Category Archives: teaching huck finn

Heteroglossia and Dialect Humor: Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral

Jan McIntire-Strasburg, Executive Director–American Humor Studies Asociation

Humorist employ many different stylistic techniques in order to incite thought-provoking laughter in their readers.  Once such is Mikhail Bahktin’s concept of heteroglossia.  As Bahktin used it, this term refers to a linguistic play of different forms of a language from different races, classes or genders that highlights difference.  While such use does not always result in humor, it is an excellent way to do so.  Juxtaposing the dialects representing upper and lower classes, for example, can result in humorous misunderstandings that highlight the differences between the two classes in education or experience, and demonstrate the difficulties of effective communication between the two.  The elements of contradiction and surprise that result from such conversations often invoke laughter.

Mark Twain makes excellent use of this linguistic play in “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” a short sketch in his travel book, Roughing It.  Miner Scotty Briggs’ Washoe slang and poker analogies are incomprehensible to the Eastern minister he is trying to convince to officiate at Buck’s funeral.  The minister, in his attempts to understand Briggs’ request are equally confusing to the miner.  The minister’s “clarifications” are long-winded and employ theological vocabulary well outside of Scotty’s experience.  Thus for the space of several pages, the reader is treated to the experience of watching (hearing) two men groping toward an understanding of each other.  Since the reader already knows what is required, she is free to enjoy laughter at the expense of both the formal, highly educated minister and the slangy Western miner.

Mark Twain Rouging It Buck Fanshaw's Funeral

Such laughter can, and often does, result in humor for entertainment purposes only.  But in Twain’s case, the laughter engendered by Scotty and the minister also highlights major differences in Eastern and Western life in nineteenth century and the clash of two cultures within American borders.  He demonstrates through the dialog a wide gulf in value systems and invites the reader to take a side—should we favor the minister who, though well educated, comes off as stuffy and superior, or should we instead value Scotty’s more homey and practical view of life on the frontier?

Mark Twain Roughing It Buck Fanshaw's Funeral

These insights are all available to us as we read Twain’s sketch, and because regional dialects comprised a large part of nineteenth century writing, Twain’s contemporaneous readers would have had no trouble discerning the meaning or recognizing the humor.  However, contemporary readers, unused to the idiosyncratic spellings and pronunciations often find this kind of reading slow going, and the “translation” that must take place can affect how readers interpret the humor of the sketch.  The sound recording below, because it offers the opportunity to hear rather than see the dialect, allows for a 21st century “reader” to avoid the difficulties of reading through the dialect, and lets the humor come through.  Thus it frees the reader to think about what is said instead of spending time deciphering the text itself.  For students who are inexperienced readers of dialect, this freedom is necessary to understanding.  For experienced readers of Twain and dialect, hearing the text enhances the fun of it.

Sound recordings can make excellent teaching tools to demonstrate the concept of heteroglossia by showing them how it works in practice instead of telling them how it works.  This recording of “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” is one example of how we can use sound to enhance teaching humor to undergraduates.  It is also a great way for Twainiacs and humor scholars to entertain themselves.

See also an audio recording of the piece from Harry E. Humphrey in 1913.

The American Humor Studies Association welcomes teaching resources for their website. Please contact us at wustert@gmail.com

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Jim’s Dilemma

Your pa, he says to me that I need to come and help you understand why he had to go away, why he had to join the Missouri Colored Regiment.[i]  Says I was good at explaining and good at leaving my own self, and so I might as well be the one.  But you knows what your pa’s doing, don’t you?  You knows that he joined up so’s you all be free when he come back.  That’s cause you listen good, child.

Your pa, he never did understand, though, about why I went away.  Never did let me tell the whole story.  Always said I loved that white boy better’n him.  Never did understand.  But that’s my fault, I reckon.  Or maybe that’s just the way it goes.

Ole missus, that’s Miss Watson as was, she moved in with her sister, see?  And I hads to go with her; didn’t have no choice, though that meant I was 20 miles or more from your nanny and your pa and your aunt ‘Lizabeth what as died before you was born, 20 miles instead a just a few.  Used to come see them most every night, but after that—  Johnny—your pa—had to be the man of the house whiles I was gone—much as slavery lets you to be a man.  But love that white boy more’n him?   Huhn!  I tell yah—first words I says to that white boy, I says

 “Name’s not ‘nigger,’ boy.  Name’s Jim.  And I lay I’ll teach you to know it.”  Those was the first words I said to him.

