Commentary Magazine

Mark Twain & Southwestern Humor, by Kenneth S. Lynn

D-a-v-y Da-vy Crockett1


There is nothing quite like American humorous writing in the literature of other nations. Nowhere else is humor so central to the literary tradition, so intimately revealing of the national experience, so representative of what the nation truly believes itself to stand for. It is not that Americans as a race are so gay or jolly. Indeed, much of this humor has little that is noticeably gay or jolly about it. There is a barely suppressed streak of hysteria and, conspicuously, an edge: more often than not the fun is at someone’s expense. There is, to be sure, an undeniable vigor and exuberance that is remarkable, perhaps unique. But this signifies no mere overflowing of high spirits and good nature. If we are fond of regarding it as simply such, this is because we like the idea of deriving American humor from a special kind of candor and irreverence that have something important to do with the democratic way of life. The idea is true enough; but not in so straightforward a fashion. Behind the blithe irreverence there lies an ill-concealed aggressiveness and belligerency. American humor is certainly a distinctive expression of American democracy; yet it also expresses a historic tension within that democracy itself.

The American humorist is typically (e.g., Mark Twain, Will Rogers) the man of uncommon common sense. He is, as a result, involved at the outset in a contradiction. He is the know-nothing who outsmarts the smart-alecks. So far from being uniquely endowed or talented, he is the man who concentrates in himself the prosaic genius of ordinary humanity. He is a standing challenge to, a perpetual refutation of, the book-learned, the cosmopolitan, the distinguished, the sophisticated. For though common sense is by definition universal, there are some who—out of pride and perversity—repudiate this legacy and want to set themselves off as in some way different or superior. They are the American humorist’s natural target—only, he is by nature really one of them. The man of uncommon common sense is not a common man at all, no matter how desperate his pretense. He is a born aristocrat, leading a plebeian assault against (among other things) his innermost self. The pathos of this endeavor is summed up in Mark Twain’s preface to Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” What a preparation for a work of art whose motive, moral, and plot have a greater fascination than any American novel with the possible exception of Moby Dick! It is as if Shakespeare had forbidden us to consider The Tempest as anything but a musical comedy. Witnessing the case of Mark Twain, one is almost relieved that, despite the abundance of American humor, we have had only this one truly great humorist. He is so sad.

Under these circumstances, it is entirely suitable that Professor Kenneth Lynn of Harvard should have written a thoughtful and unsmiling book about American humor. It isn’t that he does not see the fun; rather, he also sees through it. Besides, the truth is that the bulk of 19th-century popular American humor is not, in retrospect, so very amusing, even on the surface. There is little genuine intelligence, much vulgarity and infantile posturing:

Friends, fellow-citizens, brothers and sisters: Carroll is a statesman, Jackson is a hero, and Crockett is a horse!! Friends, fellow-citizens, brothers and sisters: they accuse me of adultery, it’s a lie—I never ran away with any man’s wife, that was not willing, in my life. They accuse me of gambling, it’s a lie—for I always plank down the cash.

That sort of thing. If we are prompt to honor the memories of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Joseph B. Cobb, Joseph G. Baldwin, Johnson J. Hooper, and George Washington Harris, it is not for any pleasure we get from reading them. They may not be entirely out of mind, but they are quite out of print—deservedly so. Their importance lies beyond themselves: in their eventual radical impact on serious American writing and in their status as witnesses to a transformation of the democratic idea in America.

“Southwestern” humor is not, of course, the totality of 19th-century American humor. The “Down East” genre of salty, Yankee, clever-rube raillery was always popular. But it is fair enough to say that the American funnyman is above all a picturesque and earthy character whose mother-wit is the tongue of Mother Nature herself, and that he received his most perfect incarnation in the figure (both real and legendary) of Davy Crockett. It was Davy and his successors who set the tone. And a very subversive tone it was—subversive, not of democracy itself, but of the particular Whig conception of democracy that dominated American national politics between Washington and Jackson, that dominated Southern politics until the Civil War, and that dominated American letters until the turn of the century. This Whiggery has, on the whole, had a bad press. Our textbooks denigrate it as a kind of “feudal” and “aristocratic” hangover from the European past, emphasizing as it did that self-government, so far from being identical with good government, had to be reconciled with it; and asserting that, to this end, political and cultural authority should be located in the hands of the well educated and the well born. This denigration is a little less than just. Even Jefferson, after all, saw democracy as a system governed by a “natural aristocracy of talent,” not as a system capable of being governed indiscriminately by everyone. This latter was the sovereign ideal of Jacksonian democracy, with its fervent egalitarianism, insistent camaraderie, and its demand for “rotation in office.” Its victory was so complete that today we almost automatically identify the spirit of Jacksonian democracy with the spirit of democracy itself.

