American Humor Writing
American Humor Writing
Throughout the nineteenth century, the pages of American periodicals brimmed with humorous sketches and tall tales describing life—especially frontier or country life—in the young nation. Innumerable authors, many writing under pseudonyms, contributed to this phenomenon, the most successful frequently collecting their pieces in books and becoming national celebrities. Literary critics, however, have paid only scant attention to this part of American literary history, often relegating all but the best known and most sophisticated of the works to obscurity. In the 1930s, a few critics—particularly Constance Rourke and Walter Blair—began to argue for the importance of the lowbrow humor. Since then, the genre has received considerably more serious attention from scholars.
Almost unanimously, critics have claimed humor writing as vital to the developing nation's sense of cultural identity. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in all spheres of intellectual life, colonial and post-revolutionary American writers encountered the charge—coming largely from London—that nothing "original" existed in American culture. According to this perspective, everything American philosophers, poets, and novelists produced must be second-rate imitations of European culture, since the writers were all trained in the European tradition. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, England had dominated the production of wit—a specific branch of humor—in the English language, due largely to essayists such as Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, who published two satirical periodicals, The Tatler (1709-1711) and the Spectator (1711-1712). In the nineteenth century, however, England's monopoly faded, giving way to the Americans who, by-and-large, abandoned the sophistication of British wit in favor of regionalism. Consequently, scholars of American literature have argued that humor writing, with its focus on the wholly American phenomena of "Yankee" New England, the "backwoods," and the Western frontier, may have been the embryo of a truly original national literature.
Critics generally attribute the first humor writing of the century to Washington Irving, who published History of New York . . . by Diedrich Knickerbocker and The Sketch Book in 1809 and 1820, respectively. Both books present their readers with exaggerated portraits of individuals bred in the immigrant mix of the colonial Northeast, and the later volume became an essential part of American folk culture as it includes "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." The men and women who came after Irving filled newspapers and journals with their tales and sketches, introducing readers to the "Down-Easter" (or "Yankee"), the frontiersman, and other uniquely American characters. Humor writing became one of the most popular genres of the century, turning many of its creators into national celebrities and its stock characters into heroes. Consequently, even as American readers laughed at the foibles of Sut Lovingood, from George Washington Harris's Sut Lovingood's Yarns (1867), or the Widow Bedott, from Frances Whicher's Widow Bedott Papers (1852), they also developed a sense of pride over the beginnings of American literature. The epitome of this trajectory was Samuel Clemens—or Mark Twain—who published the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884.
While early critics of the genre, such as Rourke and Blair, praised the humorists for initiating this revolution in American literature, more recent critics have begun to question just how progressive much of the writing was. James Justus, for example, has argued that Southern humor belittled poor farmers and back-woodsmen for the benefit, usually, of an upper-class audience. Such debates focus particularly on the period before the Civil War, when political and economic disagreements drove the Southern states to define themselves apart from the Union in general. As the democratic politics ushered in by Andrew Jackson in the 1830s pushed for a less stratified class system, many of the Southern writers used their pens to resist. As the critical debates demonstrate, however, the conflict was more complicated than that: while Southern writers sought to preserve their culture against the apparently levelling energies of the national capítol, the movement towards secession also produced a rebellious mindset that celebrated the common man. As the Civil War and then reconstruction wrought havoc in the latter half of the century, the process only intensified.
Much critical discussion also notes that humor writing had to define itself in relation to the nineteenth-century sentimental novel, which dominated the popular book market in both England and America. Since sentimental fiction was equated with feminine virtues and opposed to base humor, humorists often presented themselves as an antidote to too much sentiment. Although female novelists produced a good deal of this fare, other female writers, many recently unearthed by feminist scholars, made it their work to satirize sentimental stereotypes of feminine virtue. Ultimately, the feminist discussion about female character in the nineteenth century pinpoints a central discussion among scholars about the era: while critics have traditionally memorialized the nineteenth century as ruled by sentiment and modesty, the study of humor writing and its tremendous popularity contributes to an understanding of the age's true complexity.
Joseph G. Baldwin
Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi 1853
Charles Farrar Browne
Artemus Ward; His Book 1862
Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain)
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches 1867
The Innocents Abroad 1869
The Gilded Age (with Charles Dudley Warner) 1874
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1884
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court 1889
A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett 1834
George Washington Harris
Sut Lovingood's Yarns 1867
The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches 1870
My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's 1873
Johnson James Hooper
Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs 1845
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The London and Westminster Review
SOURCE: "Yankeeana: Slick, Crockett, Downing, Etc.," in The London and Westminster Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, December, 1838, pp. 136-45.
[In the following excerpt from a review of several volumes of American humor writing, a commentator from The London and Westminster Review makes the claim that the United States has begun to create a literature of its own.]
