The function of women in Old Southwestern humor: re-reading Porter's 'Big Bear' and 'Quarter Race' collections.
What these gentlemen enjoyed were stories of frontier fights, hunts, contests, swaps, lawsuits, tricks, and physical pranks. Kenneth S. Lynn asserts that the narrative frame technique, by means of which a cultured frame-narrator introduces rough vernacular language, characters, and actions, serves as "a convenient way of keeping . . . first-person narrators outside and above the comic action . . . ."(6) The very structure of these tales reminds the reader that he -- like the frame-narrator -- is linguistically, socially, and morally superior to the rude and eccentric characters described. Part of the reader's enjoyment depends on the incongruity between his world and that of forty-pound turkeys, "creation bears," savage fights, shifty confidence men, and brutally butchered grammar and spelling.
In American Humor Constance Rourke contends that "women had played no essential part in the long sequence of the comic spirit in America" (p. 142). Although she refers most specifically to an absence of women writers in antebellum American humor, she might also have had in mind women as characters in American humor. For the role of women in Old Southwestern Humor would seem at first glance to be minimal. There are no women in Thorpe's catalogue of travelers aboard the Mississippi steamboat the Invincible, and the only reference to the gentler sex occurs when the creation bear magically transforms himself into a she-bear to make good his escape. Nancy A. Walker asserts that "humor is aggressive; women are passive. The humorist occupies a position of superiority; women are inferior."(7) Zita Dresner notes "the generally acknowledged antifeminine bias in what has been labeled |native' American humor," visible not only in "the relative absence of women as primary humorous characters, but also in their functions as negative stereotypes in masculine humor."(8) Linda A. Morris contends that "male humorists' attitudes toward women varied, from innumerable stories in which women do not figure at all ... to traditional romanticization of women, to extreme instances of outright misogyny."(9) And Alfred Habegger sadly laments, "Where are the women among the Southwestern humorists . . . ?"(10)
Neil Schmitz writes that "William T. Porter's Spirit of the Times . . . effectively became the home journal for Southwestern humor in the 1840s."(11) From 1831 to 1861 the Spirit of the Times formed what Porter called "the nucleus of a new order of literary talent (Bear, p. 7), publishing work of C. F. M. Noland, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Johnson Jones Hooper, John S. Robb, George Washington Harris, and other prominent Southwestern writers. At the height of the Spirit's popularity, Porter edited The Big Bear of Arkansas, and Other Sketches (1845) and A Quarter Race in Kentucky, and Other Tales (1847), collections of tales most of which had appeared in the Spirit. The Big Bear went through five quick editions and A Quarter Race four, evidence of their appeal. As selected by the "father of the Big Bear School," these fifty-four pieces function as a limited yet representative sample of the genre. Porter certainly had a broader readership in mind than the current subscriber's to the Spirit, but it seems clear that he wished to convey without adulteration the characteristic flavor of Southwestern Humor. Linda A. Morris asserts that "Porter himself did not believe the humor tales were meant for the eyes of the gentler sex; when he was editing his two humor anthologies he |banned' the proverbial prude, Mrs. Grundy, from his office" (p. 20). With one exception, Porter reprinted materials directly from the Spirit. In an attempt to reach a national audience, he most probably would have chosen stories that had proven themselves popular at their first printing. That Porter reprinted them inferentially argues for their representativeness.
Do women figure prominently in The Big Bear and A Quarter Race? Although no women writers are represented, women do have central roles in eleven of the fifty-four sketches: "Billy Warrick's Courtship and Wedding," "Life and Manners in Arkansas," "Going to Bed Before a Young Lady," "Taking the Census," "Dick Harlan's Tennessee Frolic," "French Without a Master," "India Rubber Pills," "A Murder Case in Mississippi," "Somebody in My Bed," "A Day at Sol Slice's," and "Cupping on the Sternum." Representation of approximately twenty percent is itself a surprise. Yet are women included only to become the victims of male humor? Of course this is a trickier question, for all the characters in Southwestern Humor -- often including the protagonist, the narrator, and the reader--are objects of fun. To formulate a series of sharper questions, we might ask if women are consistently victimized? Is Southwestern Humor misogynistic, as Morris and other critics contend? Does it reveal a larger cultural pattern of male dominance and female submission?
