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The West Laughs Last: Humor Writers

The West Laughs Last