Rogers, Will

views updated May 23 2018

Will Rogers

born november 4, 1879 oologah, oklahoma indian territory

died august 15, 1935 point barrow, alaska

entertainer, social commentator

Will Rogers">

"Will Rogers had the general demeanor of a common man, self-elected representative of the world's underdogs. He was an 'Aw shucks' guy."

ray robinson in american original: a life of will rogers

Will Rogers was a national voice of the common person between 1929 and 1935 during the harshest period of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in U.S. history. Rogers conquered most of the media available at the time. He seemed equally at home on stage and on the movie screen, in print, and on the radio. He starred in Wild West shows, vaudeville, silent and talking movies, and radio programs, and he wrote a regular newspaper column. Vaudeville was a popular form of stage entertainment in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the mid-1920s with each show featuring a collection of various acts including dancing, singing, comedy, and acting. More than anyone else in American history, Rogers popularized Western cowboy humor. Though quite literate and well-read, Rogers put on a lesser-educated country image, exaggerating his Southwestern accent and using bad grammar. Rogers was not associated with any political party during most of his career. However, he liked President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry), and through his public commentary Rogers supported many of the federal programs Roosevelt designed to help the United States recover economically. Rogers's life was tragically cut short in a plane crash in Alaska. With his death Americans lost a voice of support and optimism during a time of national crisis.

A born cowboy

William Penn Adair Rogers was born in 1879 in Indian Territory, which in 1907 would become the state of Oklahoma. He was one-quarter Cherokee. His mother was Mary America Schrimsher and his father Clement Vann Rogers. Both were forty years old when Will, the last of eight children, was born. Will's father, known as "Uncle Clem," was a judge and banker and was prominent in Oklahoma politics. He was fairly well-to-do with five thousand head of cattle and many horses on his ranch near the rural town of Oologah. Rogers County, Oklahoma, was named after him. Young Will began riding at a very early age. Through his father, Will was well exposed to local and national politics. However, he was closest to his mother, inheriting her friendliness, gentle manner, and good sense of humor. Mary died of dysentery, an infectious intestinal disease, at age fifty-one in 1890, leaving eleven-year-old Will with a lasting feeling of loss.

Even though young Will was an above average student and had a particular interest in history, he had a strong dislike for structured education and was always restless. He attended high school at a private boarding school called Scarritt College. Known as the campus cutup, Will often got himself into trouble with poor grades and clowning behavior, and he left school without graduating. When he was fourteen, his father took him to the Chicago World's Fair. There he saw Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and was particularly taken with a Mexican performer billed as the "greatest roper in the world." This experience significantly influenced his later life.

Will's family sent him to Kemper Military School in Missouri to finish his schooling. Not surprisingly, Will was a bad fit for a military school, never dressing properly, always late, and often amusing his classmates by his irreverence toward staff. After two years at Kemper, he ran away in 1898 and began working as a cowboy on a ranch near Higgins, Texas, breaking horses and rounding up cattle. After a brief period, Rogers returned home to manage cattle on the family ranch, but he was soon restless again. Looking for something more adventuresome, in 1902 Rogers left for Argentina, South America, where he briefly tried the cowboy life again. However, he found the wages too low. Seeing an announcement for jobs with a Wild West show in South Africa, Rogers caught a ship and made the long journey. In South Africa he began his entertainment career by performing as the "Cherokee Kid" in the traveling Texas Jack's Wild West Show. Rogers rode horses and performed roping feats with a lariat, or lasso. From South Africa he followed the Wild West Show to Australia and New Zealand. Rogers represented the youthful American frontier spirit to these overseas audiences.

Upon returning home in 1904, Rogers traveled to the St. Louis World's Fair and then on to New York City looking for performing jobs. He found jobs with various Wild West shows and became a quick hit with New York audiences. However, the popularity of Wild West shows was declining, while interest in American vaudeville acts—which combined singing, dancing, and comedy—was increasing. By 1907 Rogers began performing regularly for the Ziegfeld Follies, a popular vaudeville act in New York City. For the first eight years he would perform in a secondary stage group for Ziegfeld. With a steady job, in 1908 Rogers married Betty Blake, his sweetheart of the past decade. They had three sons, one of whom died in infancy, and one daughter.

