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On Humor: The Best from American Literature.

The three volumes under review offer several different views of Southern humor. The first is a study of a Maryland colonist whose reputation as a comic writer began only two centuries after his death; the second is a collection of essays on Southern humor (and Southern literature in general) from a major scholar; the third is another collection, this one of essays on the topic of humor gathered from the most important journal in the field of American literature.

Much has appeared lately on Dr. Alexander Hamilton (1712-1756), a Scottish-born physician (no relation to George Washington's secretary of the treasury) who spent most of his adult life in Annapolis. As a medical student at Edinburgh, Hamilton had joined several local clubs. Clubs such as these, providing food, drink, and fellowship, were popular in eighteenth-century British society. When Hamilton crossed the Atlantic in 1738 to pursue a medical career in the colonies, he found he missed the social life he had left behind. In 1745 Hamilton formed a club in Annapolis similar to those he had enjoyed in Edinburgh: the Tuesday Club, which included among its members almost all the leading lights of Annapolis society and among its guests virtually everyone of importance who visited the area. Meetings of the Tuesday Club were given to conundrums, songs, mock trials, and so forth; serious discussions, and any mention of Maryland politics, were not allowed. The club met every other Tuesday for eleven years; upon the death of Hamilton, its founder and secretary, the club immediately disbanded.

Despite the demands of a successful medical practice and his social responsibilities - which undoubtedly increased after 1747, when he married into the prominent Dulany family - Hamilton spent a good bit of time writing. Except for a Masonic address and a pamphlet defending a fellow physician in a medical controversy, however, nothing Hamilton wrote was published under his own name during his lifetime. But scholars have recently begun to describe and publish a veritable trove of Hamiltoniana, much of it relating to the Tuesday Club. One of those scholars, Robert Micklus, has used these previously neglected (or in a few cases unattributed) materials to write a fine new study of Hamilton and his "comic genius."

In the summer of 1744, in an effort to shake the consumption that had afflicted him since his arrival in Maryland, Hamilton set off on a tour of the northern colonies. The detailed travel diary he kept during that trip shows him to have been a perceptive observer and witty commentator on colonial life and manners. Although the Itinerarium, as it was known, was a polished piece of work - Hamilton rewrote and revised it after his trip - it remained unpublished until the twentieth century. Carl Bridenbaugh's edition of the Itinerarium, published in 1948 as Gentleman's Progress, gave Hamilton what he had not had until then: the beginning of a literary reputation. But it was just the beginning. Jay B. Hubbell, in his classic The South in American Literature, 1607-1900 (1954), said of Hamilton that "his claim to a place in literary history rests upon his Itinerarium" (p. 67). Thanks to Micklus and others, that is no longer true.

In the late 1740s Hamilton wrote a handful of comic essays for the Maryland Gazette: a parody of Masonic ceremonies; an article on misspelling (which was itself full of misspellings and incorrect punctuations); a cure for those afflicted with "fits of Rhiming"; and so on. But these appeared under various pseudonyms, and it would be over two centuries before J. A. Leo Lemay and Robert Micklus identified them as coming from Hamilton's pen.

Hamilton's greatest writing projects concerned the Tuesday Club. As secretary, Hamilton recorded the club's minutes, including the nonsense that passed for the club's business. (Hamilton's minutes were published in 1988 as The Records of the Tuesday Club of Annapolis, 1745-56, edited by Elaine G. Breslaw.) Then, during the last four years of his life, Hamilton began rewriting the minutes, adding a narrator, a series of introductory essays, a weak plot (the rise and fall of the "Ancient and Honorable Tuesday Club"), and countless digressions (letters, speeches, commentaries, and so forth) to create what amounts to a comic novel. Hamilton, of course, would never have called his "History" a novel, for the same reason that Henry Fielding would not have called his History of Tom Jones a novel: in the eighteenth century, "novel" meant "romance," and both terms were used pejoratively. When Hamilton died in 1756, his "History," which already filled some 1,900 manuscript pages, remained unfinished, an ongoing project that Hamilton apparently intended for publication but that remained unpublished until 1990 (when a three-volume set edited by Micklus was published). Micklus suggests that if Hamilton had published his "History" in the 1750s, his name would now be as prominent as those of Fielding and Laurence Sterne in the history of the early development of the modern novel.

Micklus's study is nicely organized: a biographical chapter ("A Life of Liberality") followed by individual chapters on the Itinerarium, the Gazette pieces, and the "History." Micklus's introduction sets forth the two basic premises that inform his analysis of Hamilton's work. First, Hamilton was British, not American (and certainly not Southern), and, hence his writings "can be best appreciated against the backdrop of eighteenth-century British culture, not by placing them into one American strain or another" (p. 1). Second, his "comic genius" arose, in part, from the fact that he wrote during the convergence of several comedic traditions, and this "brought an extraordinarily rich comic blend to his literature" (p. 18). Micklus's analysis is useful, but not overbearing, and the main value of this book is that it gives Hamilton a claim (to return to Hubbell's earlier comment) to a much larger place in literary history.

As I read Micklus's study, I could not help thinking of William Byrd II's History of the Dividing Line, written a couple of decades before Hamilton's "History." Both of these "Histories" were based on factual accounts (for Byrd, of a surveying expedition that drew the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina) that were later fictionalized to some degree and rewritten around a theme (for Byrd, the civilizing of the wilderness). And, incidentally, both "Histories" were first published long after they were written (Byrd's in 1841). One difference between the two is that, while Hamilton considered himself to be British, Byrd was definitely a Southerner, "The First Southern Gentleman and Author," according to M. Thomas Inge.

