Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Shifty in a New Country: Games in Southwestern Humor

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Shifty in a New Country: Games in Southwestern Humor

Article excerpt

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, generosity, loyalty to one's friends;
   arrogant rivalries settled by individual combats; a rude but effectual code
   of justice; a zest in horse-play, the labors of trencher and beaker, as
   gargantuan as zest in the thrill of the chase, whether it be wolf, bison,
   bear or fleeing foe--all of these and more parallel each other in the
   eastern and western hemisphere. (1)

This recognition that the period of Western expansion was America's heroic age is important, for it places in the proper context a body of writing that emerged from that period--Old Southwestern humor. The writings of A. B. Longstreet, Joseph G. Baldwin, Johnson Jones Hooper, T. B. Thorpe, George Washington Harris, and dozens of others, many of whom contributed to William T. Porter's Spirit of the Times, can be seen to create collectively an American epic that chronicles the development of a new social order and the evolution of a national character defined by the virtues and values most cherished by the new nation.

Of course, the similarities of this writing to more traditional epics cannot be pressed too far. Southwestern humor after all is humorous, in contrast to the highly serious nature of the epic genre, and the "heroes" of these comic tales and sketches are folk of the most common sort, not well-born, all-conquering demi-gods. But the writing of the Southwestern humorists is the epic of a democratic, not an aristocratic people; the heroes of this writing could only be who they are, and the humor with which their stories are told is simply a trait highly valued by the people they represent.

What is most distinctive about this democratic epic, however, is the prevalence of games. Contests and competition are basic to any heroic age, but war is the great subject of traditional epic poems; in Southwestern humor the center appears to be play and games. Horse races, cockfights, gander pullings, shooting matches, and poker games figure prominently in the tales, but more significantly, as these stories repeatedly attest, virtually any activity on the frontier could become the occasion for a game-like contest. In Georgia Scenes, Longstreet describes a horse-swap and the students' "turning out" a teacher for a holiday as game-like contests; Simon Suggs competes with the preacher at a camp meeting in a battle of wits; the genteel narrator of "A Day at Sol. Slice's," a sketch from Porter's Spirit of the Times, finds himself at a dance competing with the locals for acclaim as the most accomplished dancer; and in several tales such as "The Steamboat Captain Who Was Averse to Racing," also in the Spirit, steamboats conducting passengers along the West's great rivers race one another for the status of best boat. The tall tale, a staple of Southwestern fiction, is by nature a "verbal poker game," according to one commentator on this literature, a contest between the teller and his audience with belief as the stake to be won. (2) In 1851, one of Porter's correspondents caricatured frontier life in a way that points out better than any other evidence the ubiquity of games:

   "Out West" is certainly a great country ... there is one little town in
   "them diggins" which ... is "all sorts of a stirring place." In one day,
   they recently had two street fights, hung a man, rode three men out of town
   on a rail, got up a quarter race, a turkey shooting, a gander pulling, a
   match dog fight, had preaching by a circus rider, who afterwards ran a
   footrace for apple jack all round, and, as if this was not enough, the
   judge of the court, after losing his year s salary at single-handed poker,
   and licking a person who said he didn't understand the game, went out and
   helped to lynch his grandfather for hog stealing. … 
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