Beyond rope tricks

While doing his rope tricks with the Ziegfeld Follies, Rogers began chatting to the audience. He found that his Southwestern accent captivated people and brought unexpected laughter. By 1916 Rogers had moved up into the main Ziegfeld Follies stage group and transformed his act into a talking act. He became a favorite of the Follies. Before long he started making pointed comments about politicians and public figures. A major turning point came in a Baltimore, Maryland, performance. Rogers decided to make some humorous comments about the U.S. policy toward Mexico. His comments were well received by the audience, including one especially important person—President Woodrow Wilson
(1856–1924; served 1913–21). Rogers's career as a social commentator had begun in earnest. He continued to perfect his act, posing as a cowboy straight off the range, detached from the newly emerging modern U.S. city values. He freely commented on what he observed firsthand and what he read in the newspapers. With his storytelling and commentary, Rogers further cemented his position as the star attraction of the Follies.

Rogers's stage popularity led him to starring roles in motion pictures in 1918, when Goldwyn Pictures signed him for Hollywood silent movies. By 1929 Rogers had made forty-eight silent movies, mostly comedies and travel films. None was considered particularly memorable, but by 1924 his annual income was $160,000. When talking movies arrived, Rogers's career took off. Signed by Fox Studios, he first appeared in They Had to See Paris, a talkie released in September 1929. Many of his best movies through the early 1930s were directed by the legendary John Ford (1895–1973). Rogers routinely ignored scripts and improvised; he refused makeup and props. His popularity soared, and one reviewer commented in 1933, "He is what Americans think other Americans are like." By 1933 Rogers ranked ninth on the list of box-office stars earning $200,000 per movie. As the Depression deepened, many credited Rogers and child actress Shirley Temple (1928–) with saving Fox from bankruptcy.

Rogers's writing career began in 1919 when Harper Brothers published two short books of his observations. In 1920 Rogers added journalism to his activities when a news syndicate hired him to cover the political party conventions that year. By 1922 Rogers began writing a newspaper column titled "Will Rogers Says," which became a daily feature in 1926. Forty million readers faithfully followed his column. Rogers would often sit in the backseat of his car with his typewriter, writing his column. He was so popular that in December 1926 he was made honorary mayor of Beverly Hills, California, the first mayor for that community.

Other writing jobs came along. The Saturday Evening Post sent Rogers abroad on special assignments to Europe and Russia in 1927 and to the Far East in 1934. Continuing his stage performances with the Follies, Rogers also took to the lecture circuit and even starred in a Broadway play. The play, Three Cheers, ran from late 1928 through June 1929 and was a big hit. For his lectures he received $1,500 per appearance, including one at Carnegie Hall. He would typically stroll around the stage while talking, occasionally sitting on the edge of a stool placed to one side.

One more communication medium was left to conquer: radio. In the early 1930s Rogers began broadcasting on the radio and quickly became a popular radio personality. Besides his regular network shows, he was hired by Gulf Oil Company to do seven additional shows between April 1933 and June 1935.

Rogers on Roosevelt

Will Rogers expressed a liking for Franklin D. Roosevelt as early as 1928, when Roosevelt was running for governor of New York. As Roosevelt progressed toward the presidency, Rogers became increasingly political. He missed few opportunities to praise Roosevelt, carefully balancing the needling in his act with positive comments. Late in Roosevelt's first presidential campaign, on September 23, 1932, Rogers made the following comment while introducing Roosevelt to a crowd at the Hollywood Bowl in California: "I'm wasting no oratory [speech] on you tonight. You're just a mere prospect. Come back when you are president and I'll do better."

Following Roosevelt's election victory several weeks later on November 8, Rogers advised Roosevelt, "Don't worry too much—and don't forget that a smile will look like a meal to us." This comment was a reference to Roosevelt's characteristic big, optimistic smiles, which were a welcome contrast to the more reserved, stern expressions of then-President Herbert Hoover. Rogers had grown to greatly dislike President Hoover's limited response to the country's economic problems. After Roosevelt's inauguration on March 4, 1933, Rogers commented, "The whole country is with him. Even if what he does is wrong, they are with him, just as long as he does something. If he burned down the Capitol, they would cheer and say, 'Well, at least he got a fire started, anyhow!'" Several days later on March 13, while Roosevelt was working on solving the nation's banking crisis, Rogers commented on a key radio speech made by the new president: "Mr. Roosevelt stepped to the microphone last night and knocked another home run. His message was not only a great comfort to the people, but it pointed a lesson to all radio announcers and public speakers what to do with a big vocabulary—leave it at home in the dictionary." The Roosevelts greatly appreciated Rogers's support and invited Rogers and his wife and daughter for an evening at the White House in February 1934.

