Southwestern Humor Essay - Critical Essays

Southwestern Humor


Southwestern Humor

A popular literary mode of the mid-nineteenth century, Southwestern humor encompasses regional sketches and tales based on the folklore, customs, prejudices, and idiosyncrasies of the Southern states of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. Ranging from mythic tales to comic portrayals of tricksters, brawlers, drunkards, and other eccentrics, the stories often feature traditionally masculine or bawdy pastimes such as hunting, fishing, gambling, and drinking. Works of Southwestern humor use earthy language and crude physical comedy to emphasize the tension between urban and rural folk, and to ridicule deformity, misfortune, and death. Women, African Americans, and Native Americans are often peripheral characters in these tales. Inspired by the oral history and politics of the frontier, writers of the Southwestern humor school—including Johnson Jones Hooper, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Joseph G. Baldwin, and George Washington Harris—employed local dialects, irony, and hyperbole to create a distinctive form of literary expression. Commentators assert that Southwestern humor was a direct response to the rising tension between the North and South in the years before the start of the Civil War; in fact, the Southern characters in these stories often mock Yankee manners and hypocrisy. Furthermore, the tales are embellished reports not only of the “masculinity” and physical prowess, but also the resourcefulness, humanity, and vigor of the people of the South.

Critics trace the beginning of Southwestern humor to the publication of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes (1835), a collection of humorous sketches that recount the tall tales of the Georgia backwoods. The book is regarded as a landmark in American literary realism and a vital social document. Longstreet was typical of Southwestern humorists: educated and well-bred, politically conservative, socially influential, defensive of slavery, and supportive of the South's eventual secession from the Union. As authors of Southwestern humor were patrician men writing for the upper class, commentators have often underscored the socioeconomic difference between the authors of Southwestern humor and the lower-class, uneducated protagonists of their stories. Most stories and sketches were written under pseudonyms and initially published in local and regional newspapers, such as the St. Louis Reveille, the New Orleans Picayune, and the New York journal Spirit of the Times, which was edited by William T. Porter and proved particularly influential in the rise of Southwestern humor. The popularity of Thomas Bangs Thorpe's “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (first published in the Spirit of the Times, 1841) signaled the growing acceptance of Southwestern literature. As the literary movement flourished, American men embraced such characters as Sut Lovingood, Bill Arp, Captain Simon Suggs, and Davy Crockett—the last a mythic character based on the heroic real-life experiences of the Tennessee frontiersman, adventurer, and politician. Even with the popularity of Southwestern humor, the genre never garnered much respect from literary critics of the time. With the beginning of the Civil War, Southwestern humor was overshadowed by other forms of literature that reflected the political and social upheaval of the period. In the 1930s critics began to recognize Southwestern humor as the genre that introduced the iconic American character of the boastful and witty frontiersman. In addition to stock characters, Southwestern humorists employed narrative techniques and recurring themes that influenced later generations of writers and movements, including the tradition of local color literature. Moreover, Southwestern humor paved the way for the distinctively American voices of Mark Twain and William Faulkner.

Representative Works

The Crockett Almanac: Containing Sprees and Scrapes in the West; Life and Manners in the Backwoods, and Exploits and Adventures on the Praries. 11 vols. 1842-53
Tall Tales of the Southwest: An Anthology of Southern and Southwestern Humor, 1830-1860 [edited by Franklin J. Meine] 1930
Humor of the Old Deep South [edited by Arthur Palmer Hudson] 1936
Native American Humor (1800-1900) [edited by Walter Blair] 1937

Joseph Glover Baldwin
The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (short stories and sketches) 1853

Joseph B. Cobb
Mississippi Scenes; or, Sketches of Southern and Western Life and Adventure, Humorous, Satirical and Descriptive, including The Legend of Black Creek (short stories and sketches) 1851

Davy Crockett
A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett [with Thomas Chilton] (memoir) 1834

Joseph M. Field
The Drama in Pokerville 1847

George Washington Harris
Sut Lovingood: Yarns Spun by a “Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool,” Warped and Wove for Public Wear (short stories and sketches) 1867
The Lovingood Papers. 4 vols. (short stories and sketches) 1962-65

Johnson Jones Hooper
Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers; Together with “Taking the Census,” and Other Alabama Sketches (short stories...

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Criticism: Overviews

James H. Penrod (essay date March 1955)

SOURCE: Penrod, James H. “Folk Motifs in Old Southwestern Humor.” Southern Folklore Quarterly 19, no. 1 (March 1955): 117-24.

[In the following essay, Penrod explores the “relationship of motifs in the Old Southwestern yarns and in the folklore of the world.”]

