Ham Jones, North Carolina Backwoods Humorist, and the Art of "Democratic Elbow-Rubbing"

By Piacentino, Ed | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Ham Jones, North Carolina Backwoods Humorist, and the Art of "Democratic Elbow-Rubbing"


Piacentino, Ed, The Mississippi Quarterly


USUALLY SIGNING HIS HUMOROUS SKETCHES, "BY THE AUTHOR OF 'COUSIN Sally Dilliard'" ("Cousin Sally Dilliard" being his first, most popular, and most widely reprinted work), Ham Jones is not well known in the genre of Old Southwest humor. In "Ham Jones: Southern Folk Humorist," a 1965 article published in the Journal of American Folklore, Richard Walser recovered Jones from obscurity, providing a brief but reliable account of Jones's life and work. In the same essay, Walser reprinted sketches authored by Jones and other pieces he suspected were penned by him. In 1990, George and Willene Hendrick edited Ham Jones, Ante-Bellum Southern Humorist, an anthology of the Jones canon first collected by Walser and included a few additional sketches that may have been authored by Jones as well as selected unsigned humorous newspaper anecdotes that he wrote between 1837 and 1839 for the Salisbury Carolina Watchman, the Whig newspaper that he owned and edited.

Though born in Virginia, Ham Jones lived most of his life in Rowan County and Salisbury, North Carolina. (2) Like most Southwestern humorists, he did not write professionally. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Jones became a lawyer after studying law under William Gaston of New Bern, one of North Carolina's most eminent attorneys. And between 1832 and 1839, Jones edited the Carolina Watchman, a conservative newspaper, which, in addition to legal notices, advertisements, articles from other newspapers, book reviews, poems, and occasional humorous sketches and anecdotes, featured speeches of Whig politicians and articles supporting the Whig position on issues such as nullification. Also a state legislator, he served four terms in the North Carolina House of Commons in 1827, 1828, 1838, and 1840. He subsequently served as solicitor for the sixth Judicial District and then as reporter for the North Carolina Supreme Court. Given his background and career path, Jones fits the profile of many of the antebellum South's humorous writers: a professional man who was also a writer by avocation.

Like Hardin E. Taliaferro of Surry County, North Carolina, and the author of Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters (1859), Ham Jones drew extensively on rural western North Carolina materials--characters, scenes, and spaces--which he either observed firsthand or heard accounts of from actual persons. The majority of Jones's published comic sketches, those authoritatively ascribed to him, draw on North Carolina subject matter and employ themes, motifs, situations, and comic strategies more prominent and prolific Southwestern humorists would also employ in their works. (3) Applying Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of the carnivalesque, which he explains in Rabelais and His World, to Jones's humorous sketches, I will show how Jones inverts and resists society's hierarchies and authority, giving voice and space to low culture and/or marginalized characters and tolerating their sometimes bizarre and amusing behavior. In so doing, Jones challenged the order and authority of the dominant society. Bakhtin's sense of carnival contextually relates to medieval folk festivals and their comic rituals during which social inversions occurred and the restraints and conventions of a hierarchical society gave way to democratization. In such disruptions from conventionalized order, Bakhtin recognized a "temporary liberation" that created "a special type of communication impossible in everyday life" and that "permit[ed] no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberat[ed] from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times" (10).The democratic emphasis of Bakhtinian carnivalesque comic culture provides a viable avenue for examining Ham Jones's best backwoods sketches.

The first and most popular of Jones's humorous sketches, "Cousin Sally Dilliard," also one of the earliest texts in Old Southwest humor, was published in Atkinson's Saturday Evening Past on August 6, 1831.

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