Rogers's public appeal

Will Rogers's popularity in so many mediums was astounding. He always preached the traditional values of being neighborly and treating everyone equally. In all the mediums he consistently came across as friendly and honest, and he always made people laugh. He also proved very shrewd by focusing public attention on key national issues at opportune moments, such as Prohibition (the national ban on the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages; 1920–33) and foreign relations following World War I (1914–18). Rogers knew how far to push a joke before it would be considered in bad taste. Many Americans saw Rogers as a reassuring link to traditional America during a period of substantial social and economic change in the 1920s and then during the severe economic crisis of the 1930s Great Depression. Rogers was so popular that national figures often felt honored to be the subject of his comments.

The Wisdom of Will Rogers

Will Rogers was noted for one-liner jokes during his commentaries and during interviews. Here is a small sample of some of the more famous comments.

"My epitaph: Here lies Will Rogers. Politicians turned honest and he starved to death." (Rogers made his living by making witty observations about political issues and dishonest politicians.)

"Spinnin' a rope's a lotta fun, providin' your neck ain't in it." (Rogers's first performing act included riding horses and doing rope tricks.)

"Americans are the most generous, kind-hearted people on earth as long as they're convinced not one dollar of it is going for taxes." (Rogers was referring to wealthy Americans who opposed President Roosevelt's government-funded relief programs.)

"We are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile." (In the United States the rise of the automobile occurred just as the nation plummeted into a deep economic crisis.)

"You can't say civilization don't advance because in every war they kill you in a new way."

"He [President Calvin Coolidge, a Republican who served from 1923 to 1929] didn't do anything, but that's what the people wanted done." (The Republican Party philosophy in the 1920s involved letting business operate free of regulation and providing little assistance to the struggling farm economy.)

When the Depression arrived, Rogers changed his tone and became less critical of government. He tried to provide more optimism to the millions of people hit hard by the Depression. Rogers had routinely stayed away from any alignment with a political party. However, as the Depression worsened, he became increasingly critical of President Herbert Hoover's (1874–1964; served 1929–33; see entry) limited response to the people's plight. After Franklin Roosevelt took over as president in March 1933, Rogers promoted some of Roosevelt's New Deal social and economic programs in his commentary. At the same time he enjoyed ridiculing the elitism of Roosevelt's small group of advisers, known as the Brain Trust (see entry), who wielded great political power under the president's guidance. In 1934 the Democrats urged the popular Rogers to run for governor of California, but he declined, claiming he would rather be a bad actor than a bad governor.

A career tragically ended

In August 1935 at the peak of Rogers's career, his life came to a sudden end. He had just signed a new contract with Fox Studios to star in ten movies for $1.1 million. He was killed in a small plane crash on Point Barrow, Alaska, while on his way to the Far East. His death was a tragedy felt by millions across the nation. He had made an enormous amount of money during the Great Depression but had contributed much to charities to help the poor. Soon after his death the State of Oklahoma built the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore. The museum opened in 1938, and it was expanded and remodeled by 1995. When Rogers's wife, Betty, died in 1944, his ranch in Santa Monica was donated to the State of California to become a state park. Betty's and Will's bodies were taken to Oklahoma, where they were buried together at the Claremore museum. A life-size bronze statue of Rogers was placed in Statutory Hall in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

For More Information


day, donald, ed. the autobiography of will rogers. boston, ma: houghton mifflin, 1949.

gragert, steven k., ed. radio broadcasts of will rogers. stillwater, ok: oklahoma state university, 1983.

Ketchum, Richard M. Will Rogers: His Life and Times. New York, NY: American Heritage, 1973.

Robinson, Ray. American Original: A Life of Will Rogers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Rogers, Betty. Will Rogers: His Wife's Story. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

Web Sites

The Will Rogers Homepage. (accessed on September 9, 2002).

Rogers, Will

views updated May 09 2018

Will Rogers

Born: September 5, 1879
Oologah, Oklahoma
Died: August 15, 1935
Point Barrow, Alaska

American journalist, humorist, and performing artist

One of the most celebrated humorists (writers of clever humor) and public figures of his day, Will Rogers offered dry, whimsical commentaries on a variety of political, social, and economic issues, and he became the voice of the "average" citizen.

Childhood as a cowboy

Will Rogers was born on September 5, 1879, to Clement and Mary Rogers. The youngest of eight children, Will was raised in a wealthy and privileged family on a ranch near Claremore, Oklahoma, which was then Indian Territory. His father, Clement, a rancher and farmer, was also a sharp businessman and an influential politician. Although Rogers loved his father, their strong personalities often led to conflict. His relationship with his mother was loving and affectionate, and when she passed away, ten-year-old Rogers was devastated.