Although he rendered an invaluable service in reacquainting the literary world with the Old Southwestern yarnspinners, Franklin J. Meine tended in his laudable zeal to exaggerate the originality and indigenous quality of Southwestern humor. In his words: “This early humor of the South had no counterpart in the humor of any other section of the United States. It was distinctly and peculiarly Southern;...

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Arlin Turner (essay date April 1956)

SOURCE: Turner, Arlin. “Seeds of Literary Revolt in the Humor of the Old Southwest.” Louisiana Historical Quarterly 39, no. 2 (April 1956): 143-51.

[In the following essay, Turner considers the initially poor reputation of Southwestern humor stories and argues that writers of the genre were in revolt against the tradition of “polite letters.”]

While editor of The Southern Quarterly Review (1849-1856), William Gilmore Simms reviewed briefly several books of humorous tales and sketches from the Old Southwest. He called one of these books “a collection of broad-grin, Southern and Western exaggeration—comicalities of the woods and wayside; such as will...

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James H. Penrod (essay date June 1958)

SOURCE: Penrod, James H. “Minority Groups in Old Southern Humor.” Southern Folklore Quarterly 22, no. 2 (June 1958): 121-28.

[In the following essay, Penrod examines the treatment of African Americans and Native Americans in Southwestern humor literature.]

In the generation before the Civil War the school of humorists commonly designated today as the Southwestern yarnspinners wrote incidentally about the Negroes and Indians of their period and their region. The present study is limited to a consideration of the treatment of these two racial groups by nine writers: Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Joseph B. Cobb, William T. Thompson, Henry Clay Lewis, Johnson Jones...

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Edd Winfield Parks (essay date fall 1960)

SOURCE: Parks, Edd Winfield. “The Intent of the Ante-Bellum Southern Humorists.” Mississippi Quarterly 13, no. 4 (fall 1960): 163-68.

[In the following essay, Parks provides an overview of the major figures in the Southwestern humor tradition.]

There is abundant justification for describing the work of the Southern humorists as “spontaneous, hilarious pencillings.” No doubt most of these widely scattered, highly varied writers simply sat down and described a realistic incident or concocted a tall tale, with no particular concern about why they were writing as they did. But a few men felt the need for a rough-and-ready aesthetic that would justify a new way of...

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John Q. Anderson (essay date spring 1964)

SOURCE: Anderson, John Q. “Scholarship in Southwestern Humor—Past and Present.” Mississippi Quarterly 17, no. 2 (spring 1964): 67-86.

[In the following essay, Anderson surveys the critical reaction to Southwestern humor literature.]

An Easterner traveling in the backcountry of the Old Southwest in the 1840's forced his tired horse along a boggy road in an unsettled stretch of country. When the road seemed to disappear in an extended mudhole, he was surprised to see a hat lying in the middle of the road. He bent over in his saddle stirrups and with his riding crop attempted to pick up the hat. To his amazement, he heard a voice and discovered a backwoodsman under...

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Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Cohen, Hennig, and William B. Dillingham. Introduction to Humor of the Old Southwest, edited by Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham, pp. ix-xxiv. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1964.

[In the following essay, Cohen and Dillingham delineate the defining characteristics of the Southwestern humor tradition.]

The Southern frontier in the first half of the nineteenth century was an elusive, ever-changing line. What was wilderness in the 1820's became a settlement by the 1830's. The frontier moved rapidly from the interior of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia westward through Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and across the great river through Missouri,...

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Milton Rickels (essay date October 1976)

SOURCE: Rickels, Milton. “Inexpressibles in Southwestern Humor.” Studies in American Humor 3, no. 2 (October 1976): 76-83.

[In the following essay, Rickels argues that the abuses, curses, profanities, and improprieties utilized by Southwestern humorists “are a cultivated stylistic form, achieving a significant set of esthetic functions.”]

The humorists of the Old Southwest are sometimes credited with being the frankest of the ante-bellum writers in their situations and language. In 1930 Franklin Meine even called one of them Rabelaisian. However, during their time, 1830-1860, taboos against obscenities and profanities were strong and complicated. The best of...

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Michael Oriard (essay date spring 1980)

SOURCE: Oriard, Michael. “Shifty in a New Country: Games in Southwestern Humor.” Southern Literary Journal 12, no. 2 (spring 1980): 3-28.

[In the following essay, Oriard explores the role of games in Southwestern humor literature.]

Writing a half-century ago, Dorothy Dondore remarked on the similarities between the heroic age of Europe and the frontier period in America:

The existence of a dominantly masculine society, primitively simple in its standards; contempt for an alien and effete civilization; prime emphasis upon physical courage, brute strength, and mastery of the wild; featuring of the virtues of hospitality,...

