American Humor Writing Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

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

David Crockett

A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett 1834

George Washington Harris

Sut Lovingood's Yarns 1867

Bret Harte

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches 1870

Marietta Holley

My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's 1873

Johnson James Hooper

Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs 1845

Washington Irving

History of New York . . . by Diedrich Knick erbocker 1809

The Sketch Book 1820

Melville D. Landon (Eli Perkins)

Eli Perkins at Large. His Sayins and Doings 1875

Henry Clay Lewis (Madison Tensas)

Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor 1846

David Ross Locke

The Struggles (Social, Financial and Political) of Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby 1872

Augustus Baldwin Longstreet

Georgia Scenes 1835

Edgar W. Nye (Bill Nye)

Baled Hay 1884

Sara Willis Parton (Fanny Fern)

Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio 1853

George W. Peck

Peck's Bad Boy and His Pa

William Trotter Porter (editor)

The Big Bear of Arkansas and Other Sketches 1845

John S. Robb

Streaks from Squatter Life 1846

B. P. Shillabar

Life and Sayins of Mrs. Partington 1854

Charles Henry Smith

Bill Arp, So-Called 1866

Seba Smith

The Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing 1833

William Tappan Thompson

Major Jones's Courtship 1843

Frances M. Whicher (also spelled Whitcher)

Widow Bedott Papers 1852


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 with the latter.

"Lord Byron,"—says William Hazlitt, in a very agreeable and suggestive volume of Sketches and Essays, now first collected by his son,—"was in the habit of railing at the spirit of our good old comedy, and of abusing Shakspeare's Clowns and Fools, which, he said, the refinement of the French and Italian stage would not endure, and which only our grossness and puerile taste could tolerate. In this I agree with him; and it is pat to my purpose. I flatter myself that we are almost the only people who understand and relish nonsense." This is the excuse for the humour of Shakspeare, his rich and genuine English humour!

In Lord Byron the taste which the above opinion expresses is easily accounted for; it was the consequences of his having early formed himself according to the Pope and Gifford school, which was the dominant one among the Cambridge students of his time. Scottish highland scenery, and European travel, aided by the influences of the revival of a more vigorous and natural taste in the public, made his poems much better than the taste of the narrow school to which he belonged could ever have made them; but above the dicta of this school his critical judgment never rose. We thought the matter more inexplicable as regards William Hazlitt, a man superior to Byron in force and acuteness of understanding—until we found the following declaration of his views:—"In fact, I am very much of the opinion of that old Scotch gentleman who owned that 'he preferred the dullest book he had ever read to the most brilliant conversation it had ever been his lot to hear.'" A man to whom the study of books was so much and the study of men so little as this, could not possibly understand the humour of Shakspeare's Clowns and Fools, or national humour of any sort. The characters of a Trinculo, a Bardolph, a Quickly, or a Silence, are matters beyond him. That man was never born whose genuine talk, let it be as dull as it may, and whose character, if studied aright, is not pregnant with thoughts, deep and immortal thoughts, enough to fill many books. A man is a volume stored all over with thoughts and meanings, as deep and great as God. A book, even when it contains the "life's blood of an immortal spirit," still is not an immortal spirit, nor a God-created form. Wofully fast will be his growth in ignorance who prefers reading books to reading men. But the time-honoured critical journals have critics—

"The earth hath bubbles as the waters hath"—

and William Hazlitt, with his eloquent vehemence, was one of the best of them.

The public have of late, by the appreciation of the genuine English humour of Mr Dickens, shown that the days when the refinement which revises Shakespeare and ascribes the toleration of his humour to grossness and puerility of taste, or a relish for nonsense, have long gone by. The next good sign is the appreciation of the humour of the Americans, in all its peculiar and unmitigated nationality. Humour is national when it is impregnated with the convictions, customs, and associations of a nation. What these, in the case of America, are, we thus indicated in a former number:—"The Americans are a democratic people; a people without poor; without rich; with a 'far-west' behind them; so situated as to be in no danger of aggression from without; sprung mostly from the Puritans; speaking the language of a foreign country; with no established church; with no endowments for the support of a learned class; with boundless facilities for 'raising themselves in the world;' and where a large family is a fortune. They are Englishmen who are all well off; who never were conquered; who never had feudalism on their soil; and who, instead of having the manners of society determined by a Royal court in all essentials imitative to the present hour of that of Louis the Fourteenth of France, had them formed, more or less, by the stern influences of Puritanism."

