Southwestern Humor, 1830-1860
Go to the extensive Crossroads
site on Southwestern humor (University of Virginia).
||Southwestern humor is the name given to a tradition
of regional sketches and tales based in the "old South-West": Tennessee,
Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. According to the Cambridge History
of American Literature (volume 2), these tales appeared first in local
and then in regional newspapers such as the St. Louis Reveille,
New Orleans Picayune, and the New York journal The
Spirit of the Times (630). Politically conservative and linked
to the Whig resistance to Andrew Jackson, the
writers of this school combined tall tales, thick regional dialect,
ironic humor, and a tradition of tricksterism in their stories and sketches.
Elements of Southwestern humor appear in the writings of Mark Twain and
William Faulkner, among others; see especially Twain's sketches and Faulkner's
The forms of Southwestern humor typically included
Arose from the tall tale tradition seen in Davy Crockett
(Narrative of the Life of Davy Crockett, 1834) and
Characters include the "ring-tailed
roarer" or braggart whose mishaps are larger than life and whose solutions
are ingenious; the confidence
man, and the
Use of dialect, earthy language and incidents, crude
physical humor, and cruelty.
Conflicts with nature described in a humorous way
so as to control the version of the tale and make the wilderness more manageable
(stories about bear hunts, etc.). The land itself and its creatures are
larger than life, mythical.
Often an element of triumphant trickster, or the
trickster who is himself tricked or bested in a trade.
Use of stock characters: Davy Crockett (old Southwest);
Yankee Peddler/Jonathan for the Yankees (Down East humor).
In some of these, character of humorist is played
off against a character representing an educated or Eastern elite.
Almost exclusively a white
male literature, written for an intended audience of educated men.
The anecdote. Example: Twain's "The
Dandy Frightening the Squatter."
Author reports wonders of the western frontier; most
hoaxes masquerade as travel letters
Author hints at fictionalizing role and tries to
tip off the readers
1843-4 Thomas Bangs Thorpe's "Letters from the Far
The frame tale. Example: Twain's "The
Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," Thomas Bangs Thorpe's
Big Bear of Arkansas.".
Baldwin Longstreet (1790-1870)
Hunting in Tennessee" from the Narrative of the Life of David Crockett
of the State of Tennessee (1834) (Image courtesy of Angel
Price's page on Crockett)
James Kirk (or Kirke) Paulding, "Nimrod's
Wildfire Tall Talk" (1833)
Washington Harris (1815-69)
Joseph G. Baldwin (1815-64), The Flush Times of
Alabama and Mississippi: A Series of Sketches (1853)
Jones Hooper (1815-62), Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs,
Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers; Together with "Taking the Census" and
Other Alabama Sketches (1845).
Bangs Thorpe (1815-75),
Fink (Short Tales) from the Crockett Almanacs (1850s)
© 1997-2017. Donna M. Campbell. Some information adapted from Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997).
About this site