Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs
Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs
SOME ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN SIMON SUGGS
A classic of the genre that critics label southwestern or frontier humor, Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs recounts the antics of a confidence man with the motto "it is good to be shifty in a new country." Although its thirty-year-old author Johnson Jones Hooper (1815–1862) was a newspaper editor and lawyer in the village of Lafayette, Alabama, all of the book's printings issued from northern presses that offered paperbound books for the popular market. Suggs's Adventures appeared over a dozen times between its first publication in 1845 and the end of the Civil War in 1865. It never earned the author much money, but it gained a widespread reputation for him and the fictional Captain Suggs.
Simon Suggs was an early American example of a familiar type: the scoundrel who evokes more laughter than scorn. Defying law and convention, he lives by his wits in a society where nothing is settled. At a time when the American future seemed unbounded, Hooper's humor played upon people's hopes for the best and fears about the worst. It also captured, in exaggerated form, the anxious optimism of migrants like the author, a well-born North Carolinian who had moved to Alabama in 1837 to make a name for himself in the newer part of the South.
In some respects Suggs's Adventures built upon the foundation of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes, an 1835 collection of stories often identified as the first important work of southwestern humor. Longstreet, Hooper, and other humorists often recounted their stories of rough characters from the perspective of an educated narrator. This mix of high and low reflected their experiences in a peripatetic fraternity of lawyers and journalists that roamed the rural South—working, drinking, gambling, and swapping tall tales to relieve the pressures of their scrambles to get ahead in the world. The narrative frame of the gentlemanly observer appears everywhere in southern writing, from ubiquitous newspaper tales to stories by the South's most prolific author, William Gilmore Simms. While it owed something to European literary forms, it gained vitality from oral practice in the United States, and it was an important step in the evolution of distinctive nineteenth-century American styles.
NARRATIVE FORM AND LANGUAGE
Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs contributed to this evolution. Although Hooper uses an educated narrator, he subverts the gentleman and makes the charlatan Suggs the center of his book. In the opening pages the unidentified narrator announces that his purpose is to write a campaign biography of Captain Suggs, a candidate for local office. It quickly becomes obvious that the candidate is a fraud. The narrator describes Suggs's "adventures" as he roams Alabama in search of profit, and Suggs's cleverness, energy, and enthusiasm dominate the accounts. The narrator quotes Suggs soliloquizing about his intentions, talking his victims into cunning traps, and pronouncing the (im)moral lessons of his swindles. As the books ends, the relationships among the narrator, the Captain, and the author become hopelessly entangled when a long letter from Suggs, which constitutes most of the last chapter, effectively becomes the narrative. Suggs addresses his biographer as Johns Hooper, "eeditur of the eest Allybammyun'" referring to Hooper's East Alabamian (p. 141). Suggs praises the episodes that had already appeared, in fact, in the New York periodical Spirit of the Times, and he negotiates with Johns about which exploits will appear in the full-length biography (actually, the one in the reader's hands). With these shifting perspectives, Hooper thoroughly obscured the line between truth and fiction. In the process he created an original example of comic realism and further moved southwestern fiction away from conventional forms.
Hooper's use of language further widened the distance between the literary tradition American writers inherited and the one they were making. Language in the Adventures fills its usual role as a marker for social class; however, it has other purposes. The narrator's inflated speech helps discredit him. Suggs's earthy language conveys his keen mother wit. And throughout the book, exaggerated language makes all of the confidence games seem funny rather than criminal. Hooper's parody works because he had a remarkable ear for the rhythms in spoken language: the slimy posturing of a banker feeding at the public trough, the stern admonitions of a stupid parent, the obsequious fawning of ambitious young men, and above all, the rhetorical flourish of the editor and the vulgar performances of Simon Suggs. To create the overall rhythm of his work, Hooper constantly set one form of language against another with the voices of Johns and Suggs dominant and other voices interspersed. Through skillful manipulation of the many rhythms he heard, Hooper gave the Adventures another kind of American reality.
