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.
Several years ago, we posted a collection of humorous responses to President Obama’s change to support gay marriage. For a follow up, here are some of the humorous responses to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize marriage across the country.
Responses seem to fall into a few general categories:
1) Celebration of the ruling
2) Comments on the Supreme Court, pro and con, but with no real connection to the recent Obamacare decision (see bottom for examples of responses to that)
3) Connections to the questions of race and the Confederate flag
4) Satire on the institution of marriage
4) Reactions of opponents
Here are a few cartoons and memes that show examples of these trends.
And here are some web-based humorous responses:
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.
On a similar note, I live (by choice) in Memphis––a city challenged by crime, crushing poverty and troubled schools––yet filled with heart, soul and innovation.
Dee “Ms. Dee-Lite” Dotson and Tim “T-Remedi” Dotson, founders of Inner City South (ICS) are heart, soul and innovation personified, using humor and poetry for change.
In 2002, ICS emerged from Memphis’ underground spoken word movement, delivering thought-provoking messages in humor-filled, hip-hop-infused, “southern swagger” style. It’s not just clever rhyme set to modern rhythm. It’s poetry that matters.
Scientists tell us that our brains release endorphins when we laugh, and that humor helps us to see the world from different perspectives.
Dee Dotson explains their poetic performances like this: “We like to say we’re going to edu-tain you, meaning that we’re going to sneak a little thought process in with the entertainment. If we can make you laugh, we’re disarming you. You’ll want to listen, and we’re taking you off your guard. That’s how we draw the audience in without sounding self-righteous. We want to use the art to elevate and bring unity.”
Tim Dotson adds, “There’s no better healing than laughter. The healing from laughter can take you so many places. Even if you laugh in your pain, it’s still a way we attach to each other. We may have some serious subject matter, but we want you to feel encouraged when you leave the performance.”
But the Dotsons’ mission goes beyond writing and performing. In 2004, they founded “Dinner and Divas” – a dinner theatre experience that represents their support toward finding a cure, and providing social services to those suffering with sickle cell anemia. In 2010, they established C.R.E.A.T.E. (Changing Realities Exposing Art To Everyone) to give urban and lower income communities access to the arts.
They make regular appearances in a variety of venues ranging from elementary schools to college campuses to arts centers. Their material is accessible, universal and relevant to all ages, but their core audience is teens, since, as Tim puts it, “They’re at the cusp of what they’re about to do.”
In a world filled with anger and divisiveness, it’s refreshing to see unifying poetry with well-crafted humor . . . and an edge!
They say humor is based on timing. Yes, as is everything else. Ask Elisha Gray about telephone patents. I was plugging along, working on a piece about the comedian Dana Gould, and still figuring out when I would finish writing about Mark Twain and the German language, when an article in my local newspaper caught my attention:
“Dead Poets Society founder visits 300th grave”
The fact that there’s an actual Dead Poets Society prompts visions of Ethan Hawkes’s teeth and an involuntary desire to kill Robert Sean Leonard. Swallowing my bile I learned that the current founder, Walter Skold of Freeport (Maine), has visited the gravesites of 300 poets “ahead of this weekend’s fourth annual Dead Poets Remembrance Day.”
What is “Dead Poets Remembrance Day”? Apparently, “with the help of 13 current and past state poets laureate,” Skold was able to dedicate October 7—“the day that Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born—to heightening public awareness of the art of poetry.
The article posted October 5. That was Saturday. Making the actual memorial day a Monday. Today. My day to submit. So in honor of dead poets everywhere (and as one who writes the occasional verse and considers the artform dead, and therefore all practitioners the undead) let us examine the two poets tied to this day. What the article does not share is an appreciation for not just the day, but the year. On October 7, 1849, as Edgar Allan Poe lay dying of possibly drunken Rabies in a Baltimore medical college, James Whitcomb Riley was borning in Greenfield, Indiana.
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.
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?
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.
