The Flush Times myth is only partly mythological. The term refers to a period of rapid development and speculation on the antebellum southwestern frontier, which was composed primarily of the newly recognized states of Alabama and Mississippi as well as parts of western Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A number of factors contributed to the area’s economic boom, which spanned the 1820s and stretched beyond the economic depression of the late 1830s. Most notable among them was the incipient sense of Manifest Destiny, which entitled the United States to the continent and authorized the forcible removal of native peoples from the path of progress. The South’s seemingly endless supply of land and natural resources attracted not only settlers but also speculators, and the liminal nature of the borderland itself suspended the more codified regulations that governed land acquisition and the practice of law in the East. Immigrants to the South reported two main goals—profit and adventure—and exemplified a kind of restless spirit that foreign observers to the young nation would increasingly link with the character of its people.
The phrase Flush Times was likely coined by Joseph Glover Baldwin, a lawyer who moved from Virginia to Mississippi in 1836 and later wrote about his experiences in The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853), a curious collection of humorous sketches and serious autobiographies of legal figures. By the time Baldwin published his volume, the world he was re-creating had become more staid, but he invokes a time of intensely competitive masculinity acted out not only in physical violence but in a sort of lawlessness that made every man a lawyer who dared to call himself one. In “The Bench and the Bar,” Baldwin describes the southwestern frontier as “a legal Utopia” populated mainly by young men who “had come out on the vague errand of seeking their own fortune, or the more definite one of seeking somebody else’s.” The title character of another sketch, Ovid Bolus, exemplifies the sort of lawyer who survives in Baldwin’s world: he “had long torn down the partition wall between his imagination and his memory.”
Baldwin’s frontier exemplifies the genre of southwestern humor, a writing style that flourished between the mid-1830s and the mid-1860s. Its lawlessness spills beyond Baldwin’s makeshift courtrooms to summon a world of trickster figures and crude but darkly comic violence. One of the genre’s most famous figures, Johnson Jones Hooper’s Captain Simon Suggs, sums up his world with an aphorism: “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” If the times were less flush for some settlers than others, stories about the antebellum southwestern frontier have nourished a steady mythology about a region that threatened to make its inhabitants both wealthy and wily.
- Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham, eds., Humor of the Old Southwest (1994)
- M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino, eds., The Humor of the Old South (2001)
- James H. Justus, Fetching the Old Southwest: Humorous Writing from Longstreet to Twain (2004)