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American Speech 78.1 (2003) 75-92
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Young American Puns:
Antebellum Wordplay and Democratic Manhattan
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
IN 1845, A SMALL GROUP of New York Democrats announced themselves "Young Americans" and so began a new phase in a campaign on behalf of their nation's literature. Founding members Evert Duyckinck, Jerry Auld, William Jones, and Russell Trevett had banded together as early as 1836 to argue that our domestic letters surpassed Europe's. By the middle of the next decade, their nationalist rhetoric had reached fever pitch. As essayists and editors based in antebellum Manhattan, they kept their cultural critique on the front pages of the city's magazines and newspapers. Long-term aims were a bit vague but seemed to hinge upon the domestic production and democratic dissemination of truly American belles lettres. The high-profile nature of its message has earned the group a spot in recent literary histories (Miller 1956; Bender 1988; Widmer 1999). Less noted has been Young America's contribution to American speech.
Part of that contribution stems from what I call the Young American pun, pun defined here as 'the open-ended use of a word to suggest its variant meanings and/or likeness to another word'. Young Americans were never explicit about the connection between puns and literary nationalism, and yet the two full-fledged literary practitioners among them—authors Cornelius Mathews and Herman Melville, both subsequent additions to the group's original four—were notorious for playing with the sounds and meanings of words in their steady stream of publications. Michael West (2000) explains that many early nationals, Young Americans included, practiced puns as a linguistic side effect of the rapid social, political, and economic changes sweeping the country between the Revolution and the Civil War. As theirs was a country in flux, so, too, was early Americans' language literally up for grabs. Puns were a product of that linguistic instability (Redfern 1984, 9-15; Sim 1987; Andresen 1990, 69; Gustafson 1992, 1-20; Kramer 1992, 1-14; West 2000, xi-xv). Young America took the not-so-obvious next step of using puns to patriotic effect. On the one hand, puns were funny. Young Americans believed that a people so blessed as to inhabit such a vast territory had a naturally broad [End Page 75] capacity for humor (West 2000, xi). We the people must be inclined to pun. On the other hand, puns played with words just enough to make standard English better fit native conditions. Puns could even result in new words for a new nation, turning puns into an important vehicle for that much sought-after cultural independence from Britain (Jones 1845; West 2000, 3-11). 1
Yet Young American puns were not just national in their orientation; they were also place-specific. For all their talk of America's mission, or what one Young American called the country's Manifest Destiny, members felt New York typified what was great about the nation. New York was the only true metropolis this side of the Atlantic, and so it contained (the reasoning went) all America's exciting diversity in one location (Duyckinck 1840). 2 As Manhattan was thus an ideal site for puns, Young Americans accordingly practiced English as rabid Manhattanites. They grounded their discourse in New York street life, littering their speech with its landmarks, customs, and local jokes. Likewise, they punned using New York itself as a source of inspiration. Time and again, Young Americans employed New York references for the substance of their puns. Metropolitan puns presumably expressed what was most AMERICAN about Young America.
This is not to say all Young Americans punned alike. The Young American "movement"—which involved no more than a dozen individuals, who broke ranks in 1851—regularly registered its internal political differences in the puns members produced. A writer like Melville worked demotic discourse, which was at times disguised; he punned for "the people" in line with the egalitarian ideology of the Democratic party's rough-hewn standard bearer, Andrew Jackson, who entered...