Satire, Burlesque, and Parody

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If one were to take note only of the most popular and notable satires from the beginning and end of the period 1820 to 1870—which would include the gentle mockery of Washington Irving in A History ofNew York . . . by Diedrich Knickerbocker (first edition, 1809; second edition, 1812) and the sly subversiveness of Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad (weekly dispatches, 1867–1868; in book form in 1869)—it might appear that satire in America had not developed appreciably in the middle decades of the century. The opposite, in fact, is true: many strong satiric voices and forms emerged during this time, most of them in relation to political controversies concerning slavery and abolitionism, the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. These new forms of satire influenced political attitudes at the time as well as making a mark on American culture for generations after 1870. Some of the satiric authors, such as Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Herman Melville, are well known for their writings in other forms; others remain virtually unknown in the early twenty-first century despite their accomplishments as satirists.


In the early days of the new Republic, political partisans directed ferocious personal attacks against their opponents, but due to a lack of imaginative shaping, such attacks usually remained at the level of invective. The most common object of such vituperation was Thomas Jefferson. Book 4 of Washington Irving's (1783–1859) History of New York contains some satire of Jefferson and his administrations (1801–1809), cloaked in the guise of Knickerbocker's account of the administration of an early governor of New Amsterdam, William Kieft. This political satire remains at one remove from the topical, having been written at the end of Jefferson's presidency rather than in the middle of it. Moreover, Irving's temperate and indirect satire of the third president and his policies does not seek to destroy Jefferson personally. Rather, it takes its place alongside the satire of other objects in the work, including the Federalists (Jefferson's opponents), as well as the early Dutch and Swedish settlers, pedantic historians, acquisitive Yankees, slaveholding southerners, and in general the rowdy politics of the new Republic. Irving characteristically communicates all of this satire of the beginnings of New York and of the country's later regional and ethnic groups in a tone of evenhanded good humor. One other kind of satire in the early decades of the nineteenth century criticized those foreign observers who berated citizens of the new country for being vulgar, violent, and yet baselessly proud of their egalitarian institutions and manners. James Kirke Paulding's John Bull in America (1825) provides a good example of American responses that satirized these mostly British satirists.

Criticism of the manners and institutions of the Americans did not come only from foreigners, however. After having written The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and several other novels, James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) spent eight years overseas and on his return published two novels that agreed with the foreign observers in criticizing the decline in manners and sense of one's own place that he felt had become a widespread problem among Americans. In essays collected in The American Democrat (1838), he argued that it was necessary to have men of property and education in a democracy to serve as a counterweight to the unrestrained rule of the majority or the mob. In Homeward Bound and Home as Found (both 1838), Cooper suggests that in the preceding decade America experienced a leveling downward and an increased regard for the dollar as the only or the ultimate standard of value. He paints satiric portraits of men who have no place but who have the assurance to take on anything. Aristobalus Bragg, for instance, who passed the bar at the age of twenty-one after studying medicine and theology, exhibits a combination of cleverness, vulgarity, kindness, and impudence, wrapped up in shrewdness in all practical matters. A product of the same democratizing pressures, the traveler and writer Steadfast Dodge portrays himself as a confident, optimistic, and knowledgeable commentator, yet he has lost all independence of mind because he lives in fear of disapproval by the majority. In these novels of the late 1830s Cooper satirized what he saw as the America produced by Andrew Jackson's presidency (1829–1837): a leveling of the educated and propertied with the uneducated and unpropertied and an obsessive and vulgar pursuit of the main chance. Cooper's satiric criticism of this America, like Irving's earlier criticism of Jefferson, comes from a conservative cultural position that defends some hierarchies in society as both natural and necessary to preserve a high level of civilization.

Another source of satiric energies at this time undermined very different objects and usually carried no clear political implications. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) originally planned to publish many of his early stories in a volume of parodies to be entitled "Tales of the Folio Club." The stories were not accepted as a whole but in the late 1830s and early 1840s were published separately in different periodicals, where they were almost always taken at face value as straightforward narratives unaffected by ironic countercurrents. Through the exaggeration of conventions, however, and through the self-destructive monomania of their narrators, these and later tales such as "Ligeia," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "William Wilson" expose and undermine the narrative forms of the time, especially the conventions of the macabre in the gothic and of obsessive love in romanticism. Even Poe's detective stories and tales of ratiocination make use of tricks and parodies to produce an effect of hoaxing and satire that often reverses their surface effect of arrogant certainty. Through this kind of undercutting, Poe's tales typically satirize uncritical or unsuspecting readers. Paradoxically, although these tales appeared in monthly literary magazines such as Graham's and Blackwood's, they also expose the emptiness of the most popular narrative forms at the time and of the magazines that published them. In effect, they critique the presumptions of contemporary middlebrow literary culture.


