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A Certain 'Patois'

April 1, 2010 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

In the long relationship that Jews have had with the comic strip and its cousin, the comic book, Milt Gross stands as the missing link between the first and second halves of the 20th century. That's part of the thesis expounded in Is Diss a System?: A Milt Gross Comic Reader, edited and introduced by scholar Avi Y. Kelman and published by New York University Press.

Kelman is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of California at Davis and author of Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States, all of which makes him eminently qualified to tackle Milt Gross, who brought a strong Yiddish inflection to his writing.

To give a quick sense of Gross' style -- both in pictures and their accompanying words -- those familiar with the Katzenjamer Kids, a strip that began in 1897 and was drawn by Rudolph Dirks, or Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitibel, a huge hit in newspapers and eventually books in the 1920s, will have some sense of how Gross' drawings looked. As for how the man used words, consider the titles of his books, all of which are excerpted in Is Diss a System?: Nize Baby, Dunt Esk!, De Night in de Front from Chreesmas, Hiawatta and Famous Fimmales. Those Jews of a certain age not privileged to have had immigrant grandparents may have a harder time getting the swing of all this, but speaking Gross' words aloud (as Kelman suggests), and following it exactly as written may help with the Yiddish inflection that flavored his comic style.

According to Kelman's introduction (which he's appropriately called "Geeve a Listen!"), Gross had a highly developed slapstick style that helped "create a comic universe in which nobody could avoid a pratfall, a malapropism, or a well-placed anachronism that lowered the gods to human status and humans a bit lower still. Nothing escaped his comic ear or his sharp pen, both of which he showcased in an avalanche of cartoons and newspaper columns steeped in the sounds and culture of immigrant Jews."

From 1910 until well into the 1940s, Kelman tells us, Gross created an inimitable cast of characters with names like Count Screwloose from Tooloose, Looy dot dope, Mrs. Feitlebaum and her husband Mow-riss, their neighbor Mrs. Yifnif, Boitrem Mitzic, Hiawatta, Clippetra, Izzy Abble, Joe Runt, Henry Peck, Iggy (a dog), and Otto and Blotto.

These characters in various combinations gave Gross the means to create an English-Jewish "patois," as Kelman calls it, "in which people wondered about having their children 'waxinated' or complained about riding the subway 'pecked opp woister ivvin from soddinz in a teen box.' In his weekly columns and cartoons, Gross created a world where people regularly got caught standing around in their 'Bivvy Dizz,' and in which one character could explain to another that humans had been 'suspended from monkehs,' as they evolved from 'pre-hysterical mounsters.' More than a peddler of malapropisms or a trader in the remnant ethnic types from the vaudeville stage, Gross inherited both conventions, turning them upon themselves to offer a broader commentary about what Jewish ethnicity sounded like in the United States."

Gross seemed to love to apply Yiddish to classic or semi-classic literature (as in his parody of "The Night Before Christmas" that's included here and interested readers shouldn't miss). One quick example will have to suffice. This is Gross' gloss on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:

"So Brutus sad: 'Ho K, is by me agribble.'

"So Kessius sad: 'You know dees guy Sizzer?'

" 'Yeh.'

" 'So lat's we should cruk heeem!!'

"So Brutus sad: 'Why we should cruk heem??'

"So Kessius sad: 'Bicusss it itches by heem de palm.'

"So Brutus sad: 'Hm -- for mine pot it could itch by heem hall over! I'm werry leeberal-minded. Besites he's a goot guy -- He riffused he should accept a cron!'

So Kessius sad: 'Ha Ha! -- A prass-hagent geg!! Dot's jost noosepaper tukk! Deedn't I saw heem de odder night in de badroom in de front from a meeror a whole night trying hon crons?? Ha HA! -- riffused a cron!! -- Benena Hoil!! --'

"So Brutus sad: 'Yi Yi Yi!! So for dees we'll geeve heem de woiks. So how?? Witt knifes witt deggers, maybe!!'

'How abott peestols?' "

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