Hooper's achievement can readily be seen in "The Captain Attends a Camp-Meeting," perhaps the most outrageous of Suggs's adventures. The narrator sets up the story by relating Suggs's need for cash and introducing a backwoods revival to meet his need; then the action begins, conveyed mostly through dialogue. A preacher displays a convert, saying: "I tuk him, fust in the Old Testament—bless the Lord!—and I argyed him all thro' Kings—then I throwed him into Proverbs.—and from that, here we had it up and down, kleer down to the New Testament" (p. 121). A woman falls down in ecstasy, shouting "Glo-o-ree!" Watching it all, Suggs sizes up his prey:
"Well now," said he, as he observed the full-faced brother who was "officiating" among the women, "that ere feller takes my eye! thar's he's been this half-hour, a-figurin amongst them galls, and's never said the fust word to nobody else. Wonder what's the reason these here preachers never hugs up the old, ugly women? Never seed one do it in my life—the sperrit never moves 'em that way! It's nater tho'. . . . Nater will be nater, all the world over, and I judge ef I was a preacher, I should save the purtiest souls fust, myself!" (Pp. 120–123)
Tensions between town and country have always been part of American experience. Although Simon Suggs lived in rural eastern Alabama, he makes visits elsewhere, and the following scene shows him at the state's capital in Tuscaloosa. He is there to make a run at Faro—variously called the "Tiger" or the "beast"—the one game he usually loses. In the opening to this episode, the narrator spoofs the civilized life of towns from the perspective of the backwoodsman Suggs. Whigs like Johnson Hooper thought that the lower classes did not properly appreciate education, and his ideas are reflected here in Suggs's words. It is also true, however, that Hooper was fond of drinking and that he never attended college, so the humor has a double edge. The narrator speaks first, describing Suggs's entry into the town.
As he hurried along . . . with the long stride of the back-woods, hardly turning his head, and to all appearance, oblivious altogether of things external, he held occasional "confabs" with himself in regard to the usual objects which surrounded him—for Suggs is an observant man, and notes with much accuracy whatever comes before him....On the present occasion, his communings with himself commenced opposite the window of the drug-store,—"Well, thar's the most deffrunt speerits in that grocery ever I seed! That's koniac, and old peach, and rectified, and lots I can't tell thar names! That light-yaller bottle tho; in the corner thar, that's Tennessee! I'd know that any whar! And that tother bottle's rot-gut, ef I know myself—bit a drink, I reckon, as well's the rest! What a power o' likker they do keep in this here town; ef I warn't goin' to run against the bank, I'd sample some of it, too, I reether expect. But it don't do for a man to speerets much when he's pursuin' the beast—"
"H-ll and scissors! Who ever seed the like of the books! Aint thar a pile! Do wonder what sort of a office them fellers in thar keeps, makes 'em want so many! They don't read 'em all, I judge! Well, mother-wit kin beat book-larnin, at any game! . . . Human natur' and the human family is my books, and I've never seed many but what I could hold my own with. ...As old Jed'diah [his father] used to say, book larnin spiles a man ef he's got mother-wit,, and ef he aint got that, it don't do him no good—."
Hooper, Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, pp. 52–53.
Armed with this insight, Suggs captivates the congregation by faking a conversion, complete with tears, acrobatics, and sexual imagery. The onlookers' credulity sets up the real scam, when Suggs gathers the customary offering by cleverly exploiting the status anxieties of his listeners: "ef you aint able to afford anything, jist give us your blessin' and it'll be all the same!" (p. 130). Of course he shortly absconds, depriving the lusty preachers of their usual cash returns. Many years later, Mark Twain would adapt this story for an episode in the career of his con men the King and the Duke in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs was distinctly southern in its setting, characters, and oblique defense of slavery. However, its themes reveal more about the similar values of northerners and southerners in 1845 than about their differences. It is impossible to say precisely which themes resonated with what people, but the evidence suggests that the book had a national audience. Moreover, the themes of ruthless individualism, excesses of capitalism, and commercialization of politics still ring true in modern popular culture.
According to the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, Americans were the most individualistic people in the civilized world, and Hooper thoroughly satirizes that trait. In spite of their own individualism, many educated Americans worried that freedom might unleash selfish forces, and Hooper constantly plays upon the resulting ambivalence. Johns jokingly portrays Suggs as a predatory animal, claiming that if nature "made him, in respect to his moral conformation, a beast of prey, she did not refine the cruelty by denying him the fangs and claws" (p. 13). Extreme individualism—something like the law of the jungle—reigns in Suggs's Alabama, a fictional extension of American life.
Americans were also ambivalent about the excesses of capitalism, as people prone to self-interested behavior nonetheless fretted about reckless speculation, especially when others did it. The humor in the Adventures plays upon this tension too, for many of Suggs's scams concern the marketplace. Details about wildcat banking, land frauds, and similar ventures may escape modern readers, but anyone living under a capitalist system will recognize its underside as a prominent feature in the Adventures.
The commercialization of politics was still new and frightening in the 1840s. On an unprecedented scale, the two major parties used patronage to reward their loyal supporters, dispensing the spoils of victory—government jobs and contracts—as if they were private property. Modern readers may miss some of the Whig editor Hooper's shots at the Democratic Party and its founder Andrew Jackson. For example, the book's narrator is likened to Amos Kendall, Jackson's biographer, and Suggs earns the rank of captain in a phony war set near the site of Jackson's 1814 defeat of the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend. By 1840 Whigs had skillfully adapted Democratic tactics. Hooper's book was more than a partisan critique. It satirized the selling of a candidate, a practice that was becoming thoroughly American.