A new form of publication encouraged the development of another form of satire during this period. The beginning of penny newspapers around 1830 brought news, opinions, and humor columns within the reach of almost every reader, including those with very little money. The Maine author Seba Smith (1792–1868) appealed to this broad range of readers by creating Jack Downing, a Down-Eastern who reported on political affairs and personalities along the eastern seaboard, especially in Washington, D.C., to the folks back home in Portland, Maine. Downing's letters to the Portland Daily Courier, written in New England dialect, conveyed sharp Yankee assessments of Jacksonian politics in an understated way for more than two decades beginning in the early 1830s. Before the days of the telegraph and press services, publishing such a humorous local column could mean success for a small-town paper. Reprinted and imitated in other local papers, the Downing letters set off a movement toward the use of regional humor around the country. Not all of this regional humor was political or satiric; in particular, the two most famous humorous characters of the Old Southwest (which would include Arkansas and Missouri), Sut Lovingood and Simon Suggs (created by George Washington Harris and Johnson J. Hooper respectively), were amoral trick-sters who were proud of their deceptions and cheating. These characters may have been entertaining to many readers, but they were not themselves satiric, nor were they satirized by their authors.

By contrast, James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) employed regional dialect humor for strongly satiric and political purposes in the series of poetic letters he wrote for the Boston Courier and Standard in the persona of Hosea Biglow. The first series of The Biglow Papers was written to criticize the war against Mexico in 1846–1847 and appeared in book form in 1848 (with an elaborate apparatus of introductions and notes by the pedantic fictional editor, Reverend Homer Wilbur). Like others who opposed the Mexican-American War (such as Henry David Thoreau), Lowell saw it as an unnecessary conflict provoked by the United States in order to spread slavery through newly acquired territories. Biglow's first letter is directed against a recruiting sergeant whom he portrays as attempting to trick young men into fighting an unjust war. Another sarcastically reports a debate in the Senate in which John C. Calhoun claims that he "stands on" the Constitution in his fierce defense of slavery. A number of letters are written by a fellow New Englander who has gone to the war and reports that conditions for the troops fall far short of what the war's supporters said they would be. In one of the last letters, this soldier, Birdofredum Sawin, reports that he has lost a leg, a hand, and an eye, but rather than criticizing the leaders who started the war, he decides that his physical disabilities may qualify him to become a politician after the war. On the one hand, Lowell thus offers a New England version of the roguish characters in Old Southwest humor. On the other, the soldier's plight resembles that of characters in other satires, such as Don Quixote (1604, 1614) and Candide (1759), who suffer physical indignities and loss of limbs as a result of their collisions with the world. A later American example of such a character is Lemuel Pitkin in Nathanael West's A Cool Million (1934).

Lowell was not a journalist but a member of a prominent Boston family, a poet and critic who went on to become professor of Romance languages and literatures at Harvard (1857–1877) and American ambassador to Spain and then England (1877–1885). His Biglow Papers offer a noteworthy example of an intellectual intervening in the public sphere through the use of an innovative form that was both entertaining and political. A second series of The Biglow Papers, directed against slaveholders and secessionists during the Civil War, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly from 1861 to 1866 (book form, 1867). The second series, however, has somewhat less energy and bite than the first.

The most successful and influential satirical work of the Civil War years and their immediate aftermath was The Nasby Papers by David Ross Locke (1833–1888), who built on and extended Lowell's accomplishment in the first series of The Biglow Papers. Locke spent most of his career as a journalist associated with papers in Ohio, becoming editor and eventually owner and publisher of the Toledo Blade. He was just short of thirty when the first of the Nasby letters appeared in 1862. A collection was published in book form in 1864, and five more volumes followed in the next four years. In Petroleum V. Nasby, Locke constructed a caricatural portrait of a northern Democrat—a proslavery political operative, a lazy office seeker, a cruel, callous, and cowardly man, and a self-proclaimed Christian minister, "Lait Paster uv the church uv the Noo Dispensashun." The misspellings in his letters—"ez" for "as," "wuz" for "was," "ablishn" for "abolition," and so on—are supposed to indicate a generalized dialect, but because most of the changes barely affect pronunciation, they work mostly to designate Nasby as an uneducated and unintelligent but dangerous bigot. Like Simon Suggs and Sut Lovingood, Nasby is always on the make, looking out for a free ride, but unlike these predecessors, he is the constant object of his author's satire and serves as the vehicle for the satire as well. Thus, employing the satiric technique of praise by blame, Locke makes clear that those whom Nasby praises one is to blame and condemn, and those whom Nasby attacks rise in one's estimation. Nasby's arguments reveal his inconsistency, illogicality, and hypocrisy: he has almost constant recourse to a language of liberty, "democricy," and "tirany," but the only freedom he is interested in is the slave owner's freedom to do as he wants with his slaves and his own freedom to obtain a do-nothing job as the local postmaster. Any attempt to obstruct either of these goals he considers tyrannical.

