overview of humor in the literature of the Old Southwest

Mississippi Writers Page

Mississippi Historical Society

Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Southwest Humor in Nineteenth Century Mississippi Literature
Since disembarking on my efforts to be published by New York and determining to write and publish what I “durn well please”—my interest lying in Mississippi history—I am now reminded daily of how ignorant I am. So much to rediscover, and so little time left on this planet to do it.
When asked to write an article on Mississippi writers by the editor of my local writing group's newsletter, I decided to focus my research on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers.
In short order, I discovered literary works abounded. So much so, in fact, that I’m not even going to attempt to broach all the writers and the works from that, let’s say, one-hundred twenty-year period leading up to the turn of the twentieth century. Therein lies food for years of articles.
I have narrowed the scope of this article to those writers which began with Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and reached its pinnacle with Mark Twain (but they continue to this day) classified as Southwest Humorists. The Old Southwest encompassed the present-day states of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri. At the end of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, this area was the wild and wooly frontier. [Shoot, given the Civil War, Reconstruction, and its aftermath, one could viably argue the South’s frontier days continued until well into the twentieth century—but that’s another story.]
The frontier called and a uniquely American group of characters answered. One could say the frontier shaped them, but I think another could safely argue a good number of those characters were already unique before they got here, otherwise they’d have never come.
As a genre, Southwest Humor is rich in regional dialect and tall tales. It developed from the oral history of its day. Pro-Whig, anti-Jacksonian politics permeating Southern politics embellished it. The result was a group of bawdy, violent, and masculine characters. The sketches, or short stories, are written in the “frame narrative” in which the narrator, normally a sound, educated gentleman, allows the reader to observe the story from a distance (omniscient POV). This allows for the author’s viewpoint and analysis, leaving the reader blithely detached to enjoy the antics of the character. Today, scholars categorize the populace of this early Southern literature into four regional stereotypes:
The Ring Tailed Roarer—An ugly, corrupting, deceptive, and humorously-violent first-generation frontiersman typified by Augustus Longstreet’s Ransy Sniffle in the author’s compilation of stories published in 1835, Georgia Scenes. Note: Though Augustus Longstreet is classified as a Mississippi writer, this “father of Southwest Humor” was born and raised in Georgia and spent his days as a young man as a circuit lawyer in rural Georgia—hence his compilation of humorous vignettes on the folk he came across—or folk who “crossed” him, if you prefer.
The Confidence Man—think Maverick here, but I would be willing to bet James Garner (or Mel Gibson for the younger set) is a much more positive, romantic evolution than what this southwestern stereotype started out. The Confidence man was, on the surface, a gambler, doctor, horse trader—any occupation he could mimic to establish himself in, then exploit, a newly established frontier community. As a character, he was notoriously insincere.
The Durn’d Fool—Another conniver, only this one openly displays cruel and brutish behavior and the coarse speech of the Southern yeoman made famous by George Washington Harris’ (Tennessee) Sut Lovingood. This character’s hallmark is self-criticism unlike the braggart typifying the…
Mighty Hunter—Here think Davy Crockett. Okay he was real, but he was VERY real, and he told you so. When it comes to this stereotype, Davy Crockett set the standard. Nevertheless, numerous fictional characters based on real men just like him populate Southwest Humor.
The “Mighty Hunter” glorifies himself. He is, in addition to being a brutal killer (and not necessarily just of vicious wild animals), brave, cunning, knowledgeable, good-natured, practical, and humorous. Further, he possesses an instinctive connection with nature.
In addition to the above cited Augustus Longstreet (uncle to General James Longstreet, C.S.A.) Mississippi produced a number of practitioners of Southwest Humor.
