Mary Bayard Clarke's Plain-Folk Humor: Writing Women into the Literature and Politics of Reconstruction

By Censer, Jane Turner | The Journal of Southern History, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Mary Bayard Clarke's Plain-Folk Humor: Writing Women into the Literature and Politics of Reconstruction


Censer, Jane Turner, The Journal of Southern History


HISTORIANS OF THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION HAVE OFTEN examined the roles of women and African Americans during those troubled years; nevertheless, postbellum southern gender, race, and class relations and cultural worldviews require further study. (1) According to many accounts, class conflict among white southerners during the Civil War was inflamed by the resentments of nonslaveholders compelled to sacrifice their own lives and property in a war to preserve slavery. (2) Some historians have addressed how such animosity played out in state politics, but few have pursued the cultural aspects of social discord roiled by the Civil War. (3) Despite being overlooked by many scholars, the manner in which white southerners addressed social differences during Reconstruction shaped the culture, politics, and society of the postbellum South.

As defeated white southerners grappled with a changed world, many among the educated classes made sense of it by writing from personal experience. Best known among such accounts have been memoirs and autobiographically influenced fiction. (4) Yet one pervasive part of postwar southern cultural life has remained largely unexamined--the humor published in newspapers and magazines. Because this humor relied on common knowledge of current events as well as shared cultural understandings, it provides a window on Reconstruction as presented and understood by white southerners. Charles Henry Smith's character, Bill Arp, a fictional soldier from Georgia, was probably the most famous southerner in the humorous literature of the period. Bill Arp's comic sallies against Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis during the Civil War are widely known, but Smith also permitted Arp to comment at length about the vagaries of Reconstruction. (5) And Arp's commentary on Reconstruction is not unique.

In 1867 and 1868 Mary Bayard Clarke, an upper-class white woman from North Carolina, wrote a series of humorous sketches that depict gender, race, and social relations in the defeated South. (6) Surveying all of Clarke's humorous writings, as this essay does, shows that they changed over the course of Reconstruction. Her dismay over Radical Reconstruction led her to alter the emphasis in her writing, from highlighting women's patriotism and wartime contributions to decrying the enfranchisement of African American men. Her humorous stories and sketches indicate that members of the southern upper classes expressed admiration for common people and, at the same time, encouraged their racism. Moreover, in her columns Clarke sought to dampen northerners' sympathy for freedpeople at a time of fluid political and social relations in the postwar South. This literature demonstrates how postbellum white society addressed southern class and race relations transformed by the Civil War.

Vernacular humor was a common literary genre in nineteenth-century America. To be sure, much of this humorous writing seemed thoroughly masculine in both authorship and subject. Such pieces ranged from the ribald, rather scatological almanacs in the 1840s that portrayed mythic adventures of the late Davy Crockett to the critique of the U.S.-Mexican War by Hosea Biglow. (7) Contemporary Americans understood that stories written in dialect (mimicking the patterns of speech among the lower classes) were humorous in intent--whether the groups involved were ethnic minorities like African Americans and Irish immigrants or common folks hailing from the Southwest or New England. During the Civil War, southern readers followed Bill Arp's adventures, while northerners read about Petroleum V. Nasby, created by David Ross Locke, or Artemus Ward, the character of Charles Farrar Browne. While all these wartime humorists had been newspapermen, Browne and Locke came from less privileged backgrounds than Bill Arp's creator. (8)

Women as well as men sometimes depicted plain-folk characters in their satirical writings. While northern women humorists like Marietta Holley have drawn notice for such characters, this has not been true for southern women writing in the same genre.

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