The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 167-170
[Access article in PDF]
Staking New Claims for Southwest Humor
The Humor of the Old South. Edited by M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2001. 321 pp. $29.95.
Revision, reassessment, and reclamation are the words that ring throughout this collection of nine new and eight previously published essays. Nearly all the volume's contributors point to new ways of understanding Southwest Humor, offer new insights into some misunderstood and undervalued frontier tales, and move beyond common critical opinion to wider ranges of interpretive possibility. At stake is the reclamation of Southwest Humor itself, as James Justus points out in the introduction, and this collection goes a long way toward recovering the literary and cultural matter necessary for understanding an often underappreciated genre.
Kenneth Lynn was the most powerful of critics to lay his own claim to the literary territory of Southwest Humor with his publication of Mark Twain and Southwest Humor in 1959. Lynn, in fact, becomes a focal point for this volume as most of its contributors use his influential theory of the subversive effect of Southwest Humor as a springboard for their revisions. Expanding upon Walter Blair's view of the framed story, Lynn claimed that Southwestern Humorists opened and closed their tales with a gentleman narrator, one whose apparent moral and intellectual superiority stood in opposition to the dangerous ignorance of their tales' backwoods characters. Even more, Lynn claimed that most of the authors of the Old Southwest were gentleman Whigs who opposed the democratic antics of the folk that populated their tales. Readers were meant to laugh at but not with frontier folk, according to Lynn, and the narrative frame served to undercut sympathetic bonding between readers [End Page 167] and characters. That Lynn's theory has been influential becomes evident as most of the contributors to this volume acknowledge it before challenging readers to move beyond its limitations in an effort to reclaim a wider set of relations between southwestern writers, their readers, and the people they portrayed.
In "Origins and Influences," the first of three sections, contributors themselves go beyond just examining Southwestern Humor as a prelude to writers who would inherit the best of its perceptions and techniques, though less is done with establishing sources and influences than one might expect from the section's title. J. A. Lemay, to be sure, convincingly relates the mock pastorals of colonial writer William Henry Timrod to the humor of the Old South while calling for the inclusion of the Charleston poet as an early Southwestern Humorist. But his attempt to deny the oral folktale its influential place in the development of Southwest Humor, a place established by the work of Walter Blair, and to undermine Lynn's notion of a distancing frame story by showing Timrod's sympathetic portrayal of colloquial heroes suffers through his sketchy review of relevant literary traditions and small sampling of Timrod's poetry. Ed Piacentino, who along with M. Thomas Inge edits this collection, fares better in tracing Washington Irving's influence on the humor of the Old Southwest. Piacentino convincingly links several frontier tales, most importantly those written by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and William Gilmore Simms, to Irving's thematic use of comic hijinks and cultural conflict in "Sleepy Hollow." And while southern authors realign Irving's thematic elements to fit their time and location, as Piacentino shows, their stories forwarded the same suspicion of progress and outside interference that marked "Sleepy Hollow" in particular. The final three essays in this section focus less on literary and more on race and gender relations. Through his evaluation of two popular collections, The Big Bear of Arkansas, and OtherSketches (1845) and A Quarter Race in Kentucky and Other Tales (1847), William Lenz shows that, contrary to current critical opinion, southwestern authors did empower their women characters by portraying them as destabilizing forces and needed correctives to abuses of patriarchal power. Piacentino, in his other offering to this collection, similarly disrupts another common view of Old Southwestern Humor as a...