Humor of the Old Southwest

    Contributing Editor: Anne G. Jones

    Davy Crockett (1786-1836)
    Mike Fink (1770?-1823?)
    Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790-1870)

    George Washington Harris (1814-1869)

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The most crucial problem is getting them read at all. These writers are typically included in anthologies but excluded in syllabi-- vide the syllabi in Reconstructing American Literature. Secondly, the dialect and spelling are forbidding. And finally, this work comes with its set of literary critical stereotypes: it has been a favorite of many of the more conservative literary historians, who tend to see it mainly as grist for Twain and Faulkner mills. Finding new ways to think about the material could be a problem.

    Thinking about these writings in the light of gender, race, and class makes them accessible and interesting to students. Indeed, the selections have been chosen with gender issues especially in mind. Having students prepare to read them aloud as a performance should help make the dialect more accessible. And suggesting innovative pairings--with Marietta Holley, with rap lyrics, with "Legend of Sleepy Hollow," for example--should enliven the reading further.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The construction of gender on the frontier seems a major project of this writing. The texts can be analyzed closely to see how they construct both manhood and womanhood, and how those constructions differ from mainstream American engendering of the period. The strong and sexual woman in particular appears anomalous; these texts both present and demonstrate some ambivalence about such figures. Class issues are crucial too, particularly in the relation between the voices in the texts: the controlling, omniscient, standard English voice and the disruptive, "carnival" voice in the "Dedicatory" set up the most familiar opposition, one that takes various forms in the selections.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Much of this material is transcribed from or inspired by anonymous oral sources. And if students have performed selections, the question of the relation between oral and written texts can be foregrounded. The use of language in these selections is a second major stylistic concern; the vigor and power of this writing are attractive, and invite students to look closely at specific linguistic strategies--metaphors and similes, concrete versus abstract diction, etc. And the stories by Harris and Longstreet offer two ways of rendering plot, the one loose and almost episodic, and the other tightly controlled.

    Original Audience

    The audience for this work most likely consisted of educated white men, "gentlemen of some means with a leisurely interest in masculine pursuits," as Cohen and Dillingham put it. They were likely, too, to be Southerners and pro-slavery Whigs. The audience's relation to the texts, then, was at least a step removed from the primary characters; these tales and stories seem to enable identification with the "masculinity" of the Crocketts and Finks and even Suts, and at the same time allow an "educated distance" from that identification. What happens now, when the audience has vastly changed? How many different ways can these texts be read? How does audience determine a text's meaning?

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Washington Irving ("Legend" inspired much Southwest humor); Hannah Foster and Susanna Rowson (see Cohen and Dillingham: gender issues); Harriet Jacobs and Douglass (struggle with voices); Marietta Holley (women's versus men's humor); Mark Twain and William Faulkner (do they revise the tradition? how? what do they retain?).

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. (a) Do the women in these selections surprise you? Think about how and why. To what uses is this "strong woman" put in the selections? What do you think has happened to this figure of woman? Does she survive anywhere in our literature?

    (b) What can you say about the structure of each selection?

    (c) How many voices can you hear in these selections?

    (d) What type of manhood is constructed in these pieces? How does "The Death of Mike Fink" fit in?

    (e) What does Sut want from the quilting party? Why does he do what he does?

    2. (a) Consider "Mrs. Yardley's Quilting Party" in the light of Elaine Hedges's book on quilting, Hearts and Hands.

    (b) Consider some implications of the various types of narration.

    (c) How do language and subject converge in the "Dedicatory" and another text of your choice?

    (d) How is the "strong woman" used in these selections?


    Cohen, Hennig and William B. Dillingham, eds. Humor of the Old Southwest. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975, xiii-xxviii. The introduction is useful for information, but also as a representative of a particular critical position on the material. The remarks on gender are particularly provocative.

    Curry, Jane. "The Ring-Tailed Roarers Rarely Sang Soprano." Frontiers II: 3 (Fall 1977): 129-40.