National American humour must be all this transformed into shapes which produce laughter. The humour of a people is their institutions, laws, customs, manners, habits, characters, convictions,—their scenery, whether of the sea, the city, or the hills,—expressed in the language of the ludicrous, uttering themselves in the tones of genuine and heartfelt mirth. Democracy and the 'far-west' made Colonel Crockett: he is a product of forests, freedom, universal suffrage, and bear-hunts. The Puritans and the American revolution, joined to the influence of the soil and the social manners of the time, have all contributed to the production of the character of Sam Slick. The institutions and scenery, the convictions and the habits of a people, become enwrought into their thoughts, and of course their merry as well as their serious thoughts. In America, at present, accidents of steamboats are extremely common, and have therefore a place in the mind of every American. Hence we are told that, when asked whether he was seriously injured by the explosion of the boiler of the St Leonard steamer, Major N. replied that he was so used to be blown-up by his wife that a mere steamer had no effect upon him. In another instance laughter is produced out of the very cataracts which form so noble a feature in American scenery. The Captain of a Kentucky steam-boat praises his vessel thus:—"She trots off like a horse—all boiler—full pressure—its hard work to hold her in at the wharfs and landings. I could run her up a cataract. She draws eight inches of water—goes at three knots a minute—and jumps all the snags and sand-banks." The Falls of Niagara themselves become redolent with humour.

Sam Patch was a great diver, and the last dive he took was off the Falls of Niagara, and he was never heard of agin till t'other day, when Captain Enoch Wentworth, of the Susy Ann whaler, saw him in the South Sea. 'Why,' says Captain Enoch to him—'why, Sam,' says he, 'how on airth did you get here, I thought you was drowned at the Canadian lines.'—'Why,' says Sam, 'I didn't get on earth here at all, but I came slap through it. In that are Niagara dive I went so everlasting deep, I thought it was just as short to come up t'other side, so out I came on these parts. If I don't take the shine off the sea-serpent, when I get back to Boston, then my name's not Sam Patch.'

The curiosity of the public regarding the peculiar nature of American humour seems to have been very easily satisfied with the application of the all-sufficing word exaggeration. We have, in a former number, sufficiently disposed of exaggeration, as an explanation of the ludicrous. Extravagance is a characteristic of American humour, though very far from being a peculiarity of it; and, when a New York paper, speaking of hot weather, says:—"We must go somewhere—we are dissolving daily—so are our neighbours.—It was rumoured yesterday that three large ridges of fat, found on the side-walk in Wall street, were caused by Thad. Phelps, Harry Ward, and Tom Van Pine, passing that way a short time before":—the humour does not consist in the exaggeration that the heat is actually dissolving people daily—a common-place at which no one would laugh—but in the representation of these respectable citizens as producing ridges of fat. It is humour, and not wit, on account of the infusion of character and locality into it. The man who put his umbrella into bed and himself stood up in the corner, and the man who was so tall that he required to go up a ladder to shave himself, with all their brethren, are not humorous and ludicrous because their peculiarities are exaggerated, but because the umbrella and the man change places, and because a man by reason of his tallness is supposed too short to reach himself.

The cause of laughter is the ascription to objects of qualities or the representations of objects or persons with qualities the opposite of their own:—Humour is this ascription or representation when impregnated with character, whether individual or national. . . .

Walter Blair

SOURCE: "The Popularity of Nineteenth-Century American Humorists," in Essays on American Humor: Blair Through the Ages, edited by Hamlin Hill, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993, pp. 25-39.

[Blair is recognized as a prominent literary critic and has been identified by Hamlin Hill as "the foremost critic and analyst" of American humor writing. In this excerpt, which originally appeared in the May, 1931, issue of American Literature, Blair provides a comprehensive view of the genre as well as the argument that humor writing advanced the development of American literature.]

Just how popular were the writers of American humor in the years of the last century during which they were most active (c. 1830-c. 1896)? The question seems worth considering for at least three reasons. An answer will reveal just how true is the impression, fostered by hostile critics of the period, that the great reading public existed on a diet of nothing much except the sugary fare offered by ladies' books and popular romances. Further, an answer will, perhaps, help one understand why Innocents Abroad [1869] found thirty-one thousand buyers within six months of its appearance and thus launched Mark Twain's remarkable career. And finally, if—as historians have recently held—American humorists were important as predecessors of the realists, data on this subject of popularity will indicate to some extent how these heralds managed to make themselves heard. For these reasons, I have attempted to discover and record some of the facts which show how the nineteenth-century literary comedians recruited an audience.

Several factors, apparently, were important in giving American humor the prominence which it achieved. An early and lasting stimulus to a wide interest in native comic creations, it is probable, was the stage presentation by many actors of humorous American characters. When The Contrast was performed in 1787, the stage Yankee, Jonathan, stumbled into the theater for the first time, spouting slang, parading his rustic foibles. The play was a pronounced success, and as a natural result of its popularity, dozens of other dramas portraying similarly vulgar characters followed. Not only the Yankee but also other figures important in the new humor of America were portrayed. Ralph Stackpole, frontiersman in Nick of the Woods, was a successful stage figure. Davy Crockett, comedian of the canebrakes, Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, and other frontiersmen pleased audiences in New York and the provinces. Minstrel troupes offered boisterous blackface jokers who used typical American humor, including some of the jests of Artemus Ward. One play, Eli among the Cowboys, pictured Eli Perkins captured by plainsmen during a lecture tour in Wyoming. At least two newspaper paragraphers, J. Amroy Knox and Charles H. Hoyt, became playwrights whose dramas were successful. Thus, throughout the period, humor of the salty native type found its way to the stage.