While modern readers may respond sympathetically to the satires of individualism, capitalism, and democracy in the Adventures, they are not likely to appreciate its humor about inequality—prejudices of class, race, and gender that scholars have identified everywhere. Hooper used derogatory stereotypes about backwoods people, African Americans, Native Americans, and women, suggesting that while slavery was southern, racism and other forms of prejudice were national. However, Hooper did not aim his satire only at the downtrodden. Suggs's favorite targets are white southern males, the people a wandering rascal might really meet and those most likely to put cash in his pockets.
Indeed, Suggs cons people of all classes because he sees their "soft spots," the kinds of flaws that, in Hooper's skeptical view, belong to human nature. The deepest theme in the Adventures provides a kind of existential affirmation: despite their flaws, people can know themselves and share, through laughter, their mutual humanity. Although he is a scoundrel, Suggs is not truly evil, for he constantly unmasks the pretenses through which people hide their flaws. In that way he embodies a perverse kind of justice. It is likely that Hooper hoped Americans would moderate their individualism, tame capitalism, and reform democracy. It is clear, though, that he intended for people not only to laugh at Suggs and his kind but also to laugh at human nature, including what they saw in themselves.
Since its first publication in 1845, Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs has had a mixed reputation. While some readers appreciated its liveliness and originality, many asserted that such crude writing was acceptable for men only. In any case, most contemporary critics paid popular American humor little attention. The literary qualities of works like Hooper's first gained widespread critical attention in the 1930s. Although critics variously described such writing as simply funny, praised its masculinity, or equated it with the adventurous spirit of the frontier—appraisals that seemed naive by the century's end—they also recognized the creativity of its authors. By the mid-twentieth century, critical attention began to shift, especially with the appearance of Kenneth Lynn's influential work Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor. Since then critics have echoed Lynn's claims that the humorists' use of vernacular language and some of their themes influenced Twain, and they have added evidence about influences upon Herman Melville and William Faulkner.
In the late twentieth century, as interest in popular culture grew, more literary theory seeped into discussions of southwestern humor, but mixed responses continued. Some theoretical critics see Hooper's book as a subtle example of bourgeois social control; others find pre-bourgeois patterns of carnival in this and other humor about commoners; and still others suggest that Suggs's nihilistic ethos anticipates the universal anomie of modern life. In his important study, Fetching the Old Southwest: Humorous Writing from Longstreet to Twain, James Justus has demonstrated the relationship between Suggs's fictional world and the modernizing impulses of nineteenth-century America, suggesting how a full-scale reappraisal of Hooper's book might reflect theoretical interpretations when they are appropriately contextualized. Substantially modifying Lynn's earlier assertion that the humorists separated themselves from their environment, Justus places Suggs and his fellow southwesterners securely in the American cultural tradition.
Literary theory and historical context must be combined to understand popular texts like the Adventures, for successful humor rests not only an artful text but on values so embedded in readers that laughter seems spontaneous. As long as some readers find it funny, Hooper's work affirms continuities in the American experience—continuities rooted, for better and for worse, in persisting traits of human nature itself.
Hooper, Johnson Jones. Some Adventures of Captain SimonSuggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers; Together with "Taking the Census" and Other Alabama Sketches. 1845. Introduction by Johanna Nicol Shields. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
Beidler, Philip D. First Books: The Printed Word andCultural Formation in Early Alabama. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
Hoole, William Stanley. Alias Simon Suggs: The Life andTimes of Johnson Jones Hooper. University: University of Alabama Press, 1952. Dated and marred by the author's sympathies for the Confederate States of America but more detailed than any other biographical treatment.
Justus, James H. Fetching the Old Southwest: HumorousWriting from Longstreet to Twain. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
Lenz, William E. Fast Talk and Flush Times: The ConfidenceMan as a Literary Convention. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985.
Lynn, Kenneth S. Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.
Morris, Christopher. "Southern Humorists and the Market Revolution." In Southern Writers and Their Worlds, edited by Christopher Morris and Stephen G. Reinhardt. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996.
Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: TheSubversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Shields, Johanna Nicol. "A Sadder Simon Suggs: Freedom and Slavery in the Humor of Johnson Hooper." In The Humor of the Old South, edited by M. Thomas Inge and Edward J. Piacentino. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2001. First published in Journal of Southern History 56 (November 1990): 641–664.
Somers, Paul, Jr. Johnson J. Hooper. Boston: Twayne, 1994.
Johanna Nicol Shields