplan’s peculiar dialectic prowess to threaten but never quite totally disrupt the learning situation. Next in importance to "Mr. Pockheel" (as Kaplan calls him) is the shy and constantly embarrassed Miss Rose Mitnick, relentlessly accurate and under an inner compulsion to correct Kaplan’s egregious mistakes, while doomed to be humiliated by her adversary’s superior ability to turn deserved defeat into verbal victory.
Other characters make more limited but nevertheless telling contributions to the ongoing scene. There is the self-effacing Mrs. Moskowicz who experiences acute psychological dismay as each new assignment
is announced by Mr. Parkhill. There is Gus Matsoukas who holds the cherished conviction that vast and disproportionate numbers of English words are derived from the Greek. There is Olga Tarnova, a feline, smoldering, mysterious Russian, suggestive of aristocratic lineage from the days of the czars, and capable of a juicy Slavic curse delivered sotto voce right in the classroom. Still other national backgrounds are represented by Carmen Caravello, Hans Guttman, Mrs. Rodriguez, and Miss Kowalski, though it is probably true to reality, even culturally significant, that Jewish characters predominate (names like Pinsky, Bloom, Gidwitz and Goldberg).
After writing the first Kaplan story, Mr. Rosten felt that to follow it up with a second was "much too difficult" and "much too unpromising. After all," he explains, "Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation are hardly dramatis personae; and the locale could scarcely be less inspiring," but once born, Mr. Kaplan would not be denied his continuing vitality, and other Kaplan stories followed—in fact, two booksful. Toward the end of The Education, nevertheless, Mr. Parkhill faces the discouraging thought that "Mr. Kaplan never seemed to learn anything," though we see that he was clearly the most enthusiastic student in the class. On his final examination paper, Mr. Kaplan appended a postscript which read: "I dont care if I dont pass, I love the class."
Despite the undoubted vitality of both Hyman Kaplan books, however, and just as Mr. Kaplan does not seem to learn anything, lives are not changed by what goes on in these stories—so far as the reader is allowed to see—beyond the immediate, temporary and volatile emotions aroused. Their lives are managed with tact and tight rein on sentimentality, a quality that is readily available to an author dealing with simple, good-hearted, uneducated people.
Mr. Rosten has, with superb comic artistry, couched his stories in universal terms that time will little disturb. They have some of the timelessness celebrated by Keats in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Mr. Kaplan, enraptured "youth" (in his forties), is left forever panting after knowledge, and knowledge is ever just beyond his reach. As Keats wrote, "For ever wilt thou love and she be fair."