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The Front Porch This is Southern Cultures's first "special issue"—that is, its first devoted to a single topic. The topic is southern humor, and the articles come from a symposium on the subject at Millsaps College, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the fall of 1993. As the visiting Eudora Welty Professor of Southern Studies at Millsaps, I had the chance to organize a symposium on a subject of my choosing, and the immediate impetus for this event was, believe it or not, a New York Times Book Review that described a book as "full of brash, irreverent, New-York-style one-liners" and just a few pages later referred to "the deft, rapier wit of the British." Those phrases got me thinking: Would anyone speak without irony of "brash, irreverent Mississippi-style oneliners " or of "the deft, rapier wit of Tennesseans"? Yet some of the funniest people around are southerners. From Bill Arp to Jerry Clower, Mark Twain to Roy Blount, many southerners have even made their livings by being funny. They have just been funny in southern ways. But what does that mean? And so evolved the symposium that brought some well-informed people to Jackson to talk about southern humor. I figured that even if we didn't reach any conclusions—even if there was, so to speak, no punch line—there would be some good stories. Roy Blount was an obvious choice for our keynote speaker. Not only is he arguably the runniest southerner alive, he was working at the time on what would become Roy Blount's Book ofSouthern Humor (reviewed by Michael McFee on page 493), and I knew that he was confronting troublesome questions like why nineteenth -century "southwestern humor" isn't very amusing, what to say about the undeniably mean and racist streak in southern humor, and how to respond appropriately when it's funny despite that. Roy entertained the conference participants and a large audience ofJacksonians at the opening session and joined in the discussion of the papers the next day. (I should add that Dean Robert King and Professor Suzanne Marrs of Millsaps handled the conference's logistics with aplomb.) Those papers appear in this issue in the order in which they were presented . Johanna Shields gets things started by taking apart a specimen of south- 418Southern Cultures western humor to show how black culture permeated and shaped the humor of nineteenth-century southern whites in ways both recognized and not. Bill Ferris looks at the South's folk humor and its contribution to southern literature, both high and low. In "Adventures in a 'Foreign Country,'" Trudier Harris explores the role of the South in African American humor. (At this point the conference broke for lunch, and you can grab a bite here, if you want.) In "The Incredible Shrinking You-Know-What," Anne Jones takes a look at the, ah, cutting humor of southern women. Bill Koon uses a comparison between Eudora Welty and Ring Lardner to illuminate "Fourteen Types of Ambiguity." And Jim Cobb takes us home with a consideration of the role of humor in southern cultural identity in "Damn, Brother! I Don't Believe I'd A-ToId That!" I have resisted the temptation (not very strong) to touch these papers up, to make them less conversational or more "academic" than they were to start with, because I'd like to give some sense of the flavor of these proceedings. It's too bad that we can't recreate its setting. We were gathered in the splendid legislative chambers of the old Mississippi statehouse in Jackson, a circumstance that sometimes lent a rather surreal quality to the proceedings. As Roy Blount observed, the ghosts of Mississippi politicians past, of Vardaman and Bilbo, were hovering over Trudier Harris's hilarious retelling of Moms Mabley's "shine" jokes and Anne Jones's spirited discussion of—well, read her article. Lord knows what those specters made of all this, but the undergraduate running the tape recorder was not the only listener who almost fell out of his chair laughing. Humor, in the end, seems to be one of those "idiomatic imponderables" (in Edgar Thompson's phrase) that continue to...


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pp. 417-419
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