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REVIEW-ESSAY ED PIACENTINO High Point University New Explorations of Antebellum Southern Humor The Frontier Roots of American Realism, by Gretchen Martin. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 136 pp. $58.95 cloth. Counterfeit Gentlemen: Manhood and Humor in the Old South, by John Mayfield. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. 173 pp. $65.00 cloth. THE COMING OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM SPAWNED RENEWED SCHOLARLY activity on the humor of the Old Southwest, evidenced by a flurry of new books on the subject. M. Thomas Inge and my The Humor of the Old South (Kentucky, 2001), a collection of essays, started this revival, followed by James H. Justus’s magisterial Fetching the Old Southwest: Humorous Writing from Longstreet to Twain (Missouri, 2004), the most extensive and definitive treatment of the genre; my The Legacy of Old Southwest Humor (LSU, 2006), a collection of new essays by various scholars focusing on modern and contemporary beneficiaries , both from literature and popular culture; and a scholarly edition and recovery project, C. M. Haile’s “Pardon Jones” Letters: Old Southwest Humor from Antebellum Louisiana (LSU, 2009), which I also edited. Two recent scholarly monographs—Gretchen Martin’s The Frontier Roots of American Realism and John Mayfield’s Counterfeit Gentlemen: Manhood and Humor in the Old South—add significantly to our understanding of antebellum Southern humor. A volume in Peter Lang Publishing’s Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature Series, The Frontier Roots of American Realism reaffirms and provides a substantive testament to what Southern humor scholars have generally acknowledged for a long time: the humor of the Old South initiated the foundations for American literary realism, which would come into full flowering after the Civil War. Yet, unlike most others who have recognized in antebellum Southern humor the “roots” of realism, Martin fully develops her claims, examining numerous texts 598 Ed Piacentino in detail to show the extent of frontier humor’s legacy to postbellum realism. As Martin points out, the editors of newspapers and periodicals, most notably William T. Porter of the Spirit of the Times, liberated writers, providing them an outlet for their humorous sketches and tales and encouraging them to “confront life directly . . . , [to] fly under the radar of the moral and secular guards of literary propriety” (3). Moreover, these sketches and tales of proto-realism opened a window to Southern yeoman culture by showcasing “the daily activities and social events of the ‘plain folk,’ thereby providing access into the language and values of rural communities and feature the plain folk of the antebellum South as a culture worthy of artistic treatment” (4). These humorists also realistically depicted elite Southern culture and the interaction of this society with the yeomen. Like nearly every other scholar-critic to explore Southern frontier humor in recent years, Martin strongly disclaims Kenneth Lynn’s specious thesis of cordon sanitaire (Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor) which posited that the Southwestern humorists established a line or boundary between the Southern elite class and plain folk in their tales and sketches. Using findings from social-cultural historians such as Stephanie McCurry (Masters of Small Worlds), David Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America), and Steven Hahn (The Roots of Southern Populism), Martin establishes reliable bases on which to formulate her argument that rather than having a strict demarcation between different social classes, the antebellum Southern social world was actually quite fluid and permeable. The proud yeoman class, Martin argues, “felt equally entitled to the same rights and privileges that the planter enjoyed, regardless of wealth and social status” (7). Organizing her book into four solid chapters, the first three focusing on Longstreet, Henry Clay Lewis, and George Washington Harris, and the fourth on an array of lesser humorists—Thomas Bangs Thorpe (though usually regarded as a major figure in the genre), Alexander McNutt, Charles F. M. Noland, Hardin Taliaferro, Joseph Field, Thomas Kirkman, Philip January, John S. Robb, and John Winslow—Martin examines the realistic texture, techniques, and stylistics of some of their sketches and tales. Among the realistic strategies she highlights are verbal exchanges between characters (often of different social classes) that feature two levels of discourse, Standard English and the vernacular; actual activities, customs...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 597-610
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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