Nasby is not a complicated character; neither is the message that Locke implies throughout the Papers, which consistently accords with the positions of the Republican Party. Still, Locke employs a variety of satiric techniques and forms in the letters: some recount dreams, some transcribe interviews, some consist of Nasby's lamentations over the course of events. A letter from 1 June 1862 gives an account of Nasby's interview with Clement Vallandigham, a proslavery Copperhead Democrat who was exiled for sedition by Abraham Lincoln. In the interview, Vallandigham tells Nasby that to win elections in Ohio, the Democrats should push to prohibit "holesail" voting by blacks, should sow fears of a huge immigration of freed blacks into the state, and should raise the specter of an amalgamation of the races, although, as even Nasby points out, none of these is remotely possible any time soon. Locke's point, of course, is that elections are often won by playing to bigotry and fear. He also knew that abolition would not end the oppression of Africans in America. Immediately after the approval of Emancipation (6 January 1866), he has a Southerner console Nasby by pointing out that the South and the Democrats will now actually be stronger politically than before the war: slaves used to count for only three-fifths of a person, but since each now counts for one, the increased population of the South will lead to increased representation in Congress. Southerners can observe the letter of the emancipation law yet still keep blacks in a condition of servitude by imposing restrictions on their movements, their ability to own property and vote, and their other civil rights. Some of Nasby's letters employ comic satire, but Locke does not turn away from also portraying the grisly violence caused by racial hatred after Reconstruction. On such occasions his satire has an effect like that of Mark Twain's later in "The United States of Lyncherdom" (written 1901): both record the casual perpetration of atrocities in a country that claims to be dedicated to equal protection of the law for all.

This is the first stanza of a poem in James Russell Lowell's The Biglow Papers (first series, no. 5). The occasion was the unsuccessful attempt of two antislavery men, Drayton and Sayres, to lead seventy men and women from slavery. They were prevented by the district attorney of Washington, D.C., and the Africans were returned as the property of their owners. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (1782–1850) angrily asserted that the Constitution provided for slavery and that the federal government and the northern states had no right at all to interfere with the institutions of the southern states. For Calhoun and his southern followers, any attempts to restrict slavery or aid fugitive slaves constituted tyranny and were preludes to a dissolution of the Union. For Lowell and other northern abolitionists, the institution of slavery violated the most basic human right to freedom.

"Here we stan' on the Constitution, by thunder! 
It's a fact o' wich ther 's bushils o' proofs;
For how could we trample on 't so, I wonder,
Ef 't wor n't thet it 's ollers under our hoofs?"
Sez John C. Calhoun, sez he;
"Human rights haint no more
Right to come on this floor [of the Senate],
No more 'n the man in the moon," sez he.

Lowell, The Biglow Papers, p. 111.

In Nasby's letters Locke harnessed satiric techniques to a strong indignation at racial injustice and exercised a significant effect on his own time. Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant believed that The Nasby Papers strengthened the Union cause and helped the North win the war. For the concept and the execution of these papers, Locke acknowledged his debt to Lowell's Biglow Papers, and Lowell was pleased that Locke thus extended his work. Another writer to whom Locke gave credit as a predecessor was Artemus Ward, the pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne (1834–1867). Like Locke, Browne wrote for an Ohio newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Artemus Ward, his fictional creation, was the proprietor of a wax figure show that toured small towns around the country. Ward's writing was one of the first to use phonetic misspellings that did not indicate dialect pronunciations. His columns usually presented comic observations of a scene, a town, or an event; his satire avoided politics but could be both sharp and humorous when directed at religious sects such as Quakers, Mormons, and Free Lovers.


