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.
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.
People call me Alex. I am fine with this, for the most part, because my parents chose it and the government approved, but what can you do. They tell me it was between Alex and Christian. A name, like any corporate brand, must be appropriate in definition as well as cultural implication and phonetic melisma. I didn’t look quite like a Christian at birth, and the conduct of my life proves the infallibility of their judgment.
I may not be a Christian, but sometimes I question being an Alex. In any baby book you’ll find Alexander means “Defender of men,” but I am an Alex. Just Alex. So I can defend anything—men, women, the full-court press, wearing black with navy, gross objectionable behavior—the choices are endless. Given the option I’ll avoid providing for the common defense to drink at the well of humor. A lowball of social commentary mixing satire with a jigger of wry, served in a dirty glass, that’s my poison. And like many around here my bartender’s named Mark Twain.
Mark Twain was named in an age of published alias. Before young Samuel Clemens became two fathoms, he tried out Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass and “Josh” as the author of newspaper articles. All these characters were distinct, not pseudonyms expressing the author’s perspective, but alter egos drawing parody in broad strokes, with the public sometimes aware of the distinction, thereby creating the humor. Petroleum V. Nasby (real name: David Ross Locke), Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), and Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne) were predecessors and contemporaries with similar public relationships. Think Andy Kaufman and Latka Gravas—a separate identity exaggerating unfamiliar regional idiosyncracies wherein the joke is the process, not the punchline. Thirty years into his duality, Mark Twain could claim to know how a story ought to be told, summing up the American art of humor thus:
“To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.” (“How to Tell a Story,” Youth’s Companion, 3 October 1895)
June 20 is the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, one of the most important authors and humorists of the Gilded Age. Chesnutt (1858-19320) is often discussed in terms of the humor of his works, especially the short stories of his two collections The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, both published in 1899. In a journal entry from 1879, Chesnutt wrote of the purposes of his fiction, which he viewed as elevating not the black race but the white. He wrote:
But the subtle almost indefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro, which is common to most Americans—and easily enough accounted for—, cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.
So instead of the “assault of laughter,” Chesnutt saw his goal as using humor to subtly influence feeling, or as he put it: “while amusing them to lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling.” The entire journal entry is printed below. But, first, I will discuss the ways in which I have taught Chesnutt as a figure in the plantation school of American literature.
Editor’s Note: One of the best parts of running this blog has been finding new blogs. One of my favorite is Ben Railton’s “American Studier: A central online resource for students of American culture.” Ben has agreed to have us repost one of his posts, which was part of a series in honor of April Fool’s Day. Check out his posts on Seward’s Folly, Albion Tourgee, Nobody’s Fool, and satire.
On one of American literature’s most unique and interesting, and, yes, foolish, works.
I don’t think too many 21st century Americans read or even know about the mid-19th century movement known as Southwestern Humor, and that’s too bad. Besides representing some genuinely American folktales and mythologies—I vaguely remember reading stories about Mike Fink in childhood anthologies featuring Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill and the like, but I wonder if any of those characters remain on our cultural radar in any meaningful way—the Southwestern humor stories are just plain funny, both in their outlandish events and in their ability to capture story-tellers’ voices and effects. T.B. Thorpe’s “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1854) is not only a clear predecessor to Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867); it’s also nearly as great an act of literary and local color story-telling and humor. You could do a lot worse, in this April Fool’s week, than spending some time reading Thorpe and his peers.
At first glance, Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857) seems likewise inspired by, or at least parallel to, Thorpe’s story: both works are set on Mississippi River steamboats, and both feature multiple acts of story-telling, comprising communal conversations that are constituted out of such competing stories. Melville even ups the humor ante on two interconnected levels: he published his novel on April 1, and set it on the same day, which had for at least a few years been known as April Fool’s Day. Yet as anyone who has read Melville knows, the author’s sense of humor tended more to the dark and cynical than to the light and folktale-like; he expressed this perspective on humor very clearly in an 1851 letter to his friend Samuel Savage, writing that “It is—or seems to be—a wise sort of thing, to realize that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes, if he have them. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed round pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it.” And in The Confidence Man, the joke that gets passed round is both dark and, like much of Melville’s work, extremely prescient of ongoing American and philosophical concerns.