The American Humor Studies Association welcomes teaching resources for their website. Please contact us at email@example.com
So last month, when I recounted the recent Mark Twain Quadrennial, in Elmira, New York, I did not lie to you when I said my last name was a rarity outside of Brazil. But I might’ve misled. I’m not Hispanic. The name, phonetically confusing no matter the accent, originates from a very localized area in the Catholic part of Germany. Before social media made rabble of us all, my immediate network of genetic cognates stretched the length and width of America, but number well under forty (out of 313.9 million Americans without my last name). Once humans began twittering, a search for my surname generates hundreds of Andrés, Rafaels, Guilhermes, Edleides, and Gabriels. All of them write in Portuguese, and the best I can figure populated the Southern Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. Their ancestors did anyway. My ancestors begin with my great-grandfather, his wife, and my grandfather, barely a toddler in 1920, leaving Köln after fighting Americans for the Kaiser in the Great War. He set up his own machine shop outside of Boston, and began a tradition of not passing on family history to the next generation, and so in turn we know very little but apocrypha.
But apocrypha is a start. While we seek a connection with our distant Vaterland, all of us—North and South American—still sit under the shadow of a later holocaust with greater ethical concerns than the mobilized imperial reaction to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Thankfully, none of us bear any of the guilt, even if there’s always the cinematic suspicion. For those of you too young to remember, Zie Germans were fun adversaries in popular media long after World War II and despite the atrocities committed on their own citizens. Hollywood couldn’t quit them as antagonists until 9/11 made clandestine sleeper cell guerrilla terrorism all the rage. Islamic extremists make for good long-form television, but not epic two-hour cinema. Meanwhile the pomp and circumstance of Nazi regalia still seems a popular attraction. And if the uniform gets a little thread-bare, Hollywood’s costume designers can go back a score and break out the Kaiser’s pointy helmets and Red Baron pilot goggles.
I have just returned to the South, after two months in the West helping my mom in the wake of my dad’s death. Getting home is bittersweet and exciting, but also something of shock. Though the South and the West have much in common, in terms of how much both regions are shaped by their land and climate, by how much that land gets under your skin — in the South, it’s a bit more literal.
Like chiggers, for instance. Or the unforgettable burn of re-encountering a fire ant — two things I never knew existed until I moved here. Or 90% humidity, which means that if anything sits still for more than half an hour, something green grows on it. And something four-legged or six-legged walks across it, chased by something four-legged or eight-legged.
Dodging through the toads and frogs playing happily in the garage, my son dove for a bathroom that hadn’t been used in over 8 weeks, his urgency spurred by the last 6 hours without a break in the car in our hurry to get home.
“Mom! Come here!” Desperation tinged the voice.
“There’s a spider in here!”
“That’s okay. Spiders are our friends. They eat the truly icky bugs. No worries!”
“Mom! Stop driveling — this is a spider!!”
And not just a spider.
Vacations are meant to be relaxing. Swim, sun, cook, drink, rinse, repeat. Due to personal and professional deadlines my vacation went more like: clean, trash, write, apply, review, request an extension. Between submitting for publication, looking for new employment, refinancing the house, and running an amateur wrestling clinic for small children out of my living room, I found enough time to scribble a few thoughts on humor, drink unwatered whiskey, and beg for a quick death between the hours of 11pm and midnight before it all began again the following day.
Few and far between do I ever find the emancipated evening, like my pass to the local class on voice acting I mentioned last time. If you’re the type to follow links in an online article like E. T. tracking Reese’s Pieces (timely I know), then your detective work discovered my town of residence. Salem, MASS. There are a lot of Salems in the United States, but only ours burned witches so their descendants could sell cheap gimcracks that turn tragedy into novelty. History is ripe for humor, and when that humor becomes routine, the resulting tradition can be called horrible.
Or rather, Horribles. The Ancient and Horribles Parade is a fading New England tradition that sounds a lot like a lottery in Shirley Jackson literature. “We’ve always had a parade!” some old codger mutters before throwing a rock at the chosen sacrifice. Similarly, the parade stretches back into forgotten memory, where many claim its origin but no one really knows when exactly. But they do know what and how. Usually on or around July 4, a community informally gathers to lampoon people in the public eye as a supplement to the formal celebrations sponsored by the government on our day of independence. Like Gerrymandering, the North Shore above Boston also made the event a political device, “whereby the speaker argues against taking a certain course of action by listing a number of extremely undesirable events which will ostensibly result from the action.” But why speak of politics when it can be satirized?
Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others). Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity. Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.
I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue. What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.