Not all satire in the late 1850s and 1860s took shape through regional dialect humor, however. For example, critics agree that The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), the last novel by Herman Melville (1819–1891) to be published in his lifetime, is a satiric work, although they have reached little agreement on the objects or the meaning of the satire. The narrative recounts a series of conversations that take place during one day on a steamboat going down the Mississippi River. One set of these conversationalists can be identified as confidence men—they all appear on a list that one of them provides of his "friends" on the ship—although, strikingly, they do not seem to be interested mainly in taking money from the other passengers. Those to whom they address their appeals for confidence prove themselves to be either gullible believers or hard-hearted cynics whose resistance to such appeals comes close to an asocial misanthropy. The implication of these tortuous philosophical exchanges remains enigmatic in the extreme. Helen Trimpi has argued that every character in the novel is patterned on a political figure from the 1840s or 1850s who can be identified by comparison with political caricatures of the time. Others have maintained that the confidence men are different incarnations of the divinity or of the devil or that the narrative presents a satiric critique of the kind of faith required of participants in a capitalist society. Perhaps all these patterns of meaning contribute to the ultimate significance of this suggestive work, which appears to have been as cryptic in its own day as in ours: only two hundred copies of it were sold.

For another satire that sees satanic forces at work in the United States in the late 1850s but that articulates a very definite point of view on the subject, one could turn to The Devil in America (1860), by R. S. Gladney (Lacon, 1806–1869). In this proslavery narrative in blank verse set in Pandemonium—like the first books of John Milton's Paradise Lost (1666)—various subordinate demons report to their leader on the progress they have made sowing discord and division around the country. These lieutenants include the demons of superstition, atheism, sectarianism, alcohol, fanaticism, and abolition. By fanaticism, the author chiefly means agitation for women's rights, and he strongly links such a program with the abolitionist movement: the speakers at a women's rights convention include Miss Free-Love and Miss Free-Soil. In contrast, according to this long poem, slavery is natural and in accord with divine law. Although the Union has thus been brought to the verge of dissolution by the demons' activities, the work concludes with a vision of the defeat of Satan's forces and the establishment of a millennium based on technological progress in which there will be no need for prisons, hospitals, or wars. The narrative thus moves abruptly from an extended satiric representation of contemporary America to a wishful utopian conclusion.

The last satiric work to be considered here returns in form to the series of letters published a week or a few weeks apart, in this case throughout the course of the Civil War. Unlike the other collections already discussed, it is not in dialect—though its use of language is remarkable—and it takes as the object of its satire neither slavery nor abolitionism. The letter writer of Robert Henry Newell's (1836–1901) Orpheus C. Kerr Papers (1861–1865) is named for the large number of office seekers who came to Washington, D.C., during the Lincoln administration, but Newell directs his satire primarily at the Union military and their conduct of the Civil War. Kerr casts his reports on the doings of the Mackerel Brigade in an inflated language of empty magniloquence, making regular use of circumlocution and mythological reference to describe the incapacity, stupidity, delays, and retreats that seem to be ubiquitous in the army. Thus whiskey drinking is always "taking the Oath," and Kerr's bony and starving horse is "my Gothic Pegasus." The same techniques of exaggeration reveal the hollowness of the officially established lines of the government and the press: the latter is "the Palladium of the Republic" which is always reporting on the condition of "our distracted nation." Aside from research and development on ridiculous new super-artillery weapons, the most nefarious plan of attack the Union comes up with is to let "the celebrated Confederacy" capture their supply wagons and eat the Union rations: doing so will make it sick on the spot, and the Mackerel Brigade will capture it alive (Confederate soldiers are never referred to in the plural but always as "the Confederacy"). Occasionally Abraham Lincoln appears in his "anecdotage" as a cracker-barrel philosopher telling long, pointless stories when decisions about military matters urgently need to be taken. The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers harnesses surreal absurdity to produce scathing antiwar satire of the kind that Joseph Heller was to achieve later in Catch-22 (1961).


Theatrical burlesques or travesties that shorten, simplify, and adapt a well-known play to other circumstances, often to the contemporary lives of lower classes or other ethnic groups or races, came to be popular on the English stage in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Many of these burlesques made their way to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, when American burlesques on the English model began to be written and performed. Both in England and in America, Shakespeare's plays provided the most frequent source of burlesques, with the best-known plays—Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello—being the most frequently travestied. Burlesques presupposed a wide acquaintance with the originals, because without such familiarity, the humor and satire of the takeoff could not be appreciated. The object of such burlesques could be to satirize the actors and the productions of the original plays in the serious theater; to satirize a contemporary political figure or development; to mock the ethnic or racial group being represented; or some combination of all three. Thus, for example, in Much Ado about a Merchant of Venice (1868), Portia's most famous speech begins

The quality of mercy is so strained 
In this our day, and all the prisons drained
By legislative pardons.

