When people talk about the Southwestern humorists today, they most often mean authors like George Washington Harris, author of the Sut Lovingood stories, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, who wrote “The Big Bear of Arkansas, “ or Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs stories. These authors were all Southern gentlemen for the most part—doctors, lawyers, or other professional men. Yet the humor they wrote was broad, often vulgar, and were delivered in a backwoods dialect with idiosyncratic spellings. They often began the tales with the “gentleman” narrator speaking directly to the reader—explaining that they had heard these stories while traveling through the back country from colorful, though uneducated characters.
Since these are the nineteenth century humorists most often anthologized, the casual reader might draw the conclusion that their brand of humor represents the whole of humor in the Old Southwest of the 1830s-1850s. Such an assumption, however, would be misleading. As with other periods in American literature, humorists wrote their tales and sketches on both sides of the spectrum. For every author whose characters depicted backwoods con men and uneducated rubes, there existed a corresponding author who represented the Southern gentleman who eschewed dialects and instead styled their sketches and tales in the more refined and educated writing reminiscent of their British counterparts. While they often also showed the rough side of the Southwestern frontier during its early times, the con men and (often) immoral characters were themselves educated. They used little dialect, wanting to demonstrate clearly for readers their own erudition.
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet appears to be the “missing link” between authors such as Hooper and Harris, who pioneered dialect humor, and authors such as Joseph Glover Baldwin, whose sketches represent a more “refined” Southern humor. His sketches alternate between two narrators (Hall and Baldwin). One is a typical Georgia “cracker”—a poor, edging toward middle-class white, the other more educated and less tolerant of vulgarity. In his tales, the gentlemanly narrator never lapses into dialect. His “Georgia Theatrics”, shows readers the sounds of an eye-gouging, fist pumping frontier fight, only to undercut the idea—the young man is only practicing what he would do if he were called upon to fight in the backwoods manner.
Joseph Glover Baldwin represents the opposite side of the spectrum; his most famous sketch, “Ovid Bolus,” though it depicts a lying, blustering, speculating lawyer in Mississippi’s early frontier days, shows a marked lack of vernacular and none of the respect for shady dealing seen in Harris, Thorpe and Hooper. His style is more heavily descriptive with no vernacular dialect. His elegant prose is modeled after the subtle wit and dry humor of British essayists Addison and Steele. Broad, rowdy humor is decidedly lacking.
Twenty-first century readers, when exposed to Baldwin’s humor, find little that is “funny,” and even Longstreet suffers today, while Harris, Thorpe, and Hooper still warrant a laugh. These latter three are represented in anthologies of American literature—not so Baldwin and Longstreet—although Longstreet’s “The Dance” appears sporadically. The lack of easy access in anthologies to these more “refined” humorists creates the mistaken impression that all of nineteenth century pre-Civil War humor was rough, vulgar, and riddled with misspellings.
The reason for the misunderstanding, at least in part, can be attributed to early academic critics of humor. In the early days of humor scholarship (1920s-40s), critics focused the majority of their efforts on dialect humorists. While authors like Baldwin and Longstreet are mentioned, the majority of humorists studied were those backwoods “ringtailed roarers.” These early twentieth century scholars’ goal was to distinguish American humorists from their British counterparts, and to find authors whose work was uniquely “American.” In “Enter Laughing,” Judith Yaross Lee states that Walter Blair and other early humor critics “not only stressed the differences between American comic sensibilities and those of their English counterparts, but also reinforced the ideological premises behind them. In the early years, humor research grounded in American exceptionalism both contributed and reflected the worldwide nationalism of the day” (2). Thus the uneducated but savvy con men and practical jokers who took on the social norms of the day, the crackerbox philosophers, dialect humorists, with their con men and rascals, represented for these scholars a uniquely American form of humor.
The imprimatur of scholars caused anthologizers to choose sketches from the dialect humorists over those of the more refined Longstreet and Baldwin, whose tales and sketches were less coarse and bawdy. As time passed, the “other” Southwest humorists were all but forgotten. For now, at least, fortune favors the subversive. However, for those of us interested in all the forms of American humor, the Internet, the Nook, the Kindle, and on-demand printing may offer a more balanced picture of what people were laughing at in those early days of the Southwest. While our current notions of humor may have moved on from what the public considered “funny” in the 1830s-50s, reading all of the nineteenth century’s humor gives us a more balanced picture of what local and regional citizens were laughing at, of the time, and a great deal about the culture from which the Civil War arose.
For Further Reading:
Blair, Walter. Native American Humor, 1946
Lee, Judith Yaross. “Enter Laughing,” Studies in American Humor, New Series 3, No. 28, (2013).
Rourke, Constance. American Humor: A Study of the National Character, 1931.
Tandy, Jeannette. Crackerbox Philosophers of Humor and Satire, 1925.