Huh?  You’re right.  Told you, you’s a smart boy, and I admit it.  Them’s the first words I thought when that little white trash moved in and got dressed up in all the fancy clothes and done called me nigger though he just crawled right outten a hogshead his own self.  What I said aloud was “Yassuh, young massa?”  Man’s gotta know where the corn pone comes from.  It’s a tough world, it is, child, and don’t you forget it.

The boy weren’t so bad, though, as white folks go.  Fact is, I believe he had a good heart in there when it weren’t messed up and confused.  He told some of the story round about here, when that Tom Sawyer would let him talk.  And Huck, he told the truth so far as he could, I guess.  As he says, we all gots some stretchers in us.  But he was the only white man I ever know that even tried to keep his word to old Jim.  Only white man I ever know that thought a word was a something to keep, when talking to a nigger.  Most of them’d sooner lie than look at you.  But you know, they don’t really like looking now, do they?

Huck, he weren’t so bad, though.  And he did try.  But with a dad like his’n and that Tom Sawyer always raisin’ Cain and messing with his head, calling him chucklehead when he got a fair point an’ such truck as that.  Huck never had no chance.  But he tried, and I got to give him credit for trying.  He was a good boy, take it all in all.

I done told you the story lots a times, about the time I runned.[ii]  Had to.  You know that.  The devil he got in me.  And old missus, she got scared.  Was gonna sell me down to Orleans, she was.  Never woulda seen your pa or ‘Lizabeth again.   I lit out mighty quick, made a good plan, too, but there’s people everywhere, on account of they thought Huck done been killed.   They was crawling all over both sides of the river.

I took my chance in the dark—you knows the story—how I hid in the driftwood, then latched onto the raft.  I needed to get far away, and I knowed it.  Heard all day from where I was hiding in that cooper’s shack about how Huck‘s killed on the Illinois side.  Knowed oncet they realized I was gone, they’d blame me for it.  Ridden by witches and with the devil’s own coin, they’d never believe it weren’t me, and they’d know I’d lay for Illinois.  Where else a man going to go?   It’d be like that nigger Joe in Boone County what killed that white trash with de axe, or that Teney in Callaway that they said killed that woman.[iii]  I’d never a seen the inside of a jail.

But I didn’t have no luck.  When the man come toward me with the lantern, there weren’t no use for it; I struck out for the island.   Had to lay low, ‘cause they was hunting Huck, and pretty soon, they was hunting me, too.  Couldn’t get much to eat.  Knew I needed to swim for the Illinois shore afore I was too weak from hunger, but they was hunting too hard.  And push come to shove, I kept thinking ‘bout your pa, and about poor little ‘Lizabeth, and somehow I couldn’t leave.  My head was just a busting and so was my heart.  Lit myself a fire to keep warm, made sure it didn’t smoke, but I kept seeing ‘Lizabeth’s eyes looking into mine.  Wrapped the blanket round my head to shut them out, but that didn’t make no matter.  Finally done fall asleep, though.

First thing I saw when I wakes up was that there dead white boy, big as life.  Thought he was a ghost at first, I did, come to haint old Jim, who only tried to help him when his pa come back.  Old Jim, who never told the missus bout all the times he sneaked out in the night to cat about.  Niggers never have no luck—you remember that, child—it’ll save you lots a disappointment in this life.  But no ghost ever blim-blammed like that, and so I knowed it was really him, his own self.  That child could talk the hind leg off a donkey, he could.  I kept quiet and let him run on, thinking mighty hard.

He had a gun, see.  And people thought he was dead.  Or was that just one a him and Tom Sawyer’s jokes again?  It weren’t the first time white folks thought they was dead, though this’d be the first time a body had cared that Huck was gone, first time in his whole life.  But there he was with a gun, a-chatterin and a-jammerin on.  Was he a-hunting me?  Hunting old Jim after he had his lark and made folks think he was dead?

Then he busts into my thoughts.  Tells me to make up the fire and get breakfast, just like he owned me.  That boy playing me, I thinks to myself, but I gots to know.  Maybe he’s just a-hunting.  So I axed him some questions, and found out he been there since the night he was killed.  So whatever he’s a-playing at, he ain’t a-hunting old Jim.  I tells him I’ll make a fire if he’ll hunt us up something for to cook on it.