Alexander G. McNutt (180(2)-1848), a Virginia-born lawyer and politician who settled near Vicksburg and in 1837 became Mississippi’s eleventh governor. Between 1844 and 1847, McNutt’s humorous sketches involving two yeomen working for a Mississippi plantation owner were published in William Trotter Porter’s sporting magazine Spirit of the Times under the pseudonym, “The Turkey Runner.” Today scholars recognize McNutt’s work as little more than representative of the genre; however, in his day, McNutt was a popular author and important rival of Thomas Bangs Thorpe (Arkansas), today considered a pre-eminent author of Southwest Humor.
Joseph Beckham Cobb (1819-1858), a Georgia-born planter and politician, who, with his young bride, moved to Noxubee County, Mississippi in 1838. He later moved to Longwood Plantation near Columbus where he spent the rest of his life. He is most famous for Mississippi Scenes, a collection of thirteen Southwest Humor short stories patterned after Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes. Additionally, he wrote three books—one a historical romance patterned after the then-current literary style of the day, which includes the works of Sir Walter Scott (Waverly, Ivanhoe…).
Henry Clay Lewis (1825-1850) was born in Charleston, South Carolina and made his way at an early age to Manchester (now known as Yazoo City), Mississippi by way of Cincinnati, Ohio. In Yazoo City, the orphan was taken in as a doctor’s apprentice and subsequently received a medical-school education in Kentucky. From Kentucky, he returned to Yazoo City and opened up a medical practice, which failed from lack of business. Still practicing medicine, he moved to the swamps of Madison Parish, Louisiana, and there began writing humorous sketches, which in 1850 he published in book form under the pseudonym, Madison Tensas. The work depicts the adventures of an “old” swamp doctor. Lewis is unique for his time in his depiction of his Negro characters suffering as much pain as his white ones. In 1850, Lewis drowned crossing a swamp on his way to a patient. He was twenty-five. The Louisiana State University Press republished his aforementioned book, Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor, in 1997.
Joseph Glover Baldwin (1815-1864), is another Virginia-born lawyer (and newspaperman). Baldwin spent part of his later years in Mississippi and Alabama. He practiced law in DeKalb, Mississippi and often represented the Choctaw. Baldwin based his humorous sketches on his frontier lawyer days, often targeting confidence men and “shaky” lawyers. His most popular work is The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi, composed of sketches describing the “flush” times of the expanding frontier. This book is reputed to be one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorites. Another work, Party Leaders: Sketches was also popular. Baldwin died in California in 1864. There he had written a book titled Flush Times in California, which was not published until 1966 (University of Georgia Press).
J. F. H. Claiborne (1807-1884), planter, politician, and journalist best known as “the father of Mississippi history.” Claiborne was native-born, near Natchez, when Mississippi was still a territory. Reams could be written on Claiborne, but since I am concentrating this article on the Southwest Humor genre I’ll state simply that he was a Jacksonian Democrat and popular newspaper editor who espoused states’ rights and the right to secession, though he was opposed to the latter. He loved history, and he loved Mississippi. His greatest work is Mississippi as a Province, Territory, and State, with Biographical Notices of Eminent Citizens. It was published in 1880. His collected sources, now housed by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, the Library of Congress, and the University of North Carolina, remains an indispensable source of information on the Old Southwest.
His main contribution to Southwest Humor is two series of essays on the piney woods of Mississippi and Louisiana following his journey through the pine belt of each state. The first series was of Mississippi and appeared in the Mississippi Free Trader. The second, of Louisiana, was published in the Louisiana Courier. In the essays, he provides humorous, yet informative, descriptions of the people he met, including their homes, dress, and way of life. The essays are a valuable resource detailing the “plain folk” who made up the majority of both states’ populations.
For those of you who are interested, the University of Virginia has a website housing a wealth of information on the Southwest Humor genre. A sprinkling of the sketches is also available on-line. The short vignettes really are humorous, but difficult to read, written in dialect not unlike original Uncle Remus stories. Poor/middle-class white Southerners of the early to mid nineteenth century, if we are to believe the educated writers of the day, and I think we must, spoke in a heavy dialect every bit as rich as the Negro dialect I remember as a child. (I can’t remember when I last heard it spoken).

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