These books show that American literature has ceased to be exclusively imitative. A few writers have appeared in the United States, who, instead of being European and English in their styles of thought and diction, are American—who, therefore, produce original sounds instead of far-off echoes,—fresh and vigorous pictures instead of comparatively idealess copies. A portion of American literature has become national and original, and, naturally enough, this portion of it is that which in all countries is always most national and original—because made more than any other by the collective mind of the nation—the humorous.
We have many things to say on national humour, very few of which we can say on the present occasion. But two or three words we must pass on the heresies which abound in the present state of critical opinion on the subject of national humour: we say critical, and not public, opinion, for, thank God, the former has very little to do...
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The Old Southwest
SOURCE: "The Southern Yeoman: The Humorists' View and the Reality," in The Mind of the Old South, revised edition, Louisiana State University Press, 1967, pp. 130-51.
[In this excerpt, Eaton examines the historical accuracy of antebellum humor writing, maintaining that, despite occasional distortions of truth, the works are valuable and generally accurate historical documents.]
In studying the writings of the Southern humorists of the antebellum period the social historian has a different purpose from that of the folklorist, the student of American literature, or the investigator of the Southern vernacular. He is interested in the by-products of this type of literature—authentic details of manners, customs, amusements, and social institutions such as the militia muster, the religious revival, and the law courts. The historian must be able to distinguish between the bias of the humorists and the facts about their subjects, for these writers were not primarily reporters but creators of literature. Nevertheless, they present through their imagination and firsthand knowledge of the plain people a kind of truth that eludes the researcher in documents.
Some of the most important humorists sought faithfully to record the mores and manners of the common people by their descriptions of frontier life, courthouse scenes, militia musters, and the uninhibited...
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SOURCE: "Humor," in American Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, Columbia University Press, 1944, pp. 71-98.
[In the following excerpt, Gohdes documents the zeal with which British readers consumed American humor writing and speculates on the source of that popularity.]
So impressive is the avidity with which the English consumed the products of transatlantic wits and drolls during the period immediately following the Civil War that the historian who attempts even such a superficial survey as the present one may well be asked to assign causes for the phenomenon.
Of course no explanations of quirks in public taste are really adequate. The crocuslike flowering of British enthusiasm for Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, and other American humorists of the sixties and seventies is essentially similar to the recent vogue for cross-word puzzles or for plebeian wit attributed to Confucius—something for the social-psychologists, or even the sociologists, to generalize about. The student who ponders the problem of why many men have laughed soon finds himself confronted with that unresolvable question, "Why do I laugh?" Voltaire indicated the power of his intelligence as well as his skepticism when he opined that he who probes behind laughter for its reasons soon proves himself a fool. But whether folly or not, a few reasons, all perhaps of equal weight,...
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The New York Times Book Review
SOURCE: "Women Among Humorists," in The New York Times Book Review, January 20, 1900, p. 40.
[In the following excerpt, the anonymous writer offers an account of a conversation at a literary gathering where one male guest argued that women may be "bright conversationalists" or have "sporadic flashes of fun" but lack a genuine sense of humor.]
At a recent gathering of what Mark Twain would call "literary persons," of both sexes, one of the men present made the sweeping assertion that most, if not all, women were entirely devoid of a sense of humor.
"I consider that an unjust assertion," remarked a well-known woman writer who was present. "I am sure that I enjoy a good joke as well as my husband or any other man."
"That may be true enough" said the man who had just spoken, "but you do not make jokes in your conversation, or write them in your books. I do not deny that there are plenty of women who are bright conversationists, but is there now, or has there ever been, a woman humorous writer?
"For instance, look at the long list of male humorists, beginning with Mr. Dooley of the present day, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, Josh Billings, John Phoenix, Philander Doesticks, Bill Arp, Max Adler, Petroleum V. Nasby, Major Jones, Judge Neal, author of 'Charcoal Sketches'; F. C. Burnand, W. G. Gilbert, Locker,...
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Blair, Walter, ed. Native American Humor (1800-1900). New York: American Book Company, 1937, 573 p.
Anthologizes major short pieces from the nineteenth century and provides an informative introduction and bibliography.
Blair, Walter and Raven I. McDavid, Jr., eds. The Mirth of a Nation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, 302 p.
Like Native American Humor, anthologizes nineteenth-century American humor writing, but specifically seeks to salvage dialect humor from literary oblivion.
Cohen, Hennig and William B. Dillingham, eds. Introduction to Humor of the Old Southwest, pp. xiii-xxviii. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1964.
Describes Southwestern humor as a combination of social history and folk tale.
Cox, Samuel S. Why We Laugh. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1876, 448 p.
Combines a theoretical discussion of the nature of humor with a careful study of American humor writing.
Hauck, Richard Boyd. A Cheerful Nihilism: Confidence and the Absurd in American Humorous Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971, 269 p.
Explores examples of American humor, from Benjamin...
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