One Sided Scholarship, or How We (Narrowly) Defined American Humor

This essay begins with a story about the American frontier—one that most of you may already know—and I’d like to use it to try to explain why it is that we remember a few particular 19th Century humorists and NOT the 30 or 40 others who were also writing and publishing popular work during the pre-Civil War years and later.

Post-Revolutionary War America was a place of constantly shifting frontiers both to the west and to the south. In a given year, the western frontier might be Upstate New York and gradually moving westward, with the southern frontier in Virginia gradually moving further and further south; in later years, it became anything west of the Mississippi River as the influx of population pushed the borders westward and southward. In order to understand the humor that comes out of these liminal (border) spaces, one needs to think just a bit about what the frontier(s) were, how things operated there, and who migrated to those spaces. As the “new” settlements became more populated and the opportunities for jobs and wealth became less plentiful, pioneers moved further south and west in search of prosperity. Typically, we think of these folks as the rugged individualists who brought their skills and strength to bear on carving civilization out of the wilderness. In many cases, this was true.

However, in addition to the skilled laborers and farmers, the frontiers also attracted a seedier element–the con man and the pettifogger, the liar and the cheat, the gambler and the speculator–into these newly settled territories. Often they were one step ahead of criminal charges, lynching, or tar-and-feathering, and searching for a fresh start somewhere where they were an unknown quantity, and where new victims for their fraud were readily available. Given the nature of boom-towns on the frontier, it stands to reason that these would serve as topics for humor writers who inhabited that space.

These borderlands—primarily Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama for the purposes of this study—are the regions from which those authors we call the Southwestern humorists sprang and flourished. When we speak of these humorists today, three or four of them remain and stand in for the whole of southwestern humor from 1830-1865 or so. Thomas Bangs Thorpe, for example, is still often anthologized and read in high schools and colleges occasionally. His “Big Bear of Arkansas” survives as a representative of the rough and ready braggart type of the American frontier. His language is a bit crude, his story quite exaggerated, and its conclusion a bit off-color. George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood tales are also occasionally anthologized. Students still respond to Sut with a mixture of horror and fascination, and most of the tales—“Parson John Bullen’s Lizards” comes to mind—demonstrate written slapstick humor at its best; and Sut’s character, while not exactly a con man, walks a fine line between “good fun” and that which is legal and/or moral. Similarly, Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs remains a memorable and sometimes anthologized character in American humor.   If Sut often straddles the line between propriety and crudity, Simon Suggs broad-jumps that line, happily defrauding the country folk and slaves at every opportunity. His tag line is: “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” What these most often remembered and read authors have in common is the use of vernacular language, themes that involve fighting, fraudulent horse swaps, practical jokes that range from the mean spirited to the downright dangerous, and a frame featuring a narrator more refined and educated than the characters of their stories.

There is no doubt that Hooper, Harris, and Thorpe deserve their place in the pantheon of humor; however, they remain three of a very few authors who serve as representatives of all of the Southwest humor in the nineteenth century to the present day reader. This narrowed focus creates the mistaken impression that vernacular stories are the only form of humor extant in the nineteenth-century Southwest. For the purposes of this presentation, and in the interests of time and space, I will concentrate on only two humorists from the time period who write a very different kind of humorous story: these authors were every bit as well known and well read in their own time—Joseph Glover Baldwin and Henry Clay Lewis. As with most of the Southwest humorists, Baldwin and Lewis wrote and published in their spare time. Baldwin was a lawyer and Lewis a physician. Their professions brought them into contact with the characters inhabiting the new settlements in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana respectively, and they chose to write about these characters, just as Hooper, Harris, and Thorpe did. Unlike these three, however, they chose a very different style and form for the tales.

While Baldwin is occasionally studied (Ed Piacentino published articles about him in at least two of his collections), his work is seldom, if ever, anthologized. As a young newly minted lawyer, he found that Virginia was overrun with lawyers and offered few opportunities for a practice of his own. Thus he migrated to the frontier territory of Alabama and Mississippi. His law practice picked up slowly, and thus he began writing short, humorous pieces that were first published in the Southern Literary Messenger and were later collected into The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi: A Series of Sketches. They became quite popular on publication, going into several printings over the next few years. His writing was far more lucrative than his law practice.

The themes for several stories focus on the profession of law as it was practiced in the new settlements. At that time, anyone could hang out a shingle and “practice” law. It had yet to be consolidated into a profession with standards for education, training, and licensure. Of the flush times, Baldwin’s biographer, Samuel Boyd Stewart writes:

Courts were the main source of amusement in those days. Verdicts were rare, quashings most often the case. If cases did come to court points of law made no great difference; jurors were often swayed by oratory, and if they thought a defendant justified in his actions, then he was acquitted. (83-84)

Many of the judges knew far less about the law than Baldwin, who had studied it. One sketch titled “My First Appearance at the Bar” relates the tale of his first encounter with an “old time” lawyer. Such lawyers were given to long-winded arguments, quotations from literature, and harangues that could take a full day. Often the lawyers who won the most cases did so because they were adept at filibustering language that obscured the facts of the case. The young Baldwin decides to fight fire with fire, and uses these tactics in his own defense of his client, knowing that his opponent, Kasm, was well known for his bombastic style. In the description of Kasm, we see the classic, understated humor most often associated with Addison and Steele:

