Israel Zangwill: Early Humor

photograph of Israel Zangwill

Zangwill began his career as a journalist writing both serious and humorous pieces for limited-circulation periodicals, such as Myer's Calendar and Diary, Jewish Quarterly Review, and The Jewish Standard, and popular magazines, such as The Critic and The Pall Mall Magazine. In the early 1890s he edited and wrote for Ariel, a humor magazine, and for several years beginning in 1892 he contributed essays and stories to the humor magazine The Idler. His early books were intended to be primarily humorous, but humor is found in most of his prose works. Zangwill believed that a realistic depiction of life, even grim ghetto life, that excluded humor would be incomplete.

The Premier and the Painter (1888)

Zangwill's first novel, The Premier and the Painter, was written in collaboration with his friend and fellow teacher Louis Cohen and published in 1888 under the pseudonym J. Freeman Bell.1 The book is a humorous satire on politics and class among other things. It focuses on two men of contrasting personalities who briefly exchange identities. Arnold Floppington (Floppy) is the indecisive, Conservative Premier, an idealist who prefers poetry to politics. Jack Dawe is the painter (houses and signs), a realist with a forceful personality and strong opinions about how the government should be run.2

A reform bill introduced by the previous government had included limited suffrage for women but it was voted down. The current Conservative government puts forward a more radical reform bill except for granting suffrage. There is dissension in Floppy's cabinet regarding the issue and the woman he loves, Lady Gwendolyn Harley, is a suffragist. Indecisive Floppy doesn't know what to do.

One evening Floppy goes for a walk and enters a tavern where political debates are regularly conducted. One of the speakers, Jack Dawe attacks Floppy's policies. Jack looks very much like Floppy and he is an excellent debater. The two men agree to exchange roles for a short time.3

Lower-class Jack is intelligent, well-informed and ruthless; he is well-suited for the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Jack ironically (because he is a Radical) tells his cabinet that "the changes we [Conservatives] bring about are improvements, those brought about by the Radicals are revolutions" and that "on principle, we [Conservative party] have always placed party discipline before principle" (119). As the radical Premier of a Conservative government he suppresses a challenge from a political rival, manages the passage of a bill that enfranchises women and introduces a bill supporting Irish Home rule.

Upper-class, ineffectual, Floppy, on the other hand, is unfit for and knows little about the world of working people. He naively believes that employers obey the laws and is astonished to learn that women sew from eight in the morning until nine at night, because "[t]he recent Act only permits such work till eight p.m" (262). He ruins Jack's painting business, causes Sally, a servant who works for Jack's mother, to fall in love with him, provokes Eliza Bathbrill, Jack's long-time girlfriend, to sue for breach of promise and fails to prevent Jack's assassination.

The book does not have a happy ending: Jack Dawe is dead and Floppy resumes his position as Premier no more able to lead after the exchange than he was before. A new government comes in and Floppy retires to the "study of musty Coleridgean metaphysics" (501).

The book purports to be a history of the recent past and includes some footnotes and a "Selected List of Authors." The historian puns when he claims to be attempting a "novel method of writing history." In his frequent addresses to the reader he proposes alternative conclusions to events but insists that he must adhere to the facts while novel writers can manipulate their characters at will.

The Premier and the Painter is a funny book with much punning and other word play. Mrs. Harris says, "...your successes allus exceeds my wildest expectorations." Jack's mother says, "It don't make no difference to me, whether the Liberals or the Conservatives is a-ruinin' the country." She frequently quotes her dead husband's gems of wisdom: "A man with a weak 'ead can't afford to be 'eadstrong" (66); "Marryin' in haste is like buyin' a 'ouse without lookin' at the drainage" (73); "Between two doctors one falls into the ground" (234); "A guilty conscience is like bilin' water to a lobster" (267); "A lawyer is a luxury and honest folk can't afford it" (381); "Lyin' is never so bad as when it's no good" (405); "I don't believe in nothing, thank Gord, I don't" (15).