"Billy Warrick's Courtship and Wedding" retells the story of Billy's developing relationship with Miss Barby Bass. Early in his epistle, Billy introduces Mr. Porter to the blooming Barby Bass in vivid vernacular terms: "I tho't how putty she did look last singin' school day, -- with her eyes as blue as indiger, and her teath white as milk, and sich long curlin' hare hangin'clear down to her belt ribbun, and sich butiful rosy cheaks, and lips as red as a cock Red-burd in snow time . . ." (Bear, p. 91). He also defines the criteria for a Piney Bottom wife: "|Well,' says 1, 'she's bout the likeliest gal in this settlement, and I rekon mity nigh the smartest -- they tells me she kin spin more cuts in a day, and card her own rolls, and danse harder and longer, and sing more songs outer the Missunary Harmony, than any gal in the country'" (p. 91). Screwing up his courage, Billy offers himself in a conventional formula: "|Barby,' ses I, takin of her hand, |aint I many a time, as I sot by the fire at home, all by my lone self, aint I considerd how if I did have a good wife how I could work for her, and do all I could for her, and make her pleasant like and happy, and do every thing for her? ... Barby, if that sumbody that keard was only you, I'd die for you, and be burryd a dozen times"' (p. 95). Although Billy's description disassembles Barby into desirable parts while his evaluation assigns a woman value in terms of her domestic functions, what is most clearly revealed is not so much explicit victimization as the implicit acceptance of cultural conventions and gender-based stereotypes. Yet Billy does not exemplify a domineering male culture. He seems virtually powerless. It is the women, in fact, who are in control: "Miss Bass and Miss Collins come back. . . .' [and to him they say] -- me and Miss Bass talk'd it over! you'll git a smart, peart, likely gal!" (p. 101).
Characteristically, "Mr. Porter" and the reader are superior to the inhabitants of Piney, Bottom. In addition, the role of fool is played first by Billy, a youth befuddled by love and passion, and second by Nancy Guiton, whom Billy left for Barby Bass. The concluding section adopts Nancy Guiton's point of view to bemoan her jilted condition and to record the festivities, concluding with a list of marriages, births, illnesses, and a plea for news. Her predicament is not exactly funny (unrequited love never is), but the assertiveness and authority of her narration imply her ability to recover fully. She is, however, a reminder of the traditional necessity of marriage for nineteenth-century women. Mrs. Bass and Mrs. Collins, having entered the adult community through marriage, are wise, knowledgeable, and powerful. In a very real sense, these women are in control of Billy Warrick. Although they speak a low vernacular, drink, and smoke and chew tobacco, they command authority. The author reveals as if by accident a world of backwoods domesticity that runs parallel with yet counter to the male world of the hunt. In the eyes of men, this female world has its own rules and its own rewards. To get married, a man must enter it as carefully as he would a bear den; all men, in this situation are, like Billy Warrick, orphans. Like Billy, men view this territory as a locus of female power. Although this may not be true in fact, and although even if true it does not appreciably alter the status of women in American culture, it does suggest an area of male unsureness and insecurity.
