Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The frame-story structure of “The Big Bear of Arkansas” is typical of the Old Southwest humor tradition. An educated gentleman narrator who speaks standard English introduces an amusing rustic, in this case a hunter, who recounts fantastic adventures in frontier vernacular. Doggett seems somewhat less crude than the stereotypical frontiersman, however, and his language also differs somewhat from that customarily attributed to such hunters. To create the impression of frontier dialect, Thorpe occasionally uses conventional misspellings such as “bar,” “perlite,” “sile,” and “diggens,” but most of Doggett’s story is told in standard English. When he reinforces the accuracy of his statements by saying “may I be chewed to death by young alligators” or describes himself as “cross as a bar with two cubs and a sore tail,” though, Doggett is using language appropriate to an Arkansas bear hunter.

Generally Southwest humor was written for an audience of educated Eastern men who kept their humor magazines in their offices, far away from their wives and daughters. The earthy language and crude physical humor in most of these stories were considered unsuitable reading for women. Although Thorpe uses these characteristics rather sparingly, even Doggett’s oblique reference to relieving himself, for example, would have been considered shocking and offensive, and his loud boasting would have been even more unacceptable than his putting his feet up on the stove.

Frontier humor traditionally involves a central character engaged in an epic struggle with a foe associated with natural forces. Like Doggett, this hero boasts of his courage, skill, and cunning in defeating his larger-than-life adversary. Doggett’s adventures also reflect Thorpe’s formal education and frontier experiences, specifically the influence of both traditional epic heroes and Native American tales. Doggett outruns and outsmarts all bears until he encounters the “creation bar,” which appears to be a character out of frontier folklore. After repeatedly defeating and embarrassing the hunter, though, this bear appears simply to give up, allowing himself to be killed. Doggett suggests that the bear may have realized the inevitability of his death at the hands of this superior hunter, but he also raises the possibility that the bear may have been fated to die at that particular time. Either way, Doggett seems awestruck and possibly even humbled by his final victory.