If you mention the name Bill Nye today, you are probably talking about the science guy. However, there was another exceptional Bill Nye in American history. Nineteenth-century humorist Bill Nye was celebrated in his lifetime for his humor writing and his live tours. While he is not well-known today, he had a large impact on humor in the nineteenth century. Nye was a prolific writer and according to Bill Kesterson, “rivaled Mark Twain for preeminence among America’s literary comedians” (9). Nye was born in Maine, grew up in Wisconsin, and was most famous for his time in Laramie, Wyoming (9). Nye was the first editor of the newspaper, the Laramie Boomerang, which he named after his mule. It was his humor columns in the Boomerang that brought him to national attention as a humorist. While he was successful in Laramie, he left the harsh climate for health reasons; his health issues would continue to plague him until his death at the age of forty-five in 1896. Even though his health was unreliable, he still maintained his status as a distinguished and popular writer over the course of his lifetime and was also celebrated for his lecture tours with James Whitcomb Riley.
There are a lot of reasons to be interested in Bill Nye, but one of the aspects of his writing that strikes me is the way that he included his audience in the construction of his quips and jokes. This is also why his humor works so well today; many of the jokes in his columns are not specifically topical but are about language and how skillfully he plays with language. In newspaper columns in the Pittsburg Dispatch that I have studied in my work, Nye does not treat his audience as if they are distant from him. He includes his audience in his understanding of writing and shows them how he plays with language to entertain them. In specific columns, Nye uses literary language and draws attention to his own act of writing in order to acknowledge that he and his readers share a common culture of reading and writing.
Nye relates to his readers by discussing the work of writing his columns and drawing attention to his own writing. When Nye makes fun of his own literary endeavors or calls attention to the act of writing, he is including his audience in his authorial experience and validating their participation in the same print culture that he is a part of. Nye does this by repeatedly gesturing toward his own act of writing and making jokes about language to let his readers understand his writing process. He gives his readers access to the way his writing works and provides them information about how and why he decides to write what he does. On a trip to Niagara Falls, he writes, “I went there thinking that if the falls really deserved scathing I would scathe them through the press and inquire their business, but I must say. . . they deserve their great success” (“Nye Nigh to Niagara”). Nye refers to his own acts of writing about the reputation of the falls not only to make a joke but also to include his readers in his print culture community. He does not just write of his experiences with the falls or write about what he saw on his trip to Niagara. He explains to his readers how his column came to be and how his plans for writing were thwarted by the true beauty of the falls.
Nye calls attention to the way he uses language to construct jokes and showcases his dexterity with language to his readers. When Nye was in Niagara to see the falls, he told one of his friends that when he went there he “was going over the falls and through the whirlpool.” His friend was worried for him until Nye told him that he “meant to be figurative.” He is including his readership in this joke at his friend’s expense; this illustrates how he views his relation to his readership as being communal. He also shows connections among him and his readers by using the repetition of language. Nye writes that what people expect to find in the American west is places that are “oh! So crude, and oh! So coarse.” Instead of leaving it at that and letting “coarse” stand as a way to make fun of the west, Nye follows this statement by using the same word to apply to the east. He writes later in the article that “when you come West you lose that cool, cultivated look of refined vacuity which we of the East constantly dote on.” Westerners do not like that look in easterners because it is “real coarse.” Nye repeats the word, “coarse,” to illustrate through humor that makes fun of both the east and the west that his readership shares the word “coarse.” Nye’s language choices bring all of his readers together into a shared space of print culture.
Nye’s jokes about language and his references to his own writing might seem like they could alienate his readers because he is often showing his own skill. However, Nye was writing at a time in the late nineteenth century when print was expanding and more and more people were participating in print culture. Carl Kaestle and Janice Radway write in Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940 that starting in 1880 and through 1940 “print circulated faster, more widely, and more effectively” than it had previously (535). They continue on to say that during this time “virtually anyone with an idea, point of view, aim, desire, or intention had to engage within its precincts” (535). Nye’s readers would have been participants in the developing print culture. Just as he was inviting them to experience different places with him, he was also letting them see his writing practices and letting them share his acts of writing. He used his writing to help readers understand themselves as part of a community of readers.
Nye’s work demonstrates that print culture in the nineteenth century circulated in a system where readers and writers in various places were influencing each other and influencing the products of print culture. He also showcases not only how influential now long forgotten writers have been but also why it is useful to reclaim such writers from the past.