There are many humorous scenes: Jack talks with an undertaker who complains that social reforms (such as better hygiene and health care) are hurting his business; Floppy attempts to paint a lion on a sign while reciting Aeschlyus; Floppy is almost arrested for perversion when he attempts to help a waif by giving her money and inviting her home. There is a risible adventure in which incompetent Irish conspirators kidnap Floppy in order to forestall Irish Home Rule. Two love triangles are made more complicated (and comical) by the exchange of identities.

Assuming the identity of another and exchanging identities are common motifs in literature. In the Preface to the 3rd edition of The Premier and the Painter Zangwill acknowledged that the central idea of a ruler (powerful) and subject (powerless) exchanging identities was "plagiarised from a romance conceived nearly a decade ago." The reference is to Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper (1881).

In Twain's book the exchange of identities is merely accidental; in Zangwill's it is a deliberate choice made by the two men, with Floppy seeking respite in what he thinks is the simple life of a laboring man and Jack seizing the opportunity to exert power in order to bring about substantial reforms.

The love stories are integrated into and contribute to the development of the main plot and themes. Where Twain treats women sentimentally, Zangwill depicts them as men's equals (given the social and legal restrictions of the time) and, therefore, worthy of equal satirical analysis. They run their own businesses, campaign for social reform, struggle to rise above humble beginnings and engage in cabinet politics. They also lie and scheme.

Twain dealt with injustice in the distant (and, therefore, safe) 16th century. Zangwill engaged with issues of his own time and which are still contentious: women's rights, the Irish question, the influence of the media (newspapers), poverty, and realpolitik.

Unlike The Prince and the Pauper The Premier and the Painter does not have a happy ending. Both are comic and satiric but Zangwill's novel is a better book (for an adult reader) than Twain's romance.4

The Premier and the Painter was not a popular success, but Zangwill's next two books were.

The Bachelors' Club (1891) and The Old Maids' Club (1892)

illustration of bachelor looking at woman

These are collections of related stories about the clubs' members who are united in their desire to avoid marriage. The men are unable to remain bachelors and the women fail to qualify for membership as "old maids." The stories are clever, sometimes satiric and good examples of popular, humor writing of the time. The two books were illustrated and sold surprisingly well.

The King of Schnorrers: Grotesques and Fantasies (1894)

In addition to the short novel The King of Schnorrers this collection contains fifteen short stories. Most are humorous but a few are serious: a fairy tells a homeless boy how to fill a Christmas stocking; a father attempts to avoid paying a match-maker; a woman takes care of her sickly father-in-law instead of her unborn baby; a man first lives the odd years of his life and then the even years; a vain, empty-headed woman who treats her daughter cruelly is reduced to madness and dependence on her in old age; a rabbi attends a non-Jewish woman who is dying. One story is about two men who wear a dragon suit on stage and another about men who attempt to slay a dragon. Two stories are about writers. One is a crime story and one is an early science-fiction story.

"Cheating the Gallows" is a clever crime story in which a bank manager disappears with thousands of pounds of bank notes and a murder occurs. The criminal, awaiting death by hanging, explains how he committed the theft and how his ingenious and meticulously-planned crime failed because of unanticipated events.

Note: The following information may spoil your reading of the story.

Everard G. Roxdal and Tom Peters share rooms at a boarding house. The two men are quite different. Roxdal, a bank manager, is erect, well-dressed, punctual and formal. Peters, a journalist, is round-shouldered, slovenly, lazy and informal. They are in fact the same man. Roxdal disguises himself as Peters. They never appear together. During meals he has conversations with himself so the landlady will think there are two men. It is Roxdal's intention to have his bank-manager identity disappear after the theft and to continue life as the former journalist Tom Peters. At the end Tom Peters has been convicted of murdering Everard Roxdal. That is, of murdering himself. He could confess to the theft but the punishment -- years of penal servitude -- seems worse than hanging. He wonders whether the law is going to commit murder (hang a man for a murder that did not occur) or he is committing suicide.

"The Memory Clearing House" is an early science-fiction story told by a man being held in prison for committing a murder.

