- Laughter and the American South
North or west of the Ohio River, scholastic blurriness about Southern history and literary and popular culture is still viewed as a minor fault, even at places where "American Studies" is a showcased practice. From before 1900, aside from occasional outbreaks of genius that catch Yankee attention (the compact list of Tidewater aristocrats from the Federal period, and sometimes Mark Twain, who can be ear-tagged "Southern" as easily as "Western"), what those white folks were doing down there at their writing-tables and printing offices has been a pursuit for antiquarians, out-lot tenants at the American academic mall. Beyond the selections by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, in anthologies aimed at big-enrollment survey courses the Southerners are sparse before about 1885. Plenty of Bay Colony gloom, and also of Emerson Whitman & Co. as highlights of the tour; but on a one-term spin through the other cultural action before Dickinson—most of it emanating from within one hundred miles of Beacon Hill—there is scant time for excursions into texts and places that supposedly mattered less in the construction of national identity—places that many credentialed American humanists still think of as magnolias, moonshine, and imaginative and moral torpor.
In Fetching the Old Southwest: Humorous Writing from Longstreet to Twain (2004), a meticulously researched and gracefully written tome about humor from this region before the Civil War, James Justus writes from no delusion that scholastic pathologies and prejudices about this miscellaneous body of work can be budged far. Southwestern humor, as he presents it, is a scattered raiding from the peripheries, a stubborn celebration of ephemeral situations unfolding unpredictably and in unexpected places, [End Page 171] sometimes at short-lived gatherings of people not indigenous but from hither and yon—chance convocations at boardinghouses or on steamboats or at camp meetings. The discourses he studies are characterized by metamorphosis, crafty evasion, quirky strategies of deliquescence, and moments of nostalgia for these makeshift communities, these affirmations that came and went as sketches, tales, and factual accounts were taking shape. The spirit of Justus's book is similar: his prose is a poised, Fabian resistance to conventional evaluations and prevailing academic prejudice. According to Justus, the rural white American South has maintained its national presence by hunkering down under fire from a dominant invading alien culture, or by moving with agility and surprise around the flank, like Jackson's brigades of country-bred warriors near Chancellorsville. "Over time," says Justus, "their aggressive integrity in being poor white—their stubborn refusal to sacrifice their amusements, their tastes, their religion, their speech—has in fact resulted in some cultural victories, notably their absorption into the national consciousness of such disparate phenomena as country music, fundamentalist religion, stock-car racing, Wal-Mart, and the militia movement. We may feel safe in denigrating the common white southerner, but it has been difficult to ignore him" (12).
From the early years of the Republic through the outbreak of the Civil War, as northern cities on the coast ramified as hubs of a new continental culture, bulk-shipping it by water-course and rail to farmers and villagers of a fast-widening nation, the mostly amateur humorists in the Old Southwest, as Justus describes them, wrote and performed from no delusions about prospects for competing on such a scale. Against such pressure, they responded with quirky pride in their own second-class national citizenship, fixating at times on lost glories, and showing a complex self-consciousness that deserves closer attention now, when comedy and reflexivity seem so powerful as presences in a globalized and pixilated American identity crisis, open and borderless for the world to consume, and even to transform.
As for the "humor" part (a subject in trouble, vexed by antiquated semantic and psychological analysis, home-brew social science, and...