American Humor Writing Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.