Which brings us to our second book. M. Thomas Inge is recognized as one of the foremost scholars of American popular culture; his three-volume Handbook of American Popular Culture (1978) is still the place to start for information on the field. In the Preface of the Handbook, Inge described popular culture as "a mirror wherein society can see itself and better understand its character and needs." In other words, What's American in American popular culture? But this is just a generalized version of the questions Inge has been asking all along. Before Inge was a big name in popular culture, he was known for his work on Southern literature, especially the humor and the writers of the Old Southwest. I remember early in my graduate school career reading something Inge said during a panel discussion on "Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature." We have a number of good studies of Edgar Allan Poe, Inge noted, but few of those deal with "his importance as a southern writer. . . . I'm not sure to what degree we've ever fully defined his southerness or the southern qualities of his work."(1) This is a good statement of his approach to Southern literary study in general: What's Southern in Southern literature? Inge's article on William Byrd is a good example of this approach.

Inge began his prolific publishing career in 1960 with an article in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly on George Washington Harris's "Sut Lovingood." That article, based on a chapter of his master's thesis, started Inge on a long and ever-expanding journey, from Sut Lovingood to Southern humor and literature, to American humor and literature, and finally to American popular culture. (Among his latest books are Comics as Culture [1990] and Russian Eyes on American Literature [1992], the latter co-edited with Russian scholar Sergei Chakovsky.) But Inge never forgot the South along the way, and he has returned to it often. Faulkner, Sut, and Other Southerners is a collection of Inge's most important contributions to Southern literary history. There are three pieces on Sut Lovingood, including Inge's first scholarly publication. That article helped legitimate the study of the humor of the Old Southwest and led Inge to edit several collections of Harris's "Lovingood" writings. (One of the essays in the recent Comics as Culture is " Sut Lovingood and Snuffy Smith," which shows how little Inge's basic approach has changed over the years.) There are three essays on William Faulkner (his humor, his use of popular culture, and his reputation in the Soviet Union), a handful on "Other Southerners" (William Byrd, John Donald Wade, Robert Penn Warren, Jesse Stuart, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty), and three on the Agrarians (including a useful piece explaining the distinction between the Fugitives and the Agrarians). Just as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet framed his Georgia Scenes with a narrator's voice, so are the articles in this book naturally framed by an introduction ("Literature in the South," from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture [1989] - a short discussion of a large topic that is successful in its effort to mention lots of names and titles within a useful framework) and an Afterword ("The Study of Southern Literature," a bibliographical essay reprinted from the History of Southern Literature [1985]).

All these essays reflect Inge's "continuing concern with the nature of the Southern literary experience and the meaning of being Southern in the United States" (p. xi). Several years ago, C. Hugh Holman described "the tradition of American literary scholarship" as one that "sees literature as closely related to cultural history," a tradition that assumes "a literary work is about something other than itself or the making of itself."(2) If this is truly "the tradition of American literary scholarship," then Inge, with his emphasis on the cultural rather than the theoretical, the context rather than the text itself, is quite traditional.

The occasion for Holman's comments was the fiftieth anniversary of American Literature: A journal of Literary History, Criticism and Bibliography. From the first issue of American Literature in 1929, editor Jay B. Hubbell intended that it should reflect the current interests and publish the best work of the profession (which, as the subtitle suggests, goes somewhat beyond Holman's description). The various editors since Hubbell have kept his high standards.

Which brings us to our third book. Louis J. Budd and Edwin H. Cady, two of Hubbell's successors at the journal, have compiled a "Best from American Literature" series, with volumes on various writers and topics. The present volume, On Humor, contains eighteen of the best articles on that subject from the pages of American Literature. The articles are arranged chronologically, from Walter Blair's "Burlesques in Nineteenth-Century American Humor" (first published in 1930) to James C. McKelly's "From Whom the Bull Flows: Hemingway in Parody" (1989). Between these are a second essay by Blair, on "The Popularity of Nineteenth-Century American Humorists" (Blair is the only scholar represented by more than one piece); two essays on Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History; essays on the humor of George Washington Cable, Eugene Field, Uncle Remus, Ring Lardner, and Theodore Dreiser; a piece on The Spirit of the Times, another on The Big Bear of Arkansas, and yet another on both; two on George Washington Harris, both of which appeared before Inge's work; and essays on Jacksonian tall tales, the diffusion of a Horace Greeley anecdote, and early California humor. Nearly half of the articles deal directly with the humor of the South or the Old Southwest.

While there is a Series Introduction, there is no specific introduction for this particular volume, and this is, I think, an unfortunate omission. American Literature has published some of the most important scholarship in the field. The editors note that the "series is planned to serve as a live resource, not as a homage to once vibrant but petrifying achievements in the past" (pp. ix-x). Still, a brief note on the significance of these articles, or better yet an introductory essay on the role of American Literature in the study of humorous literature, would have been both interesting and helpful.

These three books do not offer anything like a coherent picture of the development of Southern humor; indeed, the reader is left with the suspicion that such a synthesis might well be impossible. But this is no reason for despair. The study of Southern humor has a past of wonderful richness, a present of healthy vitality, and a future of great promise. These books amply prove that.

(1) Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and C. Hugh Holman, eds., Southern Literary Study: Problems and Possibilities (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 106. (2) "American Literature: The State of the Art," American Literature, 52 (1980), 455.
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Author:Parker, David B.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Faulkner, Sut, and Other Southerners: Essays in Literary History.
Next Article:Mark Twain's Letters, vol. 3, 1869.

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