Southwestern Humor Criticism: Overviews - Essay

James H. Penrod (essay date March 1955)

(Short Story Criticism)

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;...

(The entire section is 3123 words.)

Arlin Turner (essay date April 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2979 words.)

James H. Penrod (essay date June 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2975 words.)

Edd Winfield Parks (essay date fall 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2327 words.)

John Q. Anderson (essay date spring 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8351 words.)

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

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 7199 words.)

Milton Rickels (essay date October 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3343 words.)

Michael Oriard (essay date spring 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 10877 words.)

Robert D. Jacobs (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 7934 words.)

Milton Rickels (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5905 words.)

Ed Piacentino (essay date spring 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10532 words.)

J. A. Leo Lemay (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4225 words.)