Rogers was one-quarter Cherokee and liked to boast that this heritage, combined with his early experience as a cowboy, made him the ideal example of the American citizen. His early adult years were spent between working on the family ranch and traveling the world, and it was in South Africa that Rogers began his performing career with a Wild West show as a trick rider. He later joined a circus, then back in the United States, he worked in another Wild West show, which eventually led to a job in vaudeville, a theater style that used a variety of acts. In vaudeville he added to his performances with off beat lectures on the art of roping. Rogers's humorous chatter, casual delivery, and southwestern drawl proved a popular combination, resulting in an invitation to join the popular Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. He delighted audiences with his homely philosophy (the study of knowledge) and sharp remarks, becoming a renowned humorist and interpreter of the news.

Rogers and his wife and children moved to California, where he acted in a number of films, beginning with Laughing Bill Hyde (1918). Rogers's two-year contract was terminated, however, when the studio changed hands. He then began his own film production company, but when this failed he was forced to return to New York City and the Ziegfield Follies.

The cowboy philosopher

Three years later the first two collections of Rogers's humor appearedThe Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference and The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition, both published in 1919. The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference poked fun at the political activities surrounding the Versailles Treaty (signed in 1919, the treaty helped settle matters following World War I [191418]). The second volume ridiculed the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1919, which outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Rogers posed as the cowboy philosopher, a rural American gaping wide-eyed at the shenanigans of a modern world run by crooked businessmen and dishonest politicians. Yet although Rogers's brand of popular humor appealed to the average citizen, he himself became a part of the establishment he made fun of. He befriended members of Congress as well as business leaders and at one time publicly supported the Fascist regime of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (18831945), who ruled Italy with a cruel and iron fist. Rogers, as quoted by James Feibleman in In Praise of Comedy: A Study in Its Theory and Practice, once stated that he wished his gravestone to read, "I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I have never met a man I didn't like."

Rogers began a secondary career as an after-dinner speaker, and his success led in 1922 to a syndicated weekly newspaper column. The first two years of these columns were collected in the 1924 book The Illiterate Digest. The columns showcase the cutting criticisms Rogers aimed at government, the influence of big business, and the then-popular topic of world disarmament (to reduce weapons) in the aftermath of World War I (191418).

The cowboy in Europe

Rogers next moved onto the international stage of political humor. The Saturday Evening Post sent him abroad and his columns from Europe were collected in Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President, published in 1926. The articles were published in the magazine in the form of fictional letters to then-president Calvin Coolidge (18721933) and were full of humorous advice to the chief executive from Rogers's European observations. The next leg of the journey for the Post took Rogers to the Soviet Union, the former country that today is made up of Russia and several smaller nations, and his columns about this experience appeared in There's Not a Bathing Suit in Russia. This 1927 volume chronicles his trip to the world's first Communist government, a political system where the goods and services are owned and distributed by a controlling central government.

During this period Rogers further expanded into another mediathe growing field of radio. He gave his first broadcast over the airwaves in 1926 and by 1930 had his own weekly slot. Like each of his speeches and syndicated columns, the radio speeches centered on a topic of current interest and were filled with Rogers's stories and sharp commentary on the issue. By the end of the 1920s Rogers was using his position in the spotlight to campaign for humanitarian causes (causes that improve the life of others). During devastating flooding along the Mississippi River in 1927, he visited the ravaged areas, gave special performances and donated the proceeds to flood victims, and testified before Congress supporting increased disaster aid to the area.

The year 1929 dealt a severe blow to the American frame of mindin October the stock market crashed and the country was plunged into a deep economic depression, putting millions out of work. Rogers continued in his role as the foremost humorist of the nation's "little people" in his radio broadcasts and journalistic essays. In one piece, quoted by E. Paul Alworth in Will Rogers, he wrote: "Now everybody has got a scheme to relieve unemployment, but there is just one way to do it and that's for everybody to go to work. 'Where?' Why right where you are, look around and you see lots of things to do, weeds to be cut, fences to be fixed, lawns to be mowed, filling stations to be robbed, gangsters to be catered to." Rogers supported the radical transformations President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945) began under the New Deal beginning in 1933. The celebrity spoke out in favor of lending a helping hand to those affected the most by the economic situation and again gave benefit performances.

He continued to star in films and indulged in his passion for airplanes. In August of 1935 a small plane carrying Rogers and a pilot friend, on their way to survey air routes from the United States to the Soviet Union, crashed over Point Barrow, Alaska, killing the entertainer. Rogers was fifty-five. His death was an occasion of national mourning. Newspapers and radio commentators praised him, a memorial was dedicated near his Oklahoma birthplace, and several volumes of his speeches, essays, broadcasts, and sayings appeared in print. Will Rogers is remembered as one of the best-loved celebrities of his era and one of the twentieth century's best-known humorists. Forty years after his death, collections of his essays and quips were still appearing in bookstores.