(Wells 5:113)

Such topical references, as well as mentions of familiar places in the city of performance, made these plays entertaining to wide audiences that included working-class and middle-class, educated and uneducated theatergoers. Such a mixing of audiences became rarer as the period wore on, however, especially after the Astor Place riot in New York City in May 1849, when twenty-two working-class people were killed at a demonstration of about ten thousand against the "aristocratic" style of an English actor who was performing Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House at the time. From that point on, high or elite culture defined itself more and more in opposition to, rather than in conjunction with, popular culture. Especially in America, burlesques written for blackface minstrel shows became significant elements of the culture in the 1840s and remained so for several decades. The dominant, though not the only, effect of these works was to mock black bodies and black people's ways of acting and of speaking. Indeed, these derogatory and stereotyped representations have exerted a lasting influence in American culture down to the present.

The letter from which the following selections are taken was written after the first battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861), which ended in defeat for the Union. To counteract the demoralization that followed the defeat, Orpheus C. Kerr goes to the navy yard in Washington, D.C., to witness the testing of newly invented cannon. The first weapon fails to fire, but the government orders forty of the guns anyway.The second is a revolving cannon, which pivots as it shoots two balls simultaneously but which the gunner refuses to fire because he "has a large family dependent on him for support"; the government still orders six of the guns "to be furnished in time for our next war."

The last weapon subjected to trial was a mountain howitzer of a new pattern. The inventor explained that its great advantage was, that it required no powder. In battle it is placed on the top of a high mountain, and a ball slipped loosely into it. As the enemy passes the foot of the mountain, the gunner in charge tips over the howitzer, and the ball rolls down the side of the mountain into the midst of the doomed foe. The range of this terrible weapon depends greatly on the height of the mountain and the distance to its base. The Government ordered forty of these mountain howitzers at a hundred thousand apiece. . . .

Last evening a new brigadier-general, aged ninety-four years, made a speech to Regiment Five, Mackerel Brigade, and then furnished each man with a lead-pencil. He said that, as the Government was disappointed about receiving some provisions it had ordered for the troops, those pencils were intended to enable them to draw their rations as usual. I got a very big pencil, my boy, and have lived on a sheet of paper ever since.

Newell, The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers, pp. 85–87.

Thus, although The Innocents Abroad (1869) by Mark Twain (1835–1910) returns to a kind of subtle and understated satire like Irving's in his History of New York, it does so after, and no doubt partly in response to, a period of energetic, innovative, and hard-hitting satire. In The Innocents Abroad, Twain participates in the world and the discourse of travel even as he quietly dismantles or undercuts the conventions of behavior and writing by travelers. In The Gilded Age (1873, with Charles Dudley Warner), Twain offers a more wide-ranging and explicit satire of American types such as the corrupt politician, the ineffectual but voluble dreamer, and the young woman determined to attend medical school. Even though the title of this novel gave its name to the era, however, the satire of Twain and Warner remains humorous, affectionate, and accommodating. A more searching, bitter, and tragic satire would have to wait until Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), and the late essays and stories. In the same decades, Ambrose Bierce was honing his incisive wit and satire in the short works that would be collected in book form as his Fables (1898) and The Devil's Dictionary (1906). Such works belong to the next chapter in the history of satire in America.

See alsoDialect; Humor; Tall Tales


Primary Works

Cooper, James Fenimore. Home as Found. 1838. New York: Capricorn, 1961.

Irving, Washington. A History of New York . . . by Diedrich Knickerbocker. 1809. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927.

Locke, David Ross. The Nasby Papers. Indianapolis: C. O. Perrine, 1864.

Lowell, James Russell. The Biglow Papers. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885.

Newell, Robert Henry. The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers. 4 vols. 1862–1868. New York: AMS Press, 1971.

Secondary Works

Austin, James C. Petroleum V. Nasby (David Ross Locke). New York: Twayne, 1965.

Carlisle, Henry C., Jr., ed. American Satire in Prose and Verse. New York: Random House, 1962.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Eddings, Dennis W., ed. The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe'sSatiric Hoaxing. Port Washington, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1983.

Harrison, John M. The Man Who Made Nasby, David RossLocke. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence ofCultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and theAmerican Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Palmeri, Frank. Satire in Narrative: Petronius, Swift, Gibbon,Melville, Pynchon. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Contains a chapter on Melville's Confidence-Man as a narrative satire.

Trimpi, Helen P. Melville's Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1987.

Wells, Stanley, ed. Nineteenth-Century Shakespeare Burlesques. 5 vols. Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1978. Vol. 5 includes American burlesques of Shakespeare, among them Much Ado about a Merchant of Venice (1868) and Hamlet the Dainty (1870).

Frank Palmeri