"Honey, Yer Ain't Harf as Smart as Yer Thinks Yer Is!": Race and Humor in Sherwood Bonner's Short Fiction

Article excerpt

In 1892, professor and literary critic John Bell Henneman addressed the Virginia Literary Society of the State Female Normal School of Farmville, Virginia. Henneman would go on to some academic prominence, helping to edit in the early years of the twentieth-century, for example, the multivolume series, The South in the Building of the Nation (1909-1913) and overseeing for a time the publication of the Sewanee Review. But in 1892 he was a professor at neighboring Hampden-Sydney College, who took for his lecture's title "The Nineteenth Century Woman in Literature" His subject matter was a natural choice given his audience, he explains, and given the fact that women are actually at the root of many of history's turning points: man's loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden, the outbreak of the Greek and Trojan War, the dissolution of Antony's empire. Now, in this "period of the emancipation of women" (3), Henneman professes, women are still busy, "engaged in coquetting with, and in wooing, and in many instances in successfully capturing every employment, every occupation, every field of literature, art, and even science" (3). Though Hennemann's chivalric flourishes throughout his speech surely suggest a man who wanted to woo his own audience, the subtext of his early remarks seems clear: woman could be dangerous, her ambitions were many, and subterfuge was her surest ally.

My interest in women's writing is prompted by an interest in that subterfuge, by an interest in how authors say what they mean by not appearing to mean what they say. Long denied access to humor as a tool for delivering a message, while seemingly unaware of or uncommitted to its content, women have historically been thought unfunny. Daniel Wickberg, in his recent study of the concept of having "a sense of humor" argues that humor, as we understand that word today, really emerges in the mid to late nineteenth century, when "humor" begins to refer to "a mode of representation" rather than to the laughable qualities possessed by individuals, as it had been earlier understood. A "humorist" then, comes to mean a self-conscious creator of humor (29). Yet just as the role of the humorist is being defined in the nineteenth century, women are being excluded from exercising its power: women "seldom show a sense of humor" remarked a writer for the Nation in 1866 (qtd in Wickberg 82).

In the last fifteen years, however, scholars and readers have at last confirmed what Kate Sanborn, editor of The Wit of Women, observed in 1885: women have consistently written humor and society has persistently failed to recognize it as such. Recent critical essays and anthologies have begun to rectify what Nancy Walker once termed the "very invisibility" of American women's humor by suggesting that women have a long history of appropriating the role of the humorist, that they have created specific literary forms to bear the weight of their comedic efforts, and that they have turned to humor to serve purposes distinctive from those of their male counterparts (10). Southern women seldom appear in such studies, however. Not until Barbara Bennett's recent examination of southern women's humor, Comic Visions, Female Voices: Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor (1998), do we encounter a sustained effort to examine the South's intersection with gender and the production of humor. In her wide reading of southern women's novels published since 1970, Bennett argues persuasively that women have used satire to debunk specifically southern icons (the southern lady) and codes of behavior (southern honor). Women have used humor, Bennett asserts, to create themselves, to unite themselves, and to transgress culturally prescribed boundaries. Yet as Bennett's opening chapter intimates, southern women's humor is not a phenomenon of the twentieth century's last thirty years. In fact it stretches far beyond even the mid-century authors whom critics generally regard as humorous--Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, for instance--although even their uses of humor remain largely unexamined. …