How far back he traced his lineage, I do not remember but he had the best blood of both worlds in his veins; sired high up on the paternal side by some Prince or Duke, and dammed on the mother’s by one or two Pocahontases…He bragged largely on Virginia, though—he was not eccentric on this point—but it was the Virginia of Washington, the Lees, Henry, etc., of which he boasted. The old dame may take it as a compliment that he bragged of her at all. (23-24)

The language of the piece is classic in the tradition of British wit. Understatement is often the primary tool for him to express that wit. One can see a similar use of understatement and flowery language in the most well known of his pieces, “Ovid Bolus, Esq.”. Bolus was a speculator, con man, and “natural liar” who borrowed from everyone, hatched get-rich-quick schemes, and ultimately left the country owing just about every member of the community. In his introduction to this sketch, which appears as the first selection for Flush Times, Baldwin uses Bolus as his prime example of everything that is wrong with the frontier mentality he finds in Alabama and Mississippi:

And what history of that halcyon period, ranging from the year of Grace, 1835-1837; that golden era, when shin plasters were the sole currency; when bank-bills were ‘as thick as autumn leaves in “Vallambrosa,” and credit was a franchise,–what history of those times would be complete, that left out the name of Ovid Bolus? As well write the biography of Prince Hal, and forebear all mention of Falstaff. (1)

Of Bolus’s name, Baldwin says he “borrowed it: he borrowed everything else he ever had.” Of his disposition and temperament, he posits Bolus as a “natural liar:”

Some men are liars from interest…some from vanity…some from a sort of necessity…by the allurements of pleasure, or seduced by evil example or education. Bolus was none of these: he belonged to a higher department of the fine arts, and to a higher class of professors of this sort of Belles Lettres. (3)

Compare Baldwin’s more elevated language and understatement to this short passage from Harris’s “Parson John Bullen’s Lizards.” The passage occurs directly after Sut has let loose his lizards to run up the parson’s pant legs during his sermon:

“He gin hisself sum orful open-handed slaps wif fust one han’ an’ then tuther, about the place whar yu cut the bes’ steak outen a beef. Then he’d fetch a vigrus ruff rub whar a hosses tail sprouts; then he’d stomp one foot, then tuther, then bof at onst. Then he run his han’ atween his waisbun an’ his shut an’ reach’d way down, an’ roun’ wif hit; then he spread his big laigs, an’ gin his back a good rattlin rub agin the pulpit, like a hog scratches hisself agin a stump, leanin tu hit pow’ful, an’ twitchin, an’ squirmin all over, es ef he’d slept in a dorg bed, ur ontu a pisant hill.   (Online version)

The vernacular language, crude comparisons, and idiosyncratic spelling are all hallmarks of Southwest humor as it has been defined by early 20th century critics. While the spelling and dialect make Harris’s texts a difficult read for current students, they do tend to respond to the slapstick nature of the story once they translate it. The two men write from vastly different styles, and likely from different philosophies of what written humor should be.

Harris, Hooper, and Thorpe’s contribution to Southwestern humor were regional and historical in nature. They recorded the vernacular dialects of their neighbors as a method of recording and publicizing life on the frontier. While most humorists from the region and time represented many of the same themes, these dialect humorists were devoted to realistic representation (verisimilitude) and allowing the characters to speak for themselves, in direct contrast to the intervening translation of the stories into more educated language, a technique often used by the literary elite. They are early representatives of an anti-intellectual turn in American literature in general that occurs throughout the nineteenth century with its focus on realistic and naturalistic writing.

Let me offer one final example from Henry Clay Lewis’s (Madison Tensas) Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana “Swamp Doctor.” As with Baldwin’s sketches concerning law and courts, Clay’s texts are drawn from his experiences as a country doctor in Louisiana. One of the first sketches offered in this collection is “The City Physician vs the Swamp Doctor.” In it, Clay draws humorous contrasts between the life of a big city doctor and that of a country physician. His language and word choices, much like Baldwin’s, are the more elevated and understated choices of a well- educated author. His humor relies much more heavily on the unexpected contrast than the ignorant and often crude language of the dialect humorists of his day:

The city physician may be of fastidious taste, and exquisiteness of feeling; the swamp doctor must have the unconcernedness of the dissecting-room, and be prepared to swallow his peck of dirt all at once… The city physician, fast anchored in the sublimity of scientific expression, requires a patient to “inflate his lungs to their utmost capacity;” the swamp doctor tells his to “draw a long breath, or swell your d——dest:” one calls an individual’s physical peculiarities, “idiosyncrasy;” the other terms it “a fellow’s nater” …The city physician rides in an easy carriage over well paved streets, and pays toll at the bridge; we mount a canoe, a pair of mud boots, sometimes a horse, and traverse, unmindful of exposure or danger, the sullen slough or angry river. (Online version)

Each of the comparisons highlight the differences between a medical practice grounded in a large city, where amenities are readily available, patients are more educated, and the modes of travel safer and more comfortable. He uses a countrified dialect only for single words and only as illustration of the contrast between the two places.

