Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Literature and the Art of Political Payback in an Early Alabama Classic

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Literature and the Art of Political Payback in an Early Alabama Classic

Article excerpt

It is a commonplace of American literary study that the culture has always somehow eluded traditional satire in its broad-scale social dimension. The blight was once understood to have cast its shadow across the colonial era and the early republic through at least the whole pre-civil war period, with the explanation that only in the decades after 1865 could one even begin to speak in an institutional sense about American manners. And apologists for something like satire in the works of the great American realists--Henry James, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, for instance--continue arguing among themselves to this day if things ever stabilized enough or acquired sufficient texture for a social satirist to write classically in the form. Even Twain, whose debunking frequently married social comedy to the explosive possibilities of frontier humor, at most wrote incidental satires of folly.

Likewise, whatever their socially corrective inclinations, American naturalists--Crane, Norris, Dreiser, and the like--found satiric impulses mired in visions of bio-social necessity. And their ironist successors in our own century, confronted with the endless new dehumanizations of technology, bureaucracy, and mass-psychology, have in turn found themselves looking out at a landscape of socio-cultural waste so garish and vast as to outrun the imagination of even the most resourceful humorist. Against the best efforts of figures as diverse as Edith Wharton and Kurt Vonnegut, America's peculiar gift to social comedy has been somehow to make the world safe for Michael Jackson.

As to early developments in what might now be called a native tradition of satire, some progress has been made in revisionary understanding. If nothing else, it is admitted that from the earliest days onward, colonial and pre-Revolutionary Americans were not only trying to write satire more often than was thought, but were often actually writing it rather successfully within a given cultural context. Such works such as Nathaniel Ward's Simple Cobler of Aggawam and Ebenezer Cooke's The Sot-Weed Factor, the first from late seventeenth-century Massachusetts and the second from early eighteenth-century Maryland, we now know to have carried humorous meaning and appeal for a transatlantic audience. Diarists such as Sarah Kemble Knight and William Byrd likewise reveal themselves to have been skilled satirists of provincial manners. Franklin's career, from the Dogood papers onward, was marked by frequent successful ventures into topical satire. And the socio-political ferment of the Revolutionary and early national periods was often kept humorously aboil by poetic efforts such as The Anarchiad and The Battle of the Kegs, plays such as Royall Tyler's The Contrast and Mercy Otis Warren's The Group, and prose works such as Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry and Irving's History of New York. Indeed, it could be argued that through extensions of the Knickerbocker hoax in "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" Irving's Sketch-Book became the new nation's first transatlantic best-seller largely by proving that American social humor could lend itself successfully to satire.

My purpose here, in bringing to light the work of an early verse-satirist of pre-statehood Alabama, is to show that it also could be done and in fact was being done in other portions of the new country even before nationhood officially reached the landscape of an ever-extending frontier. That is, in at least one instance, it truly does seem to have been possible, with considerable skill and literary success, to write classic satire in the territories. At the same time, I also propose to show how one of the first productions of humorous literature in the Old Southwest, like much material to come in a celebrated regional genre, can also provide an early opening on a familiar political archaeology--in this case with a freewheeling literary lampoon arising out of a clash of partisan interests in a complex of unsavory political and economic relationships all too typical of territorial administration in the early decades of the republic; and with the result cementing the eventual reputations of the two figures involved--neither of them strangers to local corruption--largely as a consequence of one's exercise of a minor gift for literary improvisation and the other's inability to dodge a judgment for military foolishness already administered by local memory. …

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