William Tappan Thompson (1812–1882)
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57 William Tappan Thompson (1812–1882) Born in Ravena, Ohio, in 1812,William Tappan Thompson made his way South in seeking experience and opportunity. He worked for the Daily Chronicle newspaper in Philadelphia, and served as a secretary to a politician in Florida, before taking a job in 1835 with Augustus Baldwin Longstreet to help produce his newspaper in Augusta, Georgia, the States’ Rights Sentinel. Longstreet, who had just published Georgia Scenes, a seminal work in southern humor, would prove of profound influence for the remainder of Thompson’s career. After the Sentinel ceased publication, he served briefly in the campaign against the Seminoles in Florida, returned to Augusta to marry and begin a family, and began publishing a magazine, the Family Companion and Ladies’ Mirror. While the writing that would establish his reputation as a major force in southern humor began here, he would continue through a variety of editorial positions finally to settle in 1849 as founding editor of the Savannah Morning News. A strong defender of slavery, Thompson joined the Confederate Army, traveled to Europe after the Civil War, and was active in the Democratic Party after 1868. He was a lover of all things southern, and it was his portrayal of the region in his comic tales and sketches that would cause him to be remembered. Inspired by Longstreet’s work, the Major Jack Downing stories by northeastern humorist Seba Smith, and the tall tales of Davy Crockett, Thompson began to publish in 1842 a series of letters set in the fictitious town of Pineville from an upper-middle-class plantation owner named Major Joseph Jones. Using native dialect and embodying a realistic portrayal of the rustic life of the times, Major Jones was a common-sense philosopher who satirized the trends of society towards excessive self-indulgence and superficial fashions. While a good deal of his work was based on incongruities of place and situation in a social context, much of his humor derives from misspelled words and malapropisms, devices Thompson borrowed from northeastern writers. Avoiding the violent and boisterous humor of the other writers of the Old Southwest, Thompson invested Major Jones with a naïve but respectable sense of propriety and a basic respect for 58 Southern Frontier Humor domesticity. Beneath his rambling commentary about the way things were was a deep sense of what they should be and a faith in the moral nature of things. The letters proved enormously popular. Sixteen of them were collected in 1843 in Major Jones’s Courtship offered as a subscription premium to readers of Thompson’s journal the Southern Miscellany. Subsequent expanded editions appeared, and by 1900 about thirteen editions had been published. Other collections followed the initial one, including Chronicles of Pineville in 1845 and Major Jones’s Sketches of Travel in 1848, but none equaled the popular appeal of the first book. Texts:“The Major in an Embarrassing Situation”and“The Christmas Present in a Bag,” “The Runaway Match” from Major Jones’s Courtship: Detailed, with Other Scenes, Incidents , and Adventures, in A Series of Letters By Himself. Revised and Enlarged. To Which Are Added Thirteen Humorous Sketches (New York: D. Appleton, 1872). The Major in an Embarrassing Situation Pineville, May 28, 1842. To Mr. Thompson:—Dear Sir—Ever sense you was down to Pineville, it’s been on my mind to write you a letter, but the boys lowed I’d better not, cause you mought take me off about my spellin and dictionary. But something happened to me tother night, so monstrous provoking, that I can’t help tellin you about it, so you can put other young chaps on ther gard. It all come of chawing so much tobacker, and I reckon I’ve wished ther was no such plagy stuff, more’n five hundred times sense it happened. You know the Stallinses lives on the plantation in the summer and goes to town in the winter. Well, Miss Mary Stallins, who you know is the darlinest gall in the county, come home tother day to see her folks. You know she’s been to the Female College, down to Macon, for most a year now. Before she went, she used to be jest as plain as a old shoe, and used to go fishin and huckleberryin with us, with nothin but a calico sun-bonnet on, and was the wildest thing you ever seed. Well, I always used to have a sort of a sneakin notion...


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