- Minstrelsy and Murder The Crisis of Southern Humor, 1835–1925
The cover art and title to Andrew Silver's Minstrelsy and Murder are fair warning: this is a book about humor that will not let you smile. As Silver sees it, the late nineteenth century marked the end of a genial southern humor that obscured the injustices of class, gender, and race. Slowly, there emerged a dark new strain that revealed iniquity by juxtaposing comic and tragic images. Silver focuses on four authors: Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, George Washington Harris, Mark Twain, and Charles Chesnutt. He contrasts the painful history of post-Reconstruction America with the optimism of contemporary humor theorists who insisted that humor was meant for fun, not social criticism, and prescribed "amiability in the presence of racial terror, resignation in the face of labor injustice, and common patriotism in a time of imperialist aggression." The crisis of southern humor occurred when this suppression of conscience was no longer tolerable. Silver has thoughtful, sometimes brilliant, things to say about his subject. If he does not see the whole of southern humor, his view is fresh, in a shocking way.
Most scholars now agree that southern humorists revealed their own anxieties by making fun of African Americans, lower-class whites, and women, but Silver intensifies this theme. He is perhaps least original in his discussion of Longstreet, [End Page 117] whose Georgia Scenes (1835) began a flood of antebellum humor. Silver's interpretation stresses Longstreet's evolution, in the face of Jacksonian democracy, from ambivalence about working-class people to hostility and, finally, to the complete abandonment of humor. When he turns from Longstreet to Harris, Silver's account stresses race and gender more than class, and he is less interested in the early Sut Lovingood stories than the savage humor Harris wrote during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Silver's account will raise the hackles of Harris enthusiasts, for whom he has hard words, but his argument and evidence are powerful. Synthesizing historical knowledge of the Ku Klux Klan, critical interpretations of minstrel performances, and his own readings of contemporary newspapers and literature, he interprets Sut's "extraordinarily sadistic and unparalleled violence" as a comic version of the Klan's terror, and he shows how the aesthetic of violence worked in both forms to offset the distress of white southern men at their political emasculation.
Harris clearly began to depart from the deceptive cheer of antebellum humor, but it was Twain and Chesnutt whose consciences moved them to acknowledge the ugliness that earlier humorists buried. Much of Silver's analysis of Mark Twain explores this turn in Huckleberry Finn. He argues that Twain saw the racial injustice around him but, as a writer eager to sell his works, he hesitated to confront it directly. In a fascinating analysis, Silver shows how Huck Finn constantly alternates between mimesis of minstrel stereotypes and sentimental exposures of their immorality. Twain, he asserts, was unable to transcend this repetition and affirm equality. Finally, however, Charles Chesnutt broke the pattern of humorous evasion when he moved from the mild subversion of his conjure stories to the open criticism of racism in his novel The Marrow of Tradition, prompted by the Wilmington, North Carolina, racial violence of 1898. Silver tracks the growth of Chesnutt's dismay at his own market-oriented accommodation to racism, and he argues that Chesnutt's novel exposes not just violence, but the complicity of humor in maintaining an oppressive society. Returning to Twain, Silver shows how his late bitter writings drew the wrath of those who expected humor to hide rather than expose the evils of American society.
It is difficult to merge historical evidence and critical theory, but Silver does so skillfully, with only a few awkward moves. His attempt to integrate class, gender, and race is not seamless; he deals best with race, where white fears were hideously obvious, less persuasively with class, where southern types are confusing. Some readers will dislike his reliance upon theoretical scholarship, but he explains himself clearly...