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Robert D. Jacobs (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Robert D. “Tobacco Road: Lowlife and the Comic Tradition.” In The American South: Portrait of a Culture, edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr., pp. 206-26. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Jacobs underscores the crucial role of the figure of the poor white male in Southwestern humor fiction.]

Gaunt, racked with ague, dull-eyed and hollow-cheeked, he has been with us in fiction for more than two hundred years. Until recently travelers through the South could see his real-life counterpart leaning against the doorframe of a paintless, screenless shack on the edge of a cotton field in Georgia, South Carolina,...

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Milton Rickels (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Rickels, Milton. “The Grotesque Body of Southwestern Humor.” In Critical Essays on American Humor, edited by William Bedford Clark and W. Craig Turner, pp. 155-66. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984.

[In the following essay, Rickels considers the grotesque image of the body as a fundamental technique in Southwestern humor literature.]

The most significant esthetic achievement of the humor of the Old Southwest is its language. Such writers as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Johnson Jones Hooper, and George Washington Harris realized their characters, settings, and actions in versions of regional dialect. “I am often amused,” wrote...

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Ed Piacentino (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Piacentino, Ed. “Contesting the Boundaries of Race and Gender in Old Southwestern Humor.” Southern Literary Journal 32, no. 2 (spring 2000): 116-40.

[In the following essay, Piacentino explores the treatment of African Americans and women in Southwestern humor fiction.]

As has been generally acknowledged, the humor of the Old Southwest has often featured African American and women characters, but most typically in secondary roles. And the portrayal of blacks and women has usually reaffirmed popular nineteenth-century socio-cultural attitudes and assumptions regarding race and gender, thereby sustaining the marginalization of women and blacks. Still, there...

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J. A. Leo Lemay (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Lemay, J. A. Leo. “The Origins of the Humor of the Old South.” In The Humor of the Old South, edited by M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino, pp. 13-21. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

[In the following essay, Lemay traces the origins of Southwestern humor fiction and focuses on the role of William Henry Timrod in the development of the genre.]

The best humor of the Old South is sui generis, inexplicable, a product of the individual genius of the creator. Yet the writings clearly are part of local tradition, and a host of contemporaries throughout the South in the 1840s and 1850s influenced one another. Writers like George...

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Criticism: Mark Twain

William C. Havard (essay date spring 1964)

SOURCE: Havard, William C. “Mark Twain and the Political Ambivalence of Southwestern Humor.” Mississippi Quarterly 17, no. 2 (spring 1964): 95-106.

[In the following essay, Havard argues that “Mark Twain was the first and probably the sole authentic genius to rise to the level of literary artistry directly out of the broad framework of frontier humor” but notes that his humor prevented his being taken seriously on political social matters.]

The interpretation of the humorist literary tradition of the Old Southwest has been almost as various as the critics who have interpreted it and nearly as broad as the range of the subject itself. And it is appropriate that...

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Leland Krauth (essay date October 1982)

SOURCE: Krauth, Leland. “Mark Twain: The Victorian of Southwestern Humor.” American Literature 54, no. 3 (October 1982): 368-84.

[In the following essay, Krauth analyzes the literary influence of New England Victorianism on Mark Twain's Southwestern humor stories.]

When Mark Twain moved into the New England culture, first in 1870 to its edge at Buffalo, and then in 1871 to one of its centers at Hartford's Nook Farm, he came doubly disguised. Truly from the South, he came to New England as a man from the West, and even his Western identity was itself partially concealed by his fame as the all-American traveler of The Innocents Abroad. While it is hyperbolic...

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Criticism: George Washington Harris

M. Thomas Inge (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Inge, M. Thomas. “The Satiric Artistry of George Washington Harris.” In Faulkner, Sut, and Other Southerners, pp. 77-87. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Inge regards George Washington Harris as a satirist of the highest order and praises his creation of the Sut Lovingood character.]

Among the nineteenth-century American humorists of the old Southwest, a Tennessean named George Washington Harris, above all others, has elicited the admiration of modern readers for his salient comic artistry and ingenious control of language. Highly effective characterization, a sharp eye for descriptive detail in action and...

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Pascal Covici, Jr. (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Covici, Pascal, Jr. “Propriety, Society, and Sut Lovingood: Vernacular Gentility in Action.” In Sut Lovingood's Nat'ral Born Yarnspinner: Essays on George Washington Harris, edited by James E. Caron and M. Thomas Inge, pp. 246-60. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Covici discusses George Washington Harris' Sut Lovingood tales as a violation of nineteenth-century societal norms of propriety and civility.]

