Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor

Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor

Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor

Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor

Excerpt

When Mark Twain prefaced Huckleberry Finn with the warning that "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot," he was, of course, joking. To play the role of a know-nothing never ceased to appeal to Mark Twain's sense of humor. Nevertheless, many of Twain's most fervent admirers have incautiously taken him at his word, thereby confusing the deliberately assumed mask of innocence with the writer behind it. Referring to him with affectionate familiarity as "Mark," they rejoice in his writings as the brilliant improvisations of a man who never really knew what he was doing. My belief, however, is that Mark Twain was a conscious and deliberate creator, and one of the purposes of this book is to treat him as such.

The Southwestern humorists who came before Twain -- and whose works comprise the tradition out of which his fiction emerged -- have been granted even less artistic awareness. Generally speaking, these authors have been cast in the rude image of their frontier materials: not only did they portray the backwoods mind, we have been told, they exemplified it. Beyond doubt, the notion that Southwestern humor came out of the forest has some truth in it. But this interpretation ignores a great many other truths about the subject, including the influence of Europe, the political exigencies of life in the antebellum South, and above all, the careful craftsmanship that distinguishes Southwestern humor at its best. As with Mark Twain, my primary assumption about the humorous tradition behind him is that it is a self-conscious art, and not an expression of American mindlessness.

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