I was expecting him to come back with some squirrel or some mud-turkles or such truck, or maybe a rabbit iffen I was lucky, and I hoped he had a knife with that gun, but I looked round for a sharp stone, just in case.  When he come back, he come back with all kinds of stuff, a catfish and sugar and bacon and coffee and dishes, if that don’t beat all.  I was set back something considerable, ‘cause I knew right away what it meant.  Continue reading →

Teaching American Humor: Back to School

Editors of Humor in America

As many of us prep our syllabi and get ready to head back to school, some of our readers will be so lucky as to get to teach humor to their students–either in a specifically focused class or in a more general context.  One of the founding goals of this website was the importance of the pedagogical discussion of humor.  Amy Wright, Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, and Tracy Wuster discussed some of these issues in An Educated Sense of Humor.

Our writers have taken on a number of topics related to teaching humor.  Sharon McCoy and Tracy Wuster have both taken up E.B. White’s famous saying about humor and dissecting a frog (here, here, and here).  Jeff Melton and Sharon McCoy have written on teaching satire:

Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)

Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire: A Response to Jeff Melton

Teaching American Satire: A New Piece for the Classroom from the Onion

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Jeff has also started a series about teaching humor:

Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies

Teaching American Sitcoms: Shall We Gather Round the Table?

What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Laughing with Laugh Tracks

The BCS of American College Football Humor

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To which we could add Sharon McCoy’s pieces:

Teaching Humor with Multicultural Texts; Teaching Multiculturalism with Humor

If I Hear it Again, I Swear I’ll Scream: Hemingway, Huck Finn, and “Cheating”

Poetry Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar: Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke

Other pieces on the site aren’t specifically focused on pedagogy, but they do touch on related questions.  Tom Inge’s Politics and the American Sense of Humor launched the website just over 2 years (and 185k views) ago.  Michael Kiskis’s The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also helped launch our site.  Both pieces offer insight into the cultural roles of American humor, and both have proved to be popular over the course of the site’s life.

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In perusing the list of pieces on the site over these last two years, there are too many strong discussions of humor to list here.  Pieces of interest in relation to teaching humor might be:

The Muppets: An Exercise in Humorous Metacinematic Irony by Michael Purgason

REMEMBERING DICK GREGORY by Sam Sackett

Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry by Caroline Sposto

Five Subjects Behind: Some thoughts on grunge, time machines, and “Clam Chow-Dah!” by Tracy Wuster

The Funny Thing about Cancer by Sharon McCoy

Parody: A Lesson by Don and Alleen Nilsen

Studying Stephen Colbert: Nation, who is the most important humorist of the day? by Tracy Wuster

The Onion and How Comedy Deals with Tragedy (Or Not) by Matthew Daube

Meta-Racist Airplane Jokes: The Foolish Audience and Didactic Humor by Philip Scepanski

The Mount Rushmore of Mount Rushmores by ABE

Humor Studies: An Interview with Don Nilsen

Mojo Medicine: Humor, Healing and the Blues by Matt Powell

The Pitfalls of Activist Humor by Bonnie Applebeet

Power Girl and Girl Power (Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bombshell) by David B. Olsen

In the Archives: Mr. Dooley in Peace and War, “On the Indian War” by Luke Deitrich

And so many others… if you wish to write something about humor and learnin’, please write the editor.  We’d love to have more.

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Five Subjects Behind: Some thoughts on grunge, time machines, and “Clam Chow-Dah!”

by Tracy Wuster

On January 11th, 1992, I gathered with a group of friends to watch Saturday Night Live, our usual Saturday night activity as high school sophomores.  This was a special night.  Nirvana was playing, and we were living just north of Seattle.  Grunge was our thing: flannel, mosh pits, and, most of all, music.

This was the episode on which the band played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” thrashed their instruments during “Territorial Pissings,” and kissed each other during the closing credits. The band’s anarchic spirit expressed not only our (possibly exaggerated) teen angst but also the humor of destruction, noise, and pissing off parents and other authorities that went hand in hand with the angst.

But, oddly enough, what I remember most from that episode of Saturday Night Live is not Nirvana’s performance but a sketch featuring the host Rob Morrow.  The sketch is entitled, “Five Subjects Behind,” but I have always referred to it as “Clam Chow-Dah!”

Watch:

In the sketch, Morrow is at a diner with two friends–a man and a woman.  As the conversation proceeds, Morrow awkwardly and consistently returns to previous subjects with a punchline now hopelessly outdated, interrupting the flow of conversation to the increasing consternation of his friends.  At one point, the character played by Mike Myers mentions Boston and clam chowder.  After several subjects go by, Morrow bellows out: “Clam Chow-dah!” in a Boston-esque accent, and then awkwardly recreates the context, defeating the humor of the comment and, in fact, forcing an awkwardness that might be described as “anti-humorous.”*

Continue reading →