Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Origins of the Humor of the Old South

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Origins of the Humor of the Old South

Article excerpt

The best humor of the Old South is sui generis, inexplicable, a product of the individual genius of the creator. Yet the writings clearly are part of a local tradition, and a host of contemporaries throughout the South in the 1840s and 1850s influenced one another. Writers like George Washington Harris grew up admiring the best writings appearing in the newspapers and periodicals. Such writings challenged aspiring authors who tried to excel and to exceed in the characteristic subjects and techniques of their predecessors. The language, characters, settings, and plots of the stories of Harris are all comparable to numerous other earlier writers in the tradition, though he, finally, is distinctive.

But as soon as we begin comparing him to his contemporaries, we can also think of antecedents, not only in important works and traditions in English literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, but also in a series of colonial American writings that anticipate, in many ways, the best humor of the Old South. The English or American background will never explain the genius of a particular work like T. B. Thorpe's "The Big Bear of Arkansas" or the creation of an extraordinary character like Sut Lovingood, but it makes a contribution to our understanding of the background and the important place of the humor of the Old South in American literary history.

The emergence of the Old South's humor remains a puzzle that will never be completely explained. More pieces, however, are constantly being discovered so that the whole design is gradually taking on an elusive shape. Outstanding features of the humor's origins may be found in several traditions of English literature from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries; in traditions of folk and popular culture, including rituals, story-telling, and popular anecdotes; (2) and in the eighteenth century's increasing fascination with folk culture, as manifested by Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and by the theoretical suggestions of the significance of folklore and folkways by Johann Gottfried Herder and the American Joel Barlow. (3) The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English literary works most important to the humor of the Old South were Charles Cotton's burlesques of Virgil (1664) and Lucian (1665); (4) Samuel Butler's extremely popular mock-heroic Hudibras (1663, 1664, 1678); (5) the anti-Petrarchan and anti-pastoral burlesques by Sir Walter Raleigh and John Gay; (6) and the traditions of low comedy found in Aphra Behn's Widow Ranter, in Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and in the afterpieces of eighteenth-century English drama. (7) These literary works, along with the English sporting literature of the early nineteenth century, (8) are all reflected in various writings of the Old South.

In this paper I will focus upon a hitherto unknown author who adds to our understanding of the American background of ante-bellum Southern humor. First, though, let me recapitulate the Southern colonial background. A newly-discovered early eighteenth-century poem by the Delaware poet Henry Brooke, entitled "The New Metamorphosis, or, the Fable of the Bald Eagle," adds an interesting burlesque of the American success story from the late 1720s. (9) (Immersed in the literary traditions of the Old South, William Gilmore Simms wrote one of the great satires of the American Dream. (10)) So now in Southern colonial literature, we have at least ten key works anticipating the humorists of the Old South: first, Ebenezer Cook's hudibrastic satire of frontier American culture and especially of English ideas about America, The Sot-Weed Factor (1708); (11) second, Henry Brook's rollicking, anapestic burlesque of the American success story (1727, just mentioned above); third, Richard Lewis' fine translation of a Latin mock-heroic poem, The Mouse Trap (1728); (12) fourth, William Byrd's satirical passages about low-life frontier types in The History of the Dividing Line (written during the 1730s); (13) fifth, Dr. …

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