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Southern Literature and Folk Humor William Ferris During his first visit in this country, Carl Jung noted the distinct style of American humor. Jung was struck by the "real American laughter, that grand, unrestrained , unsophisticated laughter" and felt it showed "remarkable vivacity and ease of expression. Americans," he wrote, "are great talkers."1 America's "great talkers" are the root of literary traditions that emerged in the nineteenth century as the country defined its identity through regions such as New England, the South, and the West.2 Prior to this time American writers looked to Europe for their models of humor, imitating eighteenth-century neoclassical comedy "in a generalized style, with no particular background in place or time." In 1805 American author Hugh Brackenridge lamented the failure of American humor that had "in fact, yet no character; neither the clown nor the gentleman."3 American literature countered this criticism in the nineteenth century through writers such as Mark Twain, A. B. Longstreet, and Josh Billings, whose work developed regional humor. In the work of each we encounter the "great talkers" whom Jung felt were the essence of American humor. Folk humor developed a comic vision of American character, and indigenous folk forms such as the tall tale were developed by writers. It was no coincidence that American folk and literary traditions blossomed at the same time.4 How does one explain the importance of folk traditions such as the tall tale that developed in American literature? One writer attributes them to "the existence of lime in the water."5 A more likely reason is the isolation of regional Americans who felt a strong sense of place, and from this regional sense emerged "the greatest American folk art—the art of oral story telling."6 Nineteenth-century travelers commented on the vitality of folk tales, and James Russell Lowell urged writers to develop these tales in their fiction. "No language . . . that cannot suck on feeding juices from the mother-earth of a rich common-folk-talk, can bring forth a sound and lusty book. True vigor of expression does not pass from page to page, but from man to man."7 American folk humor of the nineteenth century is defined by three regions—New England, the South, and the West. Each developed a distinctive dialect and stereotyped characters. New England humor developed the Yankee 432Southern Cultures Peddlar, a shrewd trader who speaks through his nose and travels from town to town with his wares. Southern humor offered the slow-talking farmer such as the Arkansas traveler who outwits city folk in stock situations. Western frontier humor produced the fighter and heavy drinker, given to "goughing [sic], chewing off ears, and butting." By 1830 traditions of both folk and literary humor existed that constitute the birth of American humor. Regional snobbery sometimes emerged, and one writer of the period commented on how "the Bostonian looks down upon the Virginian—the Virginian on the Tennessean—the Tennessean on the Alabamian—the Alabamian on the Mississippian—the Mississippian on the Louisianian—the Louisianian on the Texan—the Texan on New Mexico, and, we suppose New Mexico on Pandemonium."8 Early travel accounts describe exaggerated boasts that were uniquely American in their expression and note the rugged quality of both landscape and speech as a basic part of the American experience. A famous example of exaggeration, or "tall talk," was heard in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1808: " ? am an alligator, half man, half horse; can whip any man on the Mississippi, by G—d . . . i am a Mississippi snapping turtle; have bear claws, alligator's teeth, and the devil's tail; can whip any man by g—d.' This was too much for the first, and at it they went like two bulls."9 The tall talk boast and the tall tale both develop humor through exaggeration , and the latter is distinguished from tall talk by its narrative form.10 Like the epic, the tall tale creates a superhuman world of men and animals, some of which are popularized in images such as Paul Bunyan, the Jolly Green Giant, and Texas post cards of men riding jackrabbits. European visitors were struck by the exaggeration in American...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 431-455
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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