If propriety can be said to have its fictional antithesis, George Washington Harris's Sut Lovingood has the nomination, so far as his delightedly disgusted readers can tell. Edmund Wilson, the most prestigious critic to...

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Criticism: Other Major Figures

Eugene Current-Garcia (essay date April 1956)

SOURCE: Current-Garcia, Eugene. “Thomas Bangs Thorpe and the Literature of the Ante-Bellum Southwestern Frontier.” Louisiana Historical Quarterly 39, no. 2 (April 1956): 199-222.

[In the following essay, Current-Garcia views Thomas Bangs Thorpe as a seminal contributor to the tradition of Southwestern humor literature and chronicles his career as an editor.]

In January, 1845, the firm of Carey & Hart of Philadelphia published a small volume of sketches entitled The Mysteries of the Backwoods.1 Dedicating his work to the American sculptor Hiram Powers, the author stated his purpose in a modest preface, which began as follows:


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Robert Hopkins (essay date fall 1963)

SOURCE: Hopkins, Robert. “Simon Suggs: A Burlesque Campaign Biography.” American Quarterly 15, no. 3 (fall 1963): 459-63.

[In the following essay, Hopkins maintains that Johnson Jones Hooper's Some Adventures of Simon Suggs should be read as a burlesque of a campaign biography.]

While it is generally recognized that Johnson Hooper's Some Adventures of Simon Suggs (1845) is written in the form of a campaign biography, no critic has yet recognized that the work is a burlesque of campaign biographies. This elementary distinction, however, is of some importance; for as in most great works of satire, the structure of Simon Suggs becomes...

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Tommy W. Rogers (essay date spring 1969)

SOURCE: Rogers, Tommy W. “Joseph B. Cobb: Antebellum Humorist and Critic.” Mississippi Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1969): 131-46.

[In the following essay, Rogers favorably assesses the contribution of Southwestern humorist Joseph B. Cobb.]

Although Joseph B. Cobb is largely unknown today, at least one observer has evaluated him as one of the few antebellum Southern planters who wrote anything that properly belongs to literature.1 George T. Buckley, on discovering Cobb's Leisure Labors, was so impressed with the “range of learning and sound scholarship displayed on almost every page” that he felt this uncatalogued Mississippian “ought not to...

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James A. Shackford and Stanley J. Folmsbee (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Shackford, James A., and Stanley J. Folmsbee. Introduction to The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee, by David Crockett, pp. ix-xx. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Shackford and Folmsbee trace the growth of the Davy Crockett legend, contending that behind the myth lies “an authentic folk hero.”]

A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is an important document in three major areas of American culture. As a literary work, it is one of the earliest autobiographies to be published, only a decade and a half after the virtually complete version of the first of all, Benjamin...

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Keith Newlin (essay date winter 1987-88)

SOURCE: Newlin, Keith. “Georgia Scenes: The Satiric Artistry of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet.” Mississippi Quarterly 41, no. 1 (winter 1987-88): 21-37.

[In the following essay, Newlin assesses Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's contribution to Southwestern humor and demonstrates an appreciation for the range of sketches published in Georgia Scenes.]

In the preface to Georgia Scenes, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet notes that he has “used some little art in order to recommend [Georgia Scenes] to the readers of my own times.”1 Yet this collection of sketches has had to wait until the 1980s to receive any real appreciation of its artistry. In...

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William E. Lenz (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Lenz, William E. “The Function of Women in Old Southwestern Humor: Re-reading Porter's Big Bear and Quarter Race Collections.” Mississippi Quarterly 46, no. 4 (fall 1993): 589-600.

[In the following essay, Lenz investigates the role of women in Southwestern humor stories through a reading of William T. Porter's anthologies The Big Bear of Arkansas and A Quarter Race in Kentucky.]

Old Southwestern Humor flourished from approximately 1830 to 1860 in local papers such as the La Fayette East Alabamian, in widely read regional publications such as the New Orleans Picayune, and in that national clearinghouse for frontier...

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Further Reading


Bier, Jesse. “Southwestern Humor.” In The Rise and Fall of American Humor, pp. 52-76. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

Surveys the broad range of Southwestern humor literature.

Blair, Walter. Horse Sense in American Humor. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1942, 341 p.

Contains several essays regarding Southwestern humor, including a chapter on the genre during the Civil War.

———. “Humor of the Old Southwest (1830-1867).” In Native American Humor, pp. 62-101. Scranton, Penn.: Chandler Publishing Co., 1960.

Offers an overview...

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