Actors made reputations as portrayers of Yankees or kindred types. Ludlow, dressed in the picturesque costume of a Western boatman, roared out the words of "The Hunters of Kentucky" while rough audiences in showhouses along the Ohio and Mississippi applauded with "a prolonged whoop, or howl. . . ." J. H. Hackett was Nimrod Wildfire, Jonathan Ploughboy, and Solon Shingle. Yankee Hill won fame in England as well as America by portraying Yankee types. Joseph Jefferson was applauded as he played the role of Asa Trenchard. Chanfrau triumphed as Mose, the tough fireboy, and John T. Raymond as Mark Twain's Colonel Mulberry Sellers in The Gilded Age [1874]. Some actors, in addition to playing character parts, offered monologues—Dr. W. Valentine, Sol Smith, Sol Smith Russell, and Yankee Hill. These monologues, composed by the actors or perhaps in some cases by humorists, augmented the flood of humorous books, in which monologues were often an important feature. And when J. H. Hackett went to the New York Leader as a journalist, writing lines similar to those which he spoke on the stage, he gave printed humor an impetus his stage career had made possible.

Thus to the theater audiences of the period the new humor became familiar. An even vaster audience, the group interested in politics, found much material in native comic writings to interest it. As Joel Chandler Harris said [in The World's Wit and Humor]:

First and last, humor has played a very large part in our political campaigns; in fact, it may be said that it has played almost as large a part as principle—which is the name that politicians gave to their theories. It is a fact that . . . the happy allusion, the humorous anecdote . . . will change the whole prospects of a political struggle.

A large part of the humor between 1830 and the end of the century dealt with political themes. Major Jack Downing, from the start of his literary career, and the imitators of Jack Downing as well, constantly commented shrewdly upon political struggles. Davy Crockett, with whom Downing carried on some correspondence, was apparently exploited as a political figure; and his writings were necessarily tied up with current contests. The story of Simon Suggs was written in the guise of a campaign biography, and Major Jones's Travels and Bagby's Letters of Mozis Addums contain political comments. W. P. Trent notes [in the November 1901 issue of Century] the preoccupation of humorists with politics:

Lowell being put to one side, there are at least five political humorists of importance belonging to the eventful years 1830-70 . . . Seba Smith, Charles Augustus Davis (1795-1867), Robert Henry Newell (1836-1901), the "Orpheus C. Kerr" whose letters gave Lincoln needed relaxation . . ., Charles Henry Smith ("Bill Arp," born in 1826), and David R. Locke [Petroleum V. Nasby]. To these one is almost tempted to add Richard Grant White, whose New Gospel of Peace . . . [was] a clever and very popular parody of the style of the historical books of the Old Testament.

To the list also may be added Artemus Ward, whose political writings were, if not numerous, telling.

During the years when several of these political humorists were active, one of America's outstanding political figures did much to focus attention on contemporary humorous works. Lincoln, as Professor Pattee [A History of American Literature Since 1870] has pointed out, "stood in the limelight of the Presidency, transacting the nation's business with anecdotes from the frontier circuits, meeting hostile critics with shrewd border philosophy, and reading aloud with unction, while battles were raging or election returns were in doubt, from 'Artemus Ward,' or 'Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby,' or The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi—favorites of his because they too were genuine, excerpts not from books but from life itself."

Furthermore, there were few important comic journals which did not battle valiantly in the field of politics. The pages of John Donkey (1848), Vanity Fair (1859-63), Puck (1877-1907), and Judge (1888-) were full of political cartoons and satires. Newspaper comic men constantly carried on political conflicts in the period after the war as before the war: David Ross Locke, George W. Peck, Marcus M. "Brick" Pomeroy of the LaCrosse Democrat, James M. Bailey, Robert J. Burdette, and Eli Perkins. It was not a mere accident that one of the most vicious fictional attacks upon industrial control in politics was made by a humorist, Mark Twain, in The Gilded Age. The tradition of the use of political material for humorous purposes was extended through the whole period down to the jestings of Mr. Dooley and Will Rogers about statesmen and demagogues. The nation always has been interested in frank and amusing comments upon political events.

The newspapers were active in carrying this humorous material into every part of...

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The Old Southwest

Clement Eaton

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...

(The entire section is 27604 words.)

Broader Impacts

Clarence Gohdes

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...

(The entire section is 2618 words.)

Women Humorists

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...

(The entire section is 11202 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 566 words.)