Introduction: The Humor of the Old South; or, Transgression He Wrote
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1 Introduction The Humor of the Old South; or, Transgression He Wrote The humor of the Old South, also known as Old Southwest or frontier humor , flourished between the 1830s and 1860s, most extensively in the lower South, encompassing the rural and frontier regions of Georgia,Alabama, Louisiana , Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, but also, though to a lesser extent, in several states in the upper South, most notably Tennessee and North and South Carolina. Although labeled by James H. Justus, the major literary historian of this genre, as “ephemeral writing,”1 the humor of the Old South is not actually subliterary, as has sometimes been contended. Rather, as Justus also aptly notes, the works of the Southwest humorists are“imaginative constructs— distillations of people and events observed and reconstructions of dialect and speech mannerisms overheard. . . . They are not source materials, but a literary legacy in their own right.”2 Many antecedents and intertexts may have inspired southern frontier humor . Among the principal analogues are: William Byrd’s Dividing Line histories ; Ebenezer Cook’s humorously satiric poem The Sot-Weed Factor (1708); the comic eclogues of William Henry Timrod; selections from James Kirke Paulding’s Letters from the South (1817), which recount performative antics between a batteauxman and a wagoner, “half-horse, half-alligator” characters who attempt to out-brag one another and a tall-talish account of a rattlesnake with a large fish-like fin on his back; the widely popular stories of Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”; the folkloric Jack tales of the southern Appalachians; Rudolph Raspe’s Baron Munchausen tales (initially published as Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns, 1785); Mason Locke Weems’s “Awful History of Young Dred Drake” (The Drunkard’s Looking Glass, 1812), which captures the robust energy, staged bravado, and amusing tall talk common to fight scenes on the southern frontier in the early nineteenth century; Henry Junius Nott’s 2 Southern Frontier Humor “Biographical Sketch of Thomas Singularity” from Novelettes of a Traveller (1834), a work characterized by exaggerated and incongruous descriptions of a ludicrous nature and by the graphic and comical portrayal of the con artist; the sporting sketches found in early nineteenth-century British periodicals such as the London Sporting Magazine and Bell’s Life in London; and the wide popularity of Down East humor, which also featured rustics and colloquial discourse. Some of the defining features of the humor of the Old South are the prominence of plain folk—lower-class rustics, backwoodsmen, and other marginal types, some of whom may be disreputable–as the principal players in the action . In addition, the situations depicted tend to be outlandish and sometimes bizarre, and the folk characters are given extensive voice, speaking in a colorful vernacular discourse. Moreover, the humorists favor the dialect of the vernacular speakers over the formal English of genteel characters, the latter usually relegated to the tale’s or sketch’s frame and consigned to the periphery. And finally, exaggeration, sometimes carried into vulgarity and crudity, takes precedence over subtlety and innuendo, and entertainment always supersedes moral instruction. The men (and it is not surprising that the writers were all men considering the subject matter) who wrote humorous sketches, mock letters, turf reports and tall tales featuring rustic characters and their free-wheeling ways, were not professional authors and in only a few rare cases did any of them aspire to be. Rather, they considered themselves writers by avocation. Always white and most often professionals, they worked as doctors, lawyers, judges, newspaper editors, ministers, government officials, theater managers, and actors. Yet the imaginative quality of some of their humorous pieces is not only engagingly impressive but also reflective of the socio-historical culture of the time and place. Despite their imaginative enlargements, their humorous works exhibit uniformity and as such provide, as Justus notes, a “reliable index to the social and cultural actualities of the lower South.” Many scholars who have studied the humor of the Old South agree that it represents a “protorealism,” delineating ,“more or less faithfully, the grittier surfaces of antebellum life in the dialectal idioms heard in the margins and backwoods of the lower South.”3 Neither is the humor of the Old South a genre rarely studied nor one that has waned significantly, even 170 years after its inception. Beginning with the pioneering scholarship of Franklin J. Meine, Walter Blair, John Q. Anderson, and Milton Rickels, and continued by...


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