The narrator's friend Donovan invents a machine that can remove a memory (for example, of an occurrence or subject, not a person's entire memory) from one person and transfer it to another. He establishes a clearing house for matching people who want to exchange memories. Then he improves the technology so as to be able to store memories (and so he bought them outright) and then to duplicate memories (so they can be sold more than once). Finally, he starts renting instead of selling them.

Laborers who can't afford vacations buy memories of a pleasant seaside holiday. Students purchase them in order to do well on tests. Witnesses buy them so they can give convincing (but false) testimony at trials. Some people sell their memories and buy new ones so they can change their identities. Others pay him to extract unpleasant memories.

Zangwill only briefly investigates the consequences of being able to capture, store and transfer memories. Expanded, the story would have made an interesting novel.

Note: The following information may spoil your reading of the story.

The narrator bought an authentic memory of a murder and used it to write a realistic novel which the critics panned as improbable. He revealed additional information in order to prove them wrong. The police investigated and arrested him for the murder he did not commit. In the last sentence of the story the narrator puns: "If I am reprieved, I will never buy another murder's memory, not for all the artistic ideals in the world, I'll be hanged if I do" (240).

The King of Schnorrers
The Schnorrer felt no false shame in his begging. He knew it was the rich man's duty to give him unleavened bread on Passover, and coals in the winter, and odd half-crowns at all seasons; and he regarded himself as the Jacob's ladder by which the rich man mounted to Paradise. But, like all genuine philanthropists, he did not look for gratitude.5

In late 18th-century London Manasseh Bueno Barzillai Azevedo da Costa is a schnorrer (beggar) but not of the dirty, groveling sort: he is a tall, turbaned, black-bearded, impressive figure with regal bearing. He is a Sephardi and a Cohen who disdains schnorrers who grovel and fawn.

Manasseh says that God enjoins men to be charitable and the schnorrer enables them to fulfill their duty personally not abstractly. Because charity is the greatest thing on earth, the schnorrer is the greatest man on earth; the Talmud says that he who causes is greater than he who does; the schnorrer who causes charity must be even greater than he who gives it.

He is erudite and condescends to his intellectual inferiors. He manipulates his "clients." He uses their weaknesses against them. He knows when to appeal to their sense of guilt, duty or vanity and when to exploit their lack of knowledge of Scripture and Law. He forgives imagined slights. He insults his clients and accuses them of prejudice against the poor. He respects intelligence not wealth or power.

In the first part of the story Manasseh takes on Joseph Grobstock, the wealthy treasurer of the Grand Synagogue. Grobstock is basically a kind-hearted man but is easily flummoxed by Manasseh. Grobstock says that the poor always have a wife and children, implying that if they didn't marry or had fewer children they wouldn't be so poor. Manasseh reverses the accusation, saying that he follows God's commandment to be fruitful and multiply and it is the wealthy who do not obey God because they marry late.

At his house Grobstock lays out some used clothing for Manasseh who briefly leaves the room. When he returns he points out that a pair of pantaloons have disappeared. Grobstock explains that he had mistakenly laid out a brand-new pair of pants. Manasseh says that Grobstock took what he had already given him; he thought Grobstock was a man of honor but he robbed him of his new breeches while he wasn't looking. Having put Grobstock on the defensive, Manasseh then allows him to keep the pantaloons.

illustration of Manasseh and Yankelé

The next section is about his relationship with Yankelé ben Yitzchek, a young, Polish schnorrer. Although Yankelé is not Sephardic, Manasseh treats him as a disciple because he is intelligent and willing to learn from the "king." Manasseh tells Yankelé

One owes it to one's position in life to afford the wealthy classes the opportunity of charity warm from the heart; they should not be neglected and driven in their turn to write cheques in cold blood, losing all that human sympathy which comes from personal intercourse -- as it is written, "Charity delivers from death."6

Yankelé would like to marry Manasseh's daughter and he enumerates his various sources of income, including synagogue knocking (waking people to attend services). Manasseh considers this debasing. He says work and schnorring should never be mixed because you can't do both well. Further, work is unreliable but schnorring is regular all year around.