A second tale, "Life and Manners in Arkansas," forgoes the vernacular narration of "Billy Warrick," establishing a clear distance between the self-controlled narrator and the inhabitants of Washita Cove, where he stops overnight at the Widow Gaston's. "At the Widow's I found her daughter, who was to be married, waiting for the groom. She was really a beautiful girl, with bright eyes, long black hair, a white band round her head, white dress, red shoes, and no stockings" (Bear, p. 155). Despite the narrator's obvious superiority to the local doings, he reveals no hint of condescension to the bride and only amusement at the desire of the reluctant groom to stay up all night playing kissing games in a group rather than to go to bed alone with his new wife. The groom's rebellion humorously admits a male suspicion of the dominance of female-enforced social institutions. He can resist their authority momentarily by refusing the marital bed tonight, but he must submit himself tomorrow. The conventional humor in this situation is overtly at the expense of the groom; as opposed to the appreciative portrait of the bride, the narrator describes the groom as "a great, clumsy, hulking, cur-dog looking fellow" (p. 155). If the bride is a victim, she is one of the groom's inexperience, ignorance, and fear. To be a little more critical, we might also see her as a victim of her environment: Arkansas is so rough that this "Big Bear" is the best it can offer. In addition, a single girl must marry in order to create an adult life for herself, Nancy Guiton in "Billy Warrick" recognizes that there is no other way out. Taking this view, the bride is trapped by language, convention, and circumstance, trapped in ways that Local Color writers including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Sarah Orne Jewett would later make explicit.
"French Without a Master" is typical of sketches that broadly satirize the pretensions of rural men and women to European refinement. In "A Murder Case in Mississippi," Mrs. Granger is mistakenly thought to have been murdered by her husband. Although we are led to suppose that husbands who argued constantly with their wives would not infrequently murder them, when the living Mrs. Granger enters the courtroom, we see that she appears less the victim than the victimizer: "Consarn you, Bill Granger, is it there you be, instead of hoein' the taters!" (Race, p. 159). Mrs. Granger seems, if not in control of her husband, at least able to hold her own.
The same can be said of the country matron in "Taking the Census." The male census-taker, representing patriarchal big government and big taxes, is no match for the quick-witted woman he attempts to interrogate. "|How many Males in this family?' |Three males a day with prateys for dinner. . . ."' The "maternal head" of the house fences with the agent for a while and then dismisses him entirely: "Yer out of yer senses, yerself, begone and don't bother me" (Race, pp. 80, 81).
In "A Day at Sol Slice's" a country belle finds herself lifted airborne from the dance floor to reveal "a red petticoat, and . . . this |pair of revolvers"' (Race, p. 180). As in many humorous sketches, however, the victim reasserts her identity and control through violence. "The |gall' arose to her feet, dealing blows, right and left, upon poor Bill . . . ." Angry and embarrassed, she hurls a chair at her partner: "The Amazon . . . seemed perfectly satisfied with this manly effort at redress; and in a short time looked as if nothing had happened to disturb her peace of mind" (p. 181). Though some of the humor results from the girl's exposure, initially, and then from her decidedly unladylike behavior, the sketch ultimately punctures the conventional image of proper feminine deportment and confers upon "the Amazon" a heroine's mythic stature.
George Washington Harris in "Dick Harlan's Tennessee Frolic" tells of another dance that culminates in a brawl. As in "Sol Slice's," the women are rough and ready equals of their backwoods beaux. "Jule Sawyer was thar, and jist anexed to her rite off, and a mity nice fite it was. Jule carried enuf har from hir hed to make a sifter, and striped and checked her face nice, like a partridge-net hung on a white fence. . . . Jule licked her gall, that's some comfort, and I suppose a feller cant always win" (Race, pp. 89, 90). Some women are tougher than their men and, as wildcats, explode traditional stereotypes and command admiration.
