PERSONAL: Male. Hobbies and other interests: Native American literature and family history genre.
CAREER: Educator and author. State University of New York at Buffalo, professor of English.
Of Huck and Alice: Humorous Writing in American Literature, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1983.
White Robe's Dilemma: Tribal History in American Literature, University of Massachusetts (Amherst, MA), 2001.
Contributor of articles to literary journals, including Partisan Review, Magazine of Wisconsin History, American Literary History, and Arizona Quarterly, and essays to Columbia Literary History of the United States, Columbia University Press, 1988; The Best of "American Literature," Essays on Humor, Duke University Press, 1992; and The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
SIDELIGHTS: A longtime professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Neil Schmitz has written extensively about American literature, his subjects spanning a study of humorous writing, U.S. Civil War studies, and Native American literature.
In his first book, Of Huck and Alice: Humorous Writing in American Literature, Schmitz delves into the style of American humor and how it serves the purpose of his basic premise, which is that humor "transforms the effect of error, the result of wrong, and reformulated pains as pleasure." The author discusses how the meaning of the term "humor" has changed over time and he looks at several early examples of humor in the writings of satirist James Russel Lowell and the yarns of George Washington Harris. Schmitz's primary focus, however, is on the writings of novelist Mark Twain, poet Gertrude Stein, and George Herriman, creator of the "Krazy Kat" cartoons. For example, in his analysis of Twain, he delves into how Twain turned everyday American speech that was often vulgar in nature into "Huckspeech," thus influencing American humor and writing for generations. In his book, Schmitz also comments on such diverse American humorists as Osea Biglow, Harpo Marx, Lenny Bruce, and many others.
Writing in the Journal of American Studies, John S. Whitley commented that he wished "that Schmitz had developed his argument in detail with reference to at least one writer of more recent times." Whitley went on to call Of Huck and Alice "an original and brilliant contribution, not merely to the attempts to define American humour, but to an understanding of American culture." American Literature contributor Hamlin Hill found part of the book "self-defeating" because of the author's "quirky" analysis and "self-conscious and precious" language. Still, Hill called the book "a personal tour-de-force" and added that "there are frequent insights which are provocative and even brilliant."
In White Robe's Dilemma: Tribal History in American Literature Schmitz turns his attention to Native-American tribal history and the influence of Indian representation in American literature and history. For the most part he focuses on the Mesquakie tribe of Iowa. White Robe was a tribal leader who refused to make an alliance with the French and instead went to war, which led to his death. For Schmitz, White Robe's refusal to ally his tribe with a more powerful "nation" illustrates the tribe's effort to oppose Western influence on their culture. In his discussion, Schmitz highlights the differences between Western historical accounts of the Mesquakie and their own history. Schmitz's analysis of Western writing's impact on Native Americans also considers many other sources of American literature about and by Indians, including chapters on Standing Bear and Black Elk.
As noted by John E. Dockall in Library Journal, in White Robe's Dilemma "Schmitz ranges far afield in his assessment of the impact of published literature as a whole on Native Americans, their views of self, and the influence of these views in a variety of social arenas." Raymond J. DeMallie, writing in the Journal of American History, said that the book "is ultimately about how history is written and who has the rights to it." DeMallie went on to note that, in a sense, Schmitz is a "victim of his own argument" because "he has written American Indians out of the modern world, as though they were able to escape the influences of modern life while at the same time living in it." Nevertheless, the reviewer went on to note that "Schmitz nonetheless forces the reader into considering a different dimension of historical understanding. This volume raises important issues in new ways for anyone writing—or reading—American Indian history."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Schmitz, Neil, Of Huck and Alice: Humorous Writing in American Literature, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1983.
American Literature, May, 1984, Hamlin Hill, review of Of Huck and Alice, pp. 275-276.
Choice, July-August, 1983, review of Of Huck and Alice, p. 1599.
Journal of American History, December, 2002, Raymond J. DeMallie, review of White Robe's Dilemma: Tribal History in American Literature, p. 1084.
Journal of American Studies, August, 1985, John S. Whitley, review of Of Huck and Alice, pp. 271-272.
Library Journal, September 1, 2001, John E. Dockall, review of White Robe's Dilemma, p. 192.
Modern Philology, November, 1985, Milton Rickels, review of Of Huck and Alice, p. 215.
State University of New York at Buffalo Web site, http://www.english.buffalo.edu/ (July 24, 2004), "Neil Schmitz."