The wonderful humor in Richard LaGalliene’s satiric essay “The Boom in Yellow” comes mostly from the absurd incongruity between LaGalliene’s subject matter and his tone. The topic itself could hardly seem more frivolous: who really cares about the popularity of a given color? Such a concern suggests the most shallow approach to the world, one focused only on appearance and on what is fashionable. And yet, in writing on yellow, LaGalliene employs a tone that echoes that of the most earnest essayists. Using techniques such as personification and metaphor, he treats the color yellow with an outrageous amount of reverence and attention.

Yellow might retort by quoting Mr. Grant Allen, in his book on The Colour Sense, to the effect that the blueness of sea and sky is mainly poetical illusion or inaccuracy, and that sea and sky are found blue only in one experiment out of fourteen. At morning and evening they are usually in great part stained golden. Blue certainly has one advantage over yellow, in that it has the privilege of colouring some of the prettiest eyes in the world. Yellow has a chance only in cases of jaundice and liver complaint, and this colour scheme in such cases is seldom appreciated. Again, green has the contract for the greater bulk of the vegetable life of the globe but his is a monotonous business, like the painting of miles and miles of palings: grass, grass, grass, trees, trees, trees, ad inflnitum, whereas yellow leads a roving, versatile life, and is seldom called upon for such monotonous tabour. The sands of Sahara are probably the only conspicuous instance of yellow thus working by the piece. It is in the quality, in the diversity of the things it colours, rather than in their mileage or tonnage, that yellow is distinguished; though, for that matter, we suppose, the sun is as big and heavy as most things, and that is yellow. Of course, when we say yellow we include golden, and all varieties of the colour Ńsaffron, orange, flaxen, tawny, blonde, topaz, citron, etc.

In the discrepancy between the levity of the subject matter and the seriousness of LaGalliene’s treatment of it, one begins to think critically not only of the concern with superficial appearance that LaGalliene mocks, but also of the techniques he employs — in his case tongue-in-cheek — to defend his argument.

Questions

1. LaGalliene quotes from another author, Mr. Grant Allen to support his own satiric point in the above passage. What effect does it have to use an argument from a real book and author within the context of a satire? How does this use change our reading of either author, or affect our understanding of either’s credibility?

2. Nothing LaGalliene argues is really untrue — that is to say, blue eyes really are pretty, yellow eyes do indicate jaundice, most vegetable life really is green. What, then, makes this passage humorous? What tips you off that it is satire?

3. Certain aspects of LaGalliene’s tone seem to echo Ruskin’s: he too presents his arguments as retorts to what others might say (i.e. “Yellow might retort” to Keats’ ode to blue), and he too writes in an occasionally casual, conversational style. Compare the effect of these techniques in Ruskin’s serious essays to their effect in LaGalliene’s writing. Is the latter a commentary on the former?


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Last modified 10 March 2011