Category Archives: Constance Rourke

Fortune Favors the Subversive:How Some Southwest Humorists Have Been Forgotten

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.

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Happy Birthday Henry James!

Tracy Wuster

Born in 1843, died in 1916.  Henry James remains one of the most studied figures in American literature, possibly the most studied, according to a recent story on the amount of scholarship on American authors.  But relatively little scholarship seems to discuss James’s relationship to humor.  I am not a Henry James scholar, so I will not hazard to say much about the subject, except to state that I believe it is an important subject that I would like to hear more on.  Are there books, articles, or other resources that people can recommend on the subject?

Of course, there is the famous passage from James’s Hawthorne, from the “English Men of Letters” series by MacMillan from 1879, in which James discusses Hawthorne’s American diaries.  America, James wrote, held no romance for the author.  As Hawthorne had stated, “No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.”  James wrote:

The negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed, with a little ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! Some such list as that might be drawn up of the absent things in American life—especially in the American life of forty years ago, the effect of which, upon an English or a French imagination, would probably as a general thing be appalling. The natural remark, in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains—that is his secret, his joke, as one may say. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the consolation of his national gift, that “American humour” of which of late years we have heard so much. (44)

Continue below for Constance Rourke’s view of James…

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