For More Information

Alworth, E. Paul. Will Rogers. Boston: Twayne, 1974.

Brown, William R. Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1970.

Keating, Francis Anthony. Will Rogers: An American Legend. New York: Harcourt, 2002.

Rogers, Will. The Autobiography of Will Rogers. Edited by Donald Day. New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Yagoda, Ben. Will Rogers: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Rogers, Will

views updated May 29 2018


William Penn Adair Rogers (November 4, 1879–August 15, 1935) was known worldwide as a humorist, philosopher, writer, actor, and stage performer. Will Rogers was at the height of his popularity in 1935 when he died tragically in an airplane crash in Alaska.

Born in Indian Territory near present-day Oologah, Oklahoma, Rogers was the only son of well-to-do parents who were both part Cherokee. He attended schools in Indian Territory and Missouri, but never graduated from high school. After a brief time in Texas, he returned home, managed the family ranch, and competed in roping contests. After traveling around the world, part of the time performing as a roper and rider, Rogers took his act to the Saint Louis World's Fair in 1904. Later that year, he appeared for the first time in vaudeville, launching a stage career that would include several seasons with the Ziegfeld Follies. An occasional contributor to newspapers by 1922, he started a syndicated weekly column that year and a daily column four years later, both eventually reaching millions of readers. He also starred in films—both silents and talkies—and on radio.

By 1929 Rogers had become one of the most visible, quoted, and recognizable figures in the country. He had taken advantage of almost every available media form and had succeeded at most. His commentary, although often pointed, rarely attacked. As a humorist he was both jokester and philosopher.

The Depression of the 1930s caused Rogers to turn more serious. He had long before gibed at the excesses he perceived in American society; therefore his initial reaction in the early months following the stock market crash reflected a hope for a return to normality. As the Depression deepened, however, Rogers criticized the refusal of the federal government to provide direct relief and in January 1931 he even proposed large-scale public works funded by increased taxation of the wealthy.

At the same time Rogers became directly involved in relief efforts. In early 1931 he voluntarily undertook a benefit tour of several agriculturally depressed states and raised significant funds for Red Cross relief programs. Rogers, a millionaire, donated to other organized appeals and to personal situations, and he urged the public to respond similarly.

Not surprisingly, he welcomed the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and the promise of decisive action. He chose to interpret in the president's moves in the early days of his administration a return of confidence. Despite continued hardship in the country, Rogers's writings and public remarks took on a lighter, more positive tone from the beginning of Roosevelt's presidency in March 1933. From then until his death Rogers conveyed an optimistic message, even in his films, that good times would return, a point of view that critics on the left considered unrealistic. As evidenced by his rising popularity, however, the public seemed to agree with Rogers or, at least, to find comfort in his humor.

Rogers died with aviator Wiley Post in a plane crash at Point Barrow, Alaska, on August 15, 1935. He was survived by his wife, Betty, and three children.

See Also: HUMOR.


Bergman, Andrew. We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. 1972.

Brown, William Richard. Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream. 1970.

Carter, Joseph H. Never Met a Man I Didn't Like: The Life and Writings of Will Rogers. 1991.

Collins, Reba. "Will Rogers: Writer and Journalist." Ed.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 1967.

Croy, Homer. Our Will Rogers. 1953.

Gragert, Steven K., ed. Will Rogers' Weekly Articles, Vols. 4–6. 1981–1982.

Gragert, Steven K., ed. Radio Broadcasts of Will Rogers. 1983.

Rogers, Betty. Will Rogers: His Wife's Story. 1941. Reprint, 1979.

Rogers, Will. Papers. Will Rogers Memorial, Claremore, OK.

Rollins, Peter C., director. Will Rogers' 1920s: A Cowboy's Guide to the Times. 1976.

Rollins, Peter C. Will Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography. 1984.

Smallwood, James, and Steven K. Gragert, eds. Will Rogers' Daily Telegrams, 4 vols. 1978–1979.

Wertheim, Arthur F., and Barbara Bair, eds. The Papers of Will Rogers, 3 vols. 1996–2001.

Yagoda, Ben. Will Rogers: A Biography. 1993.

Steven K. Gragert

Will Rogers

views updated May 14 2018

Will Rogers

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 CowboyPhilosopher 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

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. □

Rogers, Will

views updated May 23 2018

Rogers, Will ( William Penn Adair) (1879–1935) US comedian who appeared in vaudeville as a cowboy and joined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1914. Through his contributions to film, radio, and a syndicated newspaper column, he became known as the ‘cowboy philosopher’.

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