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Humor in Literature
From: Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Used by permission of the publisher.

Southern humor, like much of the best southern writing in general, has been boisterous and physical, often grotesque, and generally realistic. On the whole, it has no doubt been better received and more appreciated outside the region than in it. Mark Twain, a frontier writer in essence but joyfully proclaimed as southern these days, was recognized and lionized first by the Brahmins of Boston and the London literary establishment. And William Faulkner was certainly a puzzle to the people of Oxford in his time. Writing has never been a particularly admired occupation in the South, and its comic writers, as well as the most perceptive serious writers, have singled out aspects of southern culture that many southerners would sooner forget. This combination has produced what many southern readers would no doubt characterize as a literature of betrayal. But adversity can be beneficial to an artist, furnishing the stone of resistance against which his or her talent may be honed. A hostile climate is frequently the best one a writer could ask for-especially a comic writer.

Southern humor fits fairly well into the chronological framework of four periods usually applied to American humor generally: (1) 1830 to 1860, (2) 1860 to 1925, (3) 1935 to 1945, and (4) 1945 to the present.

1830 to 1860. This was the most energetic and inventive period for purely comic writing in the history of southern letters, if not the most respectable. It saw the establishment of the major comic stereotypes that would, it seems, serve southern humor more or less forever. The dominant figure was the frontiersman, and he is the literary ancestor of the redneck-hillbilly who is still around. In this period the black minstrel also appeared. Of the writers who can be classified as primarily comic (the southwestern yarnspinners), the best were Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (Georgia Scenes), William Tappan Thompson (the Major Jones character), Thomas Bangs Thorpe (The Big Bear of Arkansas), Johnson J. Hooper (the Simon Suggs character), and George Washington Harris (the Sut Lovingood character). All these writers were regarded as subliterary (by themselves as well as by others), and most were published outside the South, many in Porter's Spirit of the Times a New York periodical. Generally these writers carefully separated themselves from the disreputable characters of their sketches by using an "envelope" structure, in which a literate narrator introduced the illiterate character who told the story. Hooper and Harris stand a bit closer to their characters than discretion would seem to dictate—a fact that Hooper, at least, later regretted. But there was always a certain amount of ambivalence in the attitude of these writers toward their disreputable "Suts" and "Simons," and at times the characters undoubtedly function as alter egos for the proper men who undertook to describe their antics. In any event, Harris was an authentic comic genius—recognized in his own day by Edgar Allan Poe and imitated later by an appreciative William Faulkner.

1860 to 1925. Mark Twain, though more western than southern, was the foremost figure of this period. In his own day he was classified as a literary comedian and local colorist, very closely related to such writers as Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, and it took time for the genius of his combination of humor and local color to be recognized as serious literature—which it was. Of the pure literary comedians—"phunny phellows"—Bill Arp is probably the outstanding southern example, but for the most part these comic writers tended to be western and midwestern. After the Civil War, the general taste of the region ran strongly to plantation memories of moonlight and magnolias, and the writer who could combine a reverence for the good old days with chaste and genial humor was absolutely assured of success. That was the formula developed to such good effect by Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus stories.

1920 to 1945. This was the golden age of southern writing, the time of the Southern Renaissance. The best southern writers began to combine serious literary purpose with profoundly comic elements. Southern humor—at least that written by southerners—would henceforth be a leaven in the hard brown bread of literature. William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell were among the best practitioners of art, but an intrinsic comic element can be found in the work of nearly all southern writers of the first rank. There were many purely comic artists in the years between the wars, for this was also a golden age for American comedy—in magazines, in films, and on the radio. But the dominant influence on written humor was the New Yorker magazine, and although not many of its writers were New Yorkers, none of them were southern. In motion pictures and on the radio, southern characters did appear, but as often as not they were little more than parodies of existing southern types.

1945 to the Present. Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Walker Percy are among the premier writers of the South in this period, and they are all writers with a highly developed comic talent. All of them are much more than comic, but comedy is, again, an intrinsic element in their writing. In popular works by comic southern writers, such as William Price Fox's Southern Fried, Guy Owen's The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man, and Mac Hyman's No Time for Sergeants, the humorous stereotypes continue to be what they had been before—poor whites (hillbilly, redneck, and rural) and blacks. On television, The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Beverly Hillbillies have enjoyed considerable success.

It is something of a truism that the American South is a unique region in America. Visitors remark that it is more like a foreign country than any other area contained within the national boundaries. And while American writers are still producing plenty of comedy tied to ethnic minority groups, the South remains the only region that still has identifiable comic types associated with it—Texans and hillbillies are notable in this respect, and the "grits" jokes of Carter's presidency are proof that the rural South still has a strong identity. The South seems to be the only section of the country that outsiders still consider fair game for comic jibes—a fact noted by Roy Blount, Jr., in Crackers.

But the uniqueness of the region is giving way to the inexorable leveling process of the culture. And comedians like Jerry Clower, television programs like Hee Haw, and the moonshine-car-smashing films of Burt Reynolds constitute something like a self-parody of former southern comic types. Russell Baker, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson are all southern by birth, but their writing, like the fiction of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Barry Hannah, transcends regional boundaries. The best comic writing is being done by southem writers who cannot be identified as southern in any superficial way. It would be premature, if not witless, to predict the demise of southern humor. But that it seems to be in a period of transition—like every other aspect of the culture—seems undeniable.

Mark Steadman
Clemson University

Jesse Bier, The Rise and Fall of American Humor (1968); Walter Blair, Native American Humor (1960); Sarah Blancher Cohen, ed., Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature (1978); Wade Hall, The Smiling Phoenix: Southern Humor from 1865 to 1914 (1965); M. Thomas Inge, The Frontier Humorists: Critical Views (1975); Raven I. McDavid, Jr., and Walter Blair, eds., The Mirth of a Nation: America's Great Dialect Humor (1983); Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of National Character (1931); Louis D. Rubin, Jr., The Comic Imagination in American Literature (1973).