In the Midst of a Noisome Swamp: The Landscape of Henry Clay Lewis

Article excerpt

The town, the forest, and the river served as the primary settings in the vast preponderance of stories and anecdotes written by the humorists of the Old Southwest. Each setting is associated with its own specific characteristics and implications which are among the most accessible devices at the disposal of these writers. The humor of their stories, from Augustus Longstreet's town in "The Fight," to Alexander McNutt's "A Swim for a Deer," to Solomon Smith's river in "Slow Traveling by Steamship," is usually generated by the application or the inversion of these expectations to certain colorful characters or circumstances. The town is where the greenhorn or outsider is conned and the local competitors compete; the forests hold the astounding doings of the wild animals and the wilder men; and the steamboat on the river serves as a travelling epicenter of con-artistry and confrontations between certain semi-civilized types.

The relationship between setting and subject in this literature is thus rather static: for the most part, these writers were content to employ these generic frontier settings tacitly and utilize them as fully constructed stages onto which to cast their conmen and characters. As such, in much of the humor of the Old Southwest, there is little or no interest in the manipulation of landscape as a contributory device in the establishment of a scene or environment. The stages set for these anecdotes often seem as hastily prepared as one of Solomon Smith's must have been. In many cases, the simple environments are the quite appropriate settings for rather simplistic anecdotes in respect to moral or structural complexity. Whether this omission is on account of a lack of technical skill, an intentional utilization of easily accessible locales with which the reader was familiar, or, most likely, a lack of primary concern with contextualization, the almost exclusive employment of generic locales suggests an intentional avoidance in this literature of the thematic complexity made available through the construction of ambiguous settings. (1)

In many of his stories, Henry Clay Lewis is content merely to place his stories in the generic frontier town, forest, or river. For example, "The Mississippi Patent Plan for Pulling Teeth," "The Indefatigable Bear-Hunter," and "A Rattlesnake on a Steamboat," respectively, could be easily removed to the town of Longstreet, the steamboat of Smith, or the forest of McNutt. In these stories and many others, Lewis, too, employs the facility in exposition provided by the generic settings that was the standard among this group of writers. However, these stories are among the least interesting of his collection, Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor. This is not because these stories are not fine examples of the norms of this tradition. In them, Lewis demonstrates the literary dexterity he carefully fostered as a young man in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Rather, it is because the stories in which the generic settings are abandoned achieve a complexity often unavailable in the standard settings.

In stories such as "Seeking a Location," "Valerian and the Panther," and "A Struggle for Life," Lewis sends his often transparently autobiographical persona, Madison Tensas, M.D., out into the mixture of land and water that composed the bayous of northern Louisiana. The bayous are neither land nor water: they are a constantly changing, darkening, and threatening bog. Moreover, these bayous had, before Lewis, never been described and explored as a literary device as they would be later in the fiction of such writers as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Conner. In each of these stories, Tensas travels from the stability of a generic setting, where he practices his art with all the characteristic frontier resourcefulness and integrity of Joseph Baldwin's Ovid Bolus or Johnson Jones Hooper's Simon Suggs, and into the bayou where the conventional (a)morality of Southwestern humor becomes wholly inapplicable. …

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