In the 1820’s, Davy Crockett—illiterate Congressman, indomitable warrior, incredible braggart, and quintessential Jacksonian—projected frontier humor onto the national scene. By the time he broke with Jackson, for personal reasons, even the Whigs were his cynical converts. They claimed him as their own red-blooded, 100 per cent typical American, and brought in Eastern ghost writers when his powers began to fail. The Whig “capture” of Davy Crockett was a preliminary to their capture of the new democratic image in the campaign of 1840, when the patrician Harrison was endowed with a mythical log cabin and jug of hard cider, while the luckless Van Buren was vilified for dining off (equally mythical) gold plate. The Whigs won; and traditional Whiggery as a national political force was dead.

The evolution of the Southwest humorous tradition as a whole led to exactly the same result; and this is the tale Professor Lynn tells wisely and well. The Southwest humorists were themselves all Whig gentlemen of the old school—professional men mainly, active in politics, Southern patriots, contemners of Jacksonianism (especially after the Nullification Crisis of 1832). All their entertaining stories had a narrator whose own Addisonian prose, spiced with anti-Jacksonian polemics, provided a “frame” for the vernacular attributed to their comic characters. But the spirit of the age was not to be denied: slowly the vernacular encroached on the “frame,” became more and more the prose of the narrative itself. And slowly the distance between the narrator and his subject diminished, until the comic character was in effect the hero. The motto of Johnson Hooper’s “Simon Suggs”—“It is good to be shifty in a new country”—from having been an awful example would become a flippant moral. The culmination of this process was to arrive decades later with the appearance of Huckleberry Finn, the first American novel to be composed entirely in the vernacular and, according to Hemingway, who should know, the inspiration of the modern American literary tradition.

That Twain was aware of the stylistic revolution he was engaged in can be seen from his statement: “The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of telling; the comic and the witty story upon the matter.” (His italics.) He was, as Professor Lynn makes clear, a reluctant revolutionary. Himself from an old Whig family, Twain was never at his ease in the new equalitarian and acquisitive American democracy, though this democracy clasped him to its bosom as its most beloved son. He attacked the jury system and universal suffrage, incessantly derided Poor Richard’s Almanac and all it stood for, dreamed of himself as a mob-defying leader. At the same time, of course, he was a technological enthusiast (he congratulated Whitman on his seventieth birthday for living in an age that knew coal tar) and a crude American nativist. He was pulled in all directions until, at the end, he could feel little but pain and bleak despair. (“Nothing exists save empty space—and you,” he has his Mysterious Stranger say.) But his literary direction was unequivocal. In the first story that made him famous, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the narrator, “Mark Twain,” provides the old gentlemanly “frame” for the anecdote—and it is this narrator who turns out to be the butt of the joke. Immediately there-after he fused the Whig-narrator and plebeian-protagonist into a single literary persona—the first “unliterary” American writer worthy of the name.

The triumph of the vernacular over the trans-Atlantic rhetoric of the genteel tradition was a momentous event in American letters, American politics, American culture. It meant the victory of the masculine tone in the novel, hitherto regarded as a feminine entertainment—the way was open for Stephen Crane, Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson. It meant the final discrediting of the Whig-constitutional view of democracy, with its solemn (even mournful) emphasis on individual obligation and public morality—to an extent where it has become almost impossible to state this point of view without appearing to parody it. And, culturally, it meant a death blow to what Ezra Pound was soon to deride as “Kulchur”—that narrow but loyal dedication to “elevated standards” and “good taste” which the New England Brahmins exemplified, and which in their case had retained little enough connection with either artistic creation or public affairs. The flood-gates were opened, and all those subterranean activities to which we give the title of “popular culture,” and to which American humorists stand as founding fathers, raced to achieve respectability and to form a more perfect union with the democratic ethos.

Doubtless it was all inevitable. But that it was all to the good, is less obvious or certain. Without Mark Twain, no Hemingway. Without George Washington Harris, no Faulkner. Without “Nimrod Wildfire,” no Superman or Dick Tracy. Without P. T. Barnum, no Charles Van Doren. Without Davy Crockett—the very thought is beyond the allowable limits of the American democratic imagination, of which he is both the creature and the creator.




1 A review of Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor, by Kenneth S. Lynn; Atlantic-Little Brown, 300 pp., $5.00.

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