Compare this to a sample from Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs. Hooper’s work shows a harmonious blend of the classical literary standard and the vernacular language displayed by the dialect humorists. The framing narrator and the dialect protagonist are similar to that of Harris’s Sut Lovingood tales. This tale, like “Parson John Bullen’s Lizards, takes place at a camp meeting:

Amid all this confusion and excitement Suggs stood unmoved. He viewed the whole affair as a grand deception — a sort of “opposition line” running against his own, and looked on with a sort of professional jealousy. Sometimes he would mutter running comments upon what passed before him.

“Well now,” said he, as he observed the fullfaced brother who was “officiating” among the women, “that ere feller takes my eye! — thar he’s been this half-hour, a-figurin amongst them galls, and’s never said the fust word to nobody else. Wonder what’s the reason these here preachers never hugs up the old, ugly women? Never seed one do it in my life — the sperrit never moves ’em that way! It’s nater tho’; and the women, they never flocks round one o’ the old dried-up breethring — bet two to one old splinter-legs thar,” — nodding at one of the ministers — “won’t git a chance to say turkey to a good lookin gall to-day! Well! who blames ’em? Nater will be nater, all the world over; and I judge ef I was a preacher, I should save the purtiest souls fuss, myself!

Hooper chooses to narrate his sketches from a more standard literary language, while he uses the dialect quotes from Simon Suggs to highlight the difference between the teller of the tale and the uneducated country con man, Suggs. Much like his predecessor, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Hooper tries to create a balance between the literary and the realistic. In Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes, the author creates two different narrators, Baldwin and Hall. Hall represents the cruder stories, while Baldwin writes in a less vernacular style very similar to Baldwin and Clay.

What I believe we see here is a philosophical argument between the humorists writing in the pre-Civil War Southwest concerning the nature of literature and its place in the Arts and the community. Authors such as Harris, Thorpe, and Hooper, each in various degrees, demonstrate a predilection for showing rather than telling the cruder realism of the frontier. Authors such as Baldwin and Clay use their humor sketches to record and display the frontier, with its cruelties, crudities, and profanity masked by the author’s own more dignified style. In a letter written to his son Sandy on 22 February 1855, Baldwin sets out his own definition of how one ought to write:

Write in a clear, vigorous, pointed style, natural and easy; always say common things in a common way: and study to be clear—have a definite meaning in you mind and represent it in your words. I think this will not be difficult for you; for your mind is naturally clear, and you have uncommon facility of language. Avoid all exaggeration. Rise to the subject—but don’t go beyond it. Overstatement very generally is worse than understatement. Don’t strain after wit. Quiet is the best. Uproarious bizarre humor is not quite the style of a gentleman or a scholar. The best speaking and writing is strung sense with the point of wit on it: Like an axe made of iron with the edge steeled.

Clearly he has little respect for authors of “uproarious” humor who rely upon the crudities of vernacular to make their point. This is in direct opposition to the humorists we are most likely to find and read from the nineteenth century.

I propose that the reason for the foregrounding of the dialect humorists over those who wrote in more “literary” styles has less to do with reader preferences from that time or this one, and more from the scholarly publications of the early 20th century. Early to mid-20th century critics literally set the stage for that which we have come to consider “American” humor. Constance Rourke, Jeannette Tandy, and Walter Blair, to name the most prominent—chose specific “schools” of humor authors to valorize as typically American—The Southwestern and Down East humor schools. In doing so, they chose dialect over eloquence of language, hyperbole over understatement, direct address over descriptive narration, and slapstick physical comedy over linguistic humor and word play for the most part. They asserted that these choices set American humor apart from their British counterparts and highlighted what they believed was unique to humor in America. While making these choices may have helped scholars to define what was unique about American character through humor, it also tended to leave out humorists of the same time period who did not fit the mold—and those humorists are consequently less often read or anthologized today. As a result, American literature readers and scholars have a less balanced idea of what humor was like in America from the 1830s to 1880s. Perhaps in this 21st century, when American critics and scholars are less focused on defining American humor against the backdrop of British humor, authors such as Baldwin, Clay, and many others can now be read alongside the dialect humorists. Such readings would offer both scholars and readers a clearer and more balanced characterization of Southwestern humor in the nineteenth century.

 

 

Harris, George Washington. Sut Lovingood’s Yarns Spun by a Nat’ral Born Durned Fool, Online, Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/harrisg/summary.html

http://ecstasyandentropy.com/2012/parson-john-bullens-lizards-g-w-harris/

 

Hooper, J. Johnson. Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, (Online version), http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/huckfinn/suggs.html

Lewis, Henry Clay, (Madison Tensas). Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana “Swamp Doctor.” (Online version), Louisian Anthology, eds. Bruce R. Magee and Stephen Payne, Original publication date: 1850, http://www2.latech.edu/~bmagee/louisiana_anthology/texts/tensas/tensas.shtml

Stewart, Samuel Boyd. Biography of Joseph Glover Baldwin, Dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1941.

 

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