Southwestern Humor Critical Essays

Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

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.