In "Going to Bed before a Young Lady," Stephen A. Douglas writes of his own misadventures. As a young man of political ambition, he found himself at midnight still talking with the daughter of his rural host. The narrator is, as in "Life and Manners," superior in language to the vernacular characters, yet he likewise describes appreciatively an image of country beauty: "Did you ever see a Venus in linsey-woolsey? . . . Then you shall see Serena L------s. They call her the |White Plover:' seventeen: -- plump as a pigeon, and smooth as a persimmon" (Race, p. 53). She is, however, no passive, tasty morsel despite the narrator's images. Though she appears an idealized, titled, public object, he, ironically, becomes the passive object of her acute, unflinching, all-too public examination. His difficulty is to remain a gentleman and yet undress for bed. "How the devil, said I to myself, soliloquizing the first night I slept there, am I to go to bed before this young lady?" (p. 53). Douglas casts himself as the focus of Serena's humor, for "those large jet eyes seemed to dilate and grow brighter as the blaze of the wood fire died away . . ." (p. 54). Serena has Douglas treed. She obviously enjoys his discomfort, delighting in her power to prolong and intensify the moment. "Certain it was, she seemed rather pleased with her speculations; for when I arose from a stooping posture finally, wholly disencumbered of cloth, I noticed mischievous shadows playing about the corners of her mouth. . . . |Mr. Douglas,' she observed, |you have got a might small chance of legs there"' (p. 55). He, rather than the "White Plover," has become the object of humor. He has been reduced to "a mighty small chance of legs." That he perceives Serena to have been unmalicious (if not unmanipulative) he demonstrates when he insists on her modesty. "Modest, sir! -- there is not in Illinois a more modest, or more sensible girl" (p. 56). Stereotyped sexual roles have been inverted but Serena has not been corrupted.
With "India Rubber Pills," "Cupping on the Sternum," and "Somebody in My Bed," women are explicitly victimized. The "tall, lanky, factory girl" (Race, p. 152 )of "India Rubber" scoops and swallows pills of the coat-covering compound to cure her cough. The humor turns on the superiority of the male druggist and the male reader to the girl and her sister workers. They are ignorant of the use of India rubber, thinking it literally medicinal. The reader laughs at the girl because he does not see her as human; she is, as it were, a type of ignorance. In "Cupping," the situation has a greater complexity, for both the black female patient and the while male medical student are ignorant of the meaning of the term "sternum" and assume that the blister should be applied to the woman's stern. Again, the reader is meant to enjoy his position of superiority; again, the woman is similarly dehumanized, the pain and embarrassment she feels perversely adding to his pleasure. That the patient is a black woman who must present her naked posterior to the white medical student for a painful surgical procedure suggests a malicious amusement with which the modern reader feels discomfort. Without question, both sketches develop humor at the expense of women. As cultural artifacts, the sketches confirm conventional stereotypes of male superiority and female inferiority.
U. J. Jones's "Somebody in My Bed" contains a striking example of the woman as victim in Southwestern Humor. It is also a trick upon the audience, a story that raises pornographic expectations which it refuses to satisfy. In part because of its apparently explicit nature, it is a story told by a doctor who is introduced to the reader by the frame-narrator, keeping the action at three removes: narrator. doctor-as-narrator, re-told story. The doctor recounts his "adventure with a woman at my boarding house" -- an establishment "in which there were no females, but the landlady and an old coloured cook" (Race, p. 169). Disrobing for the night, the doctor notices a woman's frock. petticoats, stockings, and shoes near his bed. In it he discovers "a young girl -- I should say an angel, of about eighteen . . . " (p. 170). In careful stages he begins to examine the intruder, appreciating her hair, neck, shoulders, bust, and waist, all the while working up his audience (most noticeably the captain) to a crescendo of excitement: "|She had on a night dress ... softly I opened he first two buttons --. . . And then, ye gods! what a sight to gaze upon -- a Hebe -- pshaw! words fail! Just then -- I thought that I was taking a mean advantage of her, so I covered her up, seized my coat and boots, and went and slept in another room!' |It's a lie!' shouted the excited captain, jumping up and kicking over his chair. |IT'S A LIE!'" (pp. 170-171).
