- Reviewed by
Continuing a brisk and admirable output of essays, collections, and editions, Ed Piacentino is the best archaeologist we have with [End Page 509] regard to the humor of the antebellum South. As he recovers authors and texts that have fallen into obscurity, he does so with plausible claims for their position amid the literary and popular-culture legacies of the United States. If there is a mission underlying this recent work, it is to bump mainstream American literary history out of a comfort zone, an assumption that nearly all that needs to be known about the humor of the Old South was covered by Kenneth S. Lynn, Hennig Cohen, and William B. Dillingham decades ago.
To this new collection, Piacentino’s contribution is a poised reconsideration of the books and sketches of Henry Junius Nott (1798–1837) a figure who in a short life made “modest but essential contributions to shaping the outlines of what would become the humor of the Old South” (p. 38), in part by adapting here and there from the likes of Washington Irving, and by imparting local flavor to tropes that would turn up again in Mark Twain. Ambitious essays by others in this book include “Hysterical Power: Frontier Humor and Genres of Cultural Conquest,” by Jennifer Hughes; Kathryn McKee’s overview of the brief, intense career of Katherine Sherwood Bonner; and Tracy Wuster’s complex engagement with Mark Twain’s “A True Story” from 1874. Offering a case that laughter in the Old South was broadly construed as, “for better or worse, a radical utterance” (p. 44), and that “humor and its promotion . . . became a forum for subtle consideration of antebellum anxieties over citizenship and human rights through overt examination of who had the right to laugh” (p. 45), Hughes provides insights into the cultural work of comic discourse in that realm and era. Bonner (1849–83), a talented postwar writer originally from Mississippi who died in Boston at the age of thirty-four, is recovered as thematically complex, subversive of white-male authority and “the coordinates of antebellum southwestern humor, postbellum regional writing, and imprecisely articulated expectations for writing by women” (p. 125).
Taking on Mark Twain at some point may be a necessary and perilous obligation in a volume of this sort; Tracy Wuster’s reading of “A True Story,” the famous Aunt Rachel monologue about losing her [End Page 510] son and finding him again amid the chaos of the Civil War, handles the task with style. Wuster opens with a recognition that scholarly talk about Mark Twain’s work as a “culmination” of the Southwest humor tradition has evasions in it—culmination as consummation, or as conclusion, or all of the above. Wuster presents “A True Story” as an omega point quite different and more interesting: a reversal or outright overthrow of longstanding conventions and expectations. As the narrative unfolds, and as Aunt Rachel gains momentum and confidence in telling her story in her own voice, Mark Twain as a frame-tale narrator is nudged aside, with an African American ex-slave achieving dominion, for that moment at least, over “southern literary traditions—including key aspects of southern frontier humor—to address central issues about race, gender, and representation” (p. 151). Because the point is well sustained, one comes away with heightened respect for what Mark Twain accomplished, and also for the chances that he took, less than a decade after the end of the conflict. All in all, this is a collection of essays with useful insights, strongly grounded, and very well written.
BRUCE MICHELSON, president of the American Humor Studies Association, is a professor of English at the University of Illinois and the 2014 Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Antwerp.