Manasseh regards money "merely as something to be had for the asking. It was intellect for which he reserved his admiration. That was strictly not transferable" (78). Still, to be sure of Yankelé's ability to support his wife he challenges him to schnorr a meal from Rabbi Remorse Red-Herring, a man who indulges himself and is infamous for giving nothing away. When Yankelé manages to gain entry to Red-Herring's home, he finds Manasseh already there. This makes his task harder but he is able to schnorr a meal and so Manasseh gives him permission to marry his daughter.

In the third part Manasseh grapples with the Mahamad, the Council of Five, who "administered the affairs of the Spanish-Portuguese community"; a "Sephardic Jew lived and moved and had his being 'by permission of the Mahamad'" (105).

They declare his daughter's marriage to a Polish Jew unacceptable. He deals with them not as a supplicant but as an equal. After they keep him waiting a long time, he leaves so as to make them wait. Although he bullies them, it is through his superior knowledge of the synagogue's regulations and Traditional Law, that he is able to demonstrate that there is no reason the marriage cannot take place.

At the last Sabbath service before the wedding Manasseh makes many pledges totaling 100 which, of course, he doesn't have. He schnorrs his regular clients but is unable to raise all the money. He then tries Belasco, a fop, whom he has never approached before and succeeds by appealing to his vanity.

Manasseh has Grobstock invest 60 of the 100 for him and through a "magnificent manoeuvre" it returns 600. He gives 500 to the Mahamad to "be used to purchase a life-annuity (styled the Da Costa Fund) for a poor and deserving member of the congregation, in whose selection he, as donor, should have the ruling voice." They agree and he selects himself as the recipient.

The story is quite funny but whereas Yankelé is droll, Manasseh is without humor. He is a serious professional schnorrer.

See also

Israel Zangwill and Zangwill's Zones


1In My First Book (London: Chatto & Windus, 1897), a collection of essays by various authors about writing their first books, Zangwill explains that "owing to my collaborator's evenings being largely taken up by other work, seven-eighths of the book came to be written by me, though the leading ideas were, of course, threshed out and the whole revised in common" (172-73).

2Premier is synonymous with Prime Minister. A jackdaw (Jack Dawe), a common bird, was considered a chattering nuisance given to thievery and was sometimes used to represent vanity and conceit. It was once believed that if the tip of its tongue was split with a sharpened sixpence, it could imitate human speech. No one pays any attention to common Jack Dawe (except the other tavern patrons) until he becomes Premier and speaks with a forked tongue.

3The scene in which Floppy and Jack decide to exchange roles is not described, although it's obvious when they awaken in new surroundings the next day. Zangwill wrote about this in the Preface to the third edition: "From a practical point of view, the great mistake of the book is the sacrifice of lucidity to super-subtle satire by our reluctance to state straight out that the world-weary Premier and the ambitious House-Painter agreed to change places for a period, at the end of Cap. i.... Missing these obvious points, many readers lost themselves in the labyrinth of resultant complications, though I still think the method of narration by indirect suggestion not without compensations for the subtle."

4Mark Twain is possibly the most overrated American writer. This may stem from critics taking seriously Ernest Hemingway's claim in The Green Hills of Africa:

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called "Huckleberry Finn." If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

From this, apparently, arose a national myth that with Twain something important happened and a new American Literature was born. (Hemingway was right that you must stop about half way through the book.)

Twain riding a frog jumping a fence

Much has been written about Twain's wife editing his works, censoring the "real" Mark Twain, but greatness is not based on what you might have published. He wrote one half of an adult novel (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), one good children's book (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) and a couple of books of historical interest (Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It). Samuel Clemens was a cornpone humorist who relished the celebrity he achieved by playing Mark Twain.

5"Proem," Children of the Ghetto, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1892), 7.

6The King of Schnorrers: Grotesques and Fantasies (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), 72. Serialized in The Idler in 1893; book published 1894.