Saturday, July 19, 2014

“My Double; And How He Undid Me” by Edward Everett Hale

Deal Me In Lite, Week 3: “My Double; And How He Undid Me” by Edward Everett Hale

This week’s story was chosen by the four of hearts, my card suit designated for humor (for some reason), which takes us to The Classic Humor Megapack, and to the story “My Double; And How He Undid Me” by Edward Everett Hale.

Before I read this story and did some online research, I was completely unfamiliar with the name and work of Edward Everett Hale.  However, according to Wikipedia, he is one of those authors who was pretty famous in his day, if not so much anymore.  He came from a well-connected New England family, and if his name sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because he had some famous relatives.  Hale’s father was the nephew of Nathan Hale, the famous Revolutionary War hero executed by the British for espionage (you probably have heard his most famous quote, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”).  And Hale married into a well-connected New England family, as his wife’s relatives on her mother’s side included the famous Beechers (Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Ward Beecher, among others).  He was also a minister in the Unitarian church, and went on to become a writer of some renown, especially in the realm of social reforms such as the abolitionist movement and religious tolerance.

This story was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1859, and it was the first short story Hale ever had published.


This is a humorous short story that is not actually that humorous, although I do worry that humor is one of those things that is very much a product of the times in which it is produced.  Just look at the universe of Internet memes out there, including the one above, as an example of some of our modern sensibilities.  Of course, I am not suggesting that humor cannot stand the test of time as other forms of writing can, but I definitely think that it is a genre that becomes stale much quicker than other genres.

What, for example, is the reader supposed to do with this passage from Hale’s story:

The misery was and is, as we found out, I and Polly, before long, that, besides the vision, and besides the usual human and finite failures in life (such as breaking the old pitcher that came over in the Mayflower, and putting into the fire the alpenstock with which her father climbed Mont Blanc)—besides, these, I say (imitating the style of Robinson Crusoe), there were pitchforked in on us a great rowen-heap of humbugs, handed down from some unknown seed-time, in which we were expected, and I chiefly, to fulfil certain public functions before the community, of the character of those fulfilled by the third row of supernumeraries who stand behind the Sepoys in the spectacle of the “Cataract of the Ganges.”

Wait, what?

There SEEMS to be some humor there, just judging from the writing style and allusions to things like an old pitcher that came over on the Mayflower, but I confess I don’t see it.

The premise of this story is funny in itself, and it had the promise of being pretty funny overall.  The protagonist is a minister who finds himself ever busier and busier trying to fulfill all of his religious obligations with his congregation as well as all of his civic obligations.  He wracks his brain trying to figure out some way to do everything he needs to do, but comes up short – until one day, when he and his wife are on vacation and they happen to see a man who, remarkably, is the spitting image of the minister.  So he sets about hiring this man to work for him, and also arranges to have his hair and clothing altered so as to become a passable double.

However, this man is not a learned minister, but an uneducated and shiftless day-laborer, so to make sure he will be able to function in society, the minister teaches him four phrases which, he thinks, should suffice for all of the social settings in which the double may find himself.  The phrases are:

1. “Very well, thank you. And you?”
2. “I am very glad you liked it.”
3. “There has been so much said, and, on the whole, so well said, that I will not occupy the time.”
4. “I agree, in general, with my friend on the other side of the room.”

As I mentioned earlier, you can see the humor inherent in this plot, and you can see how it is going to work out, as well.  The double gets tried out at a variety of functions, each more significant and perilous than the ones before, with fair success.  Then comes the biggest test of all, in front of a huge gathering at which the Governor will be present, and at which the minister assumes it will be practically impossible for the double to get a word in edgewise.  Predictably, this turns out to not be so, and the double is the only one called on to speak.   He starts using the phrases in awkward and embarrassing ways, gets flustered, and then goes completely “off script,” causing a huge sensation and leading to the downfall of the minister as referred to in the title.

Surely it is not necessary for me to write that I did not like this story at all.  But this story did get me to thinking more about the question I raised above.  What is it about some humorous stories (the works of Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, E.F. Benson, and some of Dickens springs immediately to mind) that enables them to stand the test of time and still strike us as funny decades or even centuries later, while many other stories that should have been funny, or may have been funny at one time, are definitely no longer funny?  I’d appreciate your comments in the…. comments.  (Ha)


  1. You're a better reader than I if you got past THAT paragraph. Wow! That aside, I can see how the premise contained the potential for humor. The standard four phrases are great. I was reminded of how I've jokingly suggested three standard responses to all questions posed by auditors and bank examiners at my job. It's my "Rainman Approach" - each question is answered by either "ye-ah", "I dunno", or simply repeating the last few words of the question. I've never had the guts to try it out in practice, though. :-)

    I enjoyed the history lesson in your post too. When I heard the name Hale, I was thinking of the famous telescope builder/astronomy benefactor of the ealry 1900's. of course, maybe he was a relation too. :-)

    1. Rainman Approach -- I really have to remember that one. :-)