Southwestern Humor

Antebellum southern humor, according to scholar Lucinda MacKethan, was a “literature of resistance” that “debunked notions of class privilege upon which much southern pastoral has been constructed.” This brand of comedy, usually a product of newspapers or sporting papers and an exclusively masculine enterprise, flourished between the 1830s and the Civil War in an area that encompassed the frontier regions of the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. Its principal practitioners were not professional writers but rather planters, lawyers, judges, newspaper editors, politicians, doctors, and ministers, who often wrote pseudonymously or anonymously and in diverse forms, including tall tales, almanac pieces, mock sermons, autobiographical or pseudoautobiographical sketches, turf reports on horse racing and accounts of other popular outdoor sports, mock yokel letters, and anecdotes about local characters.

While most works of southwestern humor originally appeared in newspapers such as the New Orleans Picayune, St. Louis Reveille, La Fayette East Alabamian, and Columbia South Carolinian, many of the better pieces were reprinted (and some were published initially) in the New York Spirit of the Times, a national sporting weekly edited by William T. Porter, who encouraged southern correspondents to submit their humorous pieces. The best known among the Spirit’s many southern correspondents included Johnson Jones Hooper, author of the widely popular Some Adventures of Simon Suggs (1845); William Tappan Thompson, the author of Major Jones’s Courtship (1843); Thomas Bangs Thorpe, who wrote “The Big Bear of Arkansas,” the best crafted and most engaging tale in the southwestern humor genre; George Washington Harris, who authored Sut Lovingood: Yarns Spun by a “Nat’ral Born Durn’d Fool,” Warped and Wove for Public Wear (1867); Henry Clay Lewis, who wrote Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana “Swamp Doctor” (1850); Charles F. M. Noland, the most prolific of the southern correspondents to the Spirit, who contributing more than 250 separate letters and sporting sketches; and three writers associated with the St. Louis Reveille—John S. Robb, Sol Smith, and Joseph M. Field.

Most southwestern humor featured topics appealing to male interests: fights (man versus man and man versus animal), hunts, horse races, camp meetings, courtroom antics, courtship, frolics, pranks and deceptive trickery, militia drills, gambling, and drinking and drunkenness. Its prevalent characteristics involved encounters between conflicting social groups—rural or frontier folk and members of refined, upper-class society. It typically gave extended voice and emphasis to marginalized lower-class characters—the rustic yeoman, hunter, backwoodsman, roarer-braggart, con artist, or rogue. It favored hyperbolic portraiture, emphasizing the extravagant, outlandish, and sometimes even physically grotesque characters and situations, and it showcased lively and colorful vernacular speech.

The first southwestern humorist to collect his newspaper sketches for book publication was Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, who migrated to Mississippi in the late 1840s. His Georgia Scenes (1835), consisting of eighteen sketches and using two formal and highly literate narrators named Hall and Baldwin, established the paradigm of the conflict between rural and sophisticated cultures and competing levels of formal and vernacular discourse that later southern humorists applied and modified. Longstreet was at various times a lawyer, a judge, a newspaper editor, a minister, a land speculator, and president of four colleges and universities, including the University of Mississippi from 1849 to 1856.

Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes inspired another adopted Mississippian, Joseph Beckman Cobb, a planter, politician, and newspaper editor. Cobb, who used the pseudonym Rambler, first published some humorous sketches and tales in Mississippi newspapers before collecting some of them for Mississippi Scenes (1851), a book he dedicated to Longstreet. Like Longstreet, Cobb employed a genteel narrator and a modification of the frame device with an authorial narrator. Two of the best tales in the collection, “The Legend of Black Creek” and “The Bride of Lick-the-Skillet,” are close imitations of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the story most frequently adapted by southwestern humor writers.

Joseph Glover Baldwin was a native of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley who practiced law both in Alabama and Mississippi. He sketches satirizing the society of the Alabama and Mississippi frontier that he observed firsthand in the financial boom times of the 1830s and 1840s first appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger before he revised, collected, and published them as The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853). Though he did not exploit the vernacular as many of his southwestern humor predecessors had done, Baldwin presented a starkly disparaging view of a fallible and inept legal system of acquisitive and scoundrelly lawyers and disreputable, near-illiterate, and unqualified judges whom he juxtaposed with some distinguished real-life lawyers and politicians.

Three other Mississippians also wrote in the genre of southwestern humor. Alexander Gallatin McNutt, a planter, lawyer, and former Mississippi governor (1838–42), published humorous sketches in Porter’s Spirit under the pseudonym The Turkey Runner. His stories featured the adventures and misadventures of two big-talking, free-spirited backwoodsmen, Jim and Chunkey. In The Big Bear of Arkansas, and Other Sketches (1845), Porter praised the Turkey Runner as a “formidable rival” of fellow southwestern humorist Thomas Bangs Thorpe. Writing under the pseudonym Obe Oilstone, Phillip B. January, whom Porter called a raconteur of “extraordinary merit,” contributed epistolary narratives to the Spirit. Employing Uncle Johnny, a rambling and engaging storyteller, January presented an amusingly outlandish account of a drunken man who fights a dog in dog fashion—on all fours—and wins. William C. Hall, a lawyer and resident of Yazoo County writing as H, published humorous “Yazoo Sketches” that featured a real-life character, Mike Hooter. These sketches first appeared in the New Orleans Delta, and several were subsequently reprinted in the Spirit. “How Sally Hooter Got Snake-Bit,” Hall’s sexually suggestive signature sketch, calls to mind Harris’s “Sut Lovingood’s Lizards” in demonstrating the naughty and subversive side of southwestern humor.

Overall, the significance of southwestern humor lies in its ongoing legacy for later southern writing, which extends from Mark Twain to William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Harry Crews, Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, Cormac McCarthy, Roy Blount Jr., and many others. And among these impressive literary beneficiaries are Faulkner and Welty, arguably Mississippi’s two greatest writers.

Further Reading

  • Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham, in Humor of the Old Southwest (1994)
  • M. Thomas Inge, ed., The Frontier Humorists: Critical Views (1975)
  • M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino, eds., Humor of the Old South (2001)
  • James H. Justus, Fetching the Old Southwest: Humorous Writing from Longstreet to Twain (2004)
  • Lucinda MacKethan, Southern Spaces: An Internet Journal and Scholarly Forum (March 2004)
  • Gretchen Martin, The Frontier Roots of American Realism (2007)
  • Ed Piacentino, in The Enduring Legacy of Old Southwest Humor, ed. Ed Piacentino (2006)
  • Norris W. Yates, William T. Porter and the Spirit of the Times: A Study of the Big Bear School of Humor (1957)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Southwestern Humor
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date August 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018