"Somebody" operates on several levels. On one, it can be seen as a classic smoking-room story which creates and then denies expectations. The captain's repeated shout -- "It's a lie!" -- suggests two interpretations: the doctor did not retire to leave the girl further unmolested; or, the doctor made up the whole story. In assembling A Quarter Race, Porter substantively edited only this sketch, omitting its final line: "'I'll bet you fifty dollars that you got into the bed!'"(12) In either version, the sketch's intended victims are the doctor's audience and the reader. On another level, the story functions as an example of incongruity: the girl is where she should not be; she appears to have miraculously materialized in the male boarding house and have been dropped into the hands of the doctor for his own use. On yet another level, the tale projects an idealized image of female passivity. The "young girl" appears completely vulnerable; beautiful yet unconscious, reduced to the status of a sexual object, she is the archetypal victim. Jones projects a male fantasy of dominance and submission, without doubt, one that in its retelling within a community of men reinforces negative stereotypes. The violence to the young angel -- or at least the imaginative violence done to her image in the men's minds -- suggests a latent hostility or at least an ambivalence toward women. The men apparently need to violate her, perhaps because to them women seem powerful and threatening. The sharing of the tale creates at the expense of the girl's dignity a community of men. Last, we should not entirely overlook that she is also simply a pornographic image, an auto-erotic device that has no reality beyond the narrator's words. This is not to deny the voyeuristic quality of the sketch but to suggest that, like Hebe, this angel inadvertently excites the prurient passions of the doctor, the captain, and the (male) reader. That of course is to attribute a reality to her that the sketch strives for; her only reality, such as it is, is on the page and in the minds of the captain and the reader.
Given this sample of Old Southwestern Humor, we can fairly confidently make several generalizations. First, women do figure in this male-oriented genre with more frequency than commonly supposed. Although fights, swaps, hunts, contests, and tricks are recurring subjects, dances, home life, social occasions, courtship and marriage, and male-female relationships do have a significant representation. Second, if we accept as a structural element of the genre the humor generated by low language, circumstances, and behavior of vernacular characters, viewing their depictions as essentially gender-neutral, then of the eleven sketches in The Big Bear and A Quarter Race that feature women, only three overtly cast women as victims ("India Rubber," "Cupping on the Sternum," "Somebody in My Bed"). Third, in five pieces -- in "Life and Manners in Arkansas," "Dick Harlan's Tennessee Frolic," "A Murder Case in Mississippi," "French Without a Master," and "A Day at Sol Slice's" -- both men and women are equally satirized. Fourth, in "Dick Harlan," "A Murder Case," and "Sol Slice's," women who appear initially as victims re-establish themselves as equal to or tougher than their male counterparts. Finally, in "Billy Warrick's Courtship and Wedding," "Going to Bed Before a Young Lady," and "Taking the Census," women are in control of the men they encounter. As opposed to other character types -- Irish, French, Yankee, Indian, black -- women are portrayed in Old Southwestern Humor as occasionally getting the best of white men. They are also, even when they are represented as objects of humor, far less likely than men to be presented as amusing because they are physically brutalized; with much less regularity are women's eyes poked out, their teeth pulled, their flesh clawed, their necks stretched, and their nudity roughly revealed. The Southwester Humorists, professional men of culture and breeding, might naturally uphold gentlemanly standards of decorum and might feel uncomfortable overtly victimizing women even in their accounts of backwoods behavior. A more speculative reason to explain why surprisingly little "outright misogyny" appears in these sketches might be that male writers could not admit to themselves the authority they believed women to possess over them (an authority that victimization of women would make explicit). If this is so, it explains the idealized portraits of innocent female beauty that appear as set pieces in so many sketches.
Southwestern Humorists also recognized as part of their culture a separate sphere of social institutions which women ruled. These writers understood that men in social situations entered what they perceived to be the province of women. Once they entered a dance, a woman's home, or pursued a relationship with a woman, they often imagined themselves as isolated and relatively helpless before the collective identity of women and submitted themselves to women's authority. In contrast, the aside told by "|Old Sense' of Arkansas" (Race, pp. 145-146) of a wife beaten for adultery suggests the violation of that relational balance and the abnegation of female authority. (Nonetheless, the narrator condemns the punishment as too severe.) We should not, however, imagine that women actually possessed such authority in nineteenth-century American society. These sketches seem to reveal an uncertainty on the part of their male authors of their own authority. Alternatively, Southwestern Humorists may have felt so secure and confident in their superiority to women that they had little repressed hostility to express. Comfortable in and confident of their dominant role in reality, they could afford in their fictions to allow women a certain degree of power and could without losing actual control play the fool themselves.
To think of Old Southwestern Humor as portraying numerous women who rule a domestic sphere that overlaps and competes with the roustabout world of the "b'hoys" is, to say the least, novel. The conventional assessment, that this genre reveals a clear-cut pattern of male dominance and female submission, appears reductive. In specific circumstances, women do have power. If we consider the sketches in which women exercise authority -- "Billy Warrick," "Going to Bed," "Taking the Census," "Dick Harlan," and "Sol Slice's" -- we can see that men in each case enter a social situation. As men enter, they empower women and acknowledge their authority. An extreme exception is "A Murder Case," in which Mrs. Granger invades the law court, clearly the jurisdiction of men, to drag her husband home. In "India Rubber" and "Cupping on the Sternum," women enter the province of men and suffer the consequences. Finally, the angelic girl who graces the bed of the doctor in "Somebody" is obviously out of place, isolated and unaware of her predicament, stranded in the boarding house of men. But to belabor a point, she is anything but real, a male fantasy in sharp contrast to the spirited women who populate these volumes.
Women form an essential part of the tradition of Southwestern Humor. They are presented most often in familial, domestic, or social situations, contexts in which the men feel alien or unsure; as a result, the women have and use power over men. When Southwestern writers place women in the male domain, women become susceptible to victimization and to its corollary, idealization. Analysis of the roles and function of women in other Southwestern texts -- Augustus B. Longstreet's Georgia Scenes (1835), William Tappan Thompson's Major Jones's Courtship (1843), Henry Clay Lewis's Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana "Swamp Doctor" (1843), Johnson J. Hooper's Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (845), Joseph G. Baldwin's Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853), and George W. Harris's Sut Lovingood's Yarns (1867) -- can only add to our understanding of Southwestern Humor and antebellum culture. What appears true from this limited sample is that Southwestern Humorists are not simply misogynists but more complex creatures, writers who regularly portray women who control a distinct world in which conventional perceptions of male superiority and cultural dominance prove illusory. Although their sketches certainly reflect some conventional cultural ambivalence toward women, the Southwestern Humorists often picture the relationships between men and women as complicated phenomena that are as intense, as exhilarating, and as satisfying as hunting a bear, fighting a "hoss," or tricking a Frenchman. (1) William T. Porter, ed., The Big Bear of Arkansas, and Other Sketches (1845; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1973, p. 15. (2) Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1931, 1959), p. 69. (3) M. Thomas Inge, ed. The Frontier Humorists: Critical Views (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1975), p. 5. (4) Walter Blair, ed. Native American Humor (1800-1900) (1937; rev. ed., San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co., 1960), p. 82. (5) Quoted in Lorne Fienberg, "Spirit of the Times," in American Humor Magazinesand Comic Periodicals, ed. David E. E. Sloane (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), p. 272. (6) Kenneth S. Lynn, Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1959), p. 64. (7) Nancy A. Walker. A Very Serious Thing: Women's Humor and American Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 12. (8) Zita Dresner, "Women's Humor," in Humor in America: A Research Guide to Genres and Topics, ed. Lawrence E. Mintz (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 138. (9) Linda A. Morris, Women Vernacular Humorists in Nineteenth-century America: Ann Stephens, Francis Whitcher, and Marietta Holley (New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1988), p. 18. (10) Alfred Habegger, "Nineteenth-Century American Humor: Easygoing Males, Anxious Ladies, and Penelope Lapham," PMLA, 91 (October 1976), 884. (11) Neil Schmitz, "Forms of Regional Humor," in Columbia Literary History of the United States, ed. Emory Elliott (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 316. (12) See Norris Yates, William T. Porter and the Spirit of the Times: A Study of the Big Bear School of Humor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), pp. 83-86.
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|Title Annotation:||William T. Porter|
|Author:||Lenz, William E.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1993|
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