One of the most celebrated humorists and public figures of his day, Will Rogers (1879-1935) offered dry, whimsical commentaries on a plethora of political, social, and economic issues. His aphoristic, sa tirical observations, which he voiced in magazine articles and nationally syndicated columns, revealed the foibles and injustices of American society and reaffirmed the humorist's role as the voice of the" average" citizen.
Born in Oklahoma into a prosperous ranching family of mixed Cherokee descent, the young Rogers was an expert rider and lariat stuntman. He appeared in Wild West shows throughout the world, and in 1905 he made his vaudeville debut. In vaudeville he enlivened his performances with off-the-cuff lectures on the art of roping. Rogers's humorous chatter, nonchalant delivery, and southwestern drawl proved a popular combination, resulting in an invitation to join the Ziegfeld Follies. His wife suggested that he vary and supplement his material with comments on contemporary personages and events. Following this advice, he delighted audiences with his homely philosophy and pungent remarks, becoming a renowned humorist and interpreter of the news. Rogers's first two books, The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference and The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition, were drawn from his Follies monologues. His subsequent works, such as The Illiterate Digest, There's Not a Bathing Suit in Russia, and Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President, were garnered from the newspaper columns "Will Rogers Says," "The Worst Story I Ever Heard," "The Daily Telegram," and also from his serialized correspondence from abroad appearing in The Saturday Evening Post. Rogers's death in a 1935 plane crash sent the entire country into mourning, prompting Carl Sandburg to reflect, "There is a curious parallel between Will Rogers and Abraham Lincoln. They were rare figures whom we could call beloved without embarrassment."
In his writings, as on the stage, Rogers affected a pose of ignorance, emphasizing his simple, rural background and lack of formal education. In reality he was a well-informed and thoughtful commentator, skilled in the use of the pun, metaphor, and hyperbole. By assuming the stance of a good-natured, naive country boy, Rogers was able to lampoon Congress, presidents, and foreign heads of state without occasioning offense or indignation. His The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference, for example, mocks the diplomatic stratagems of the Versailles talks, while The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition examines the futility and hypocrisy of the Volstead Act. Rogers's shrewd, fundamentally pessimistic point of view has been compared to Mark Twain's, as has his profound distrust of the motives and objectives of those in power. Unlike Twain, however, he was incapable of sustaining an idea at length. Rogers's forte was the pithy sentence—the short but highly suggestive statement calculated to effect an immediate response. While some critics no longer consider his topical humor relevant and find his intentional misspellings and grammatical errors excessive, others value his writings for the insight they provide into the concerns and opinions of the United States during the tumultuous 1920s and 1930s. Damon Runyon offered this assessment: "Will Rogers was America's most complete human document. He reflected in many ways the heartbeat of America. In thought and manner of appearance and in his daily life he was probably our most typical native born, the closest living approach to what we like to call the true American."
Further Reading on Will Rogers
Alworth, E. Paul, Will Rogers, Twayne, 1974.
Brown, William R., Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream, University of Missouri Press, 1970, 304 p.
Croy, Homer, Our Will Rogers, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953,377 p.
Day, Donald, Will Rogers: A Biography, David McKay Company, Inc., 1962, 370 p.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 11, Gale, 1982.
Dockstader, Fredrick J., Great North American Indians, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1977; 243-45.
Feibleman, James, In Praise of Comedy: A Study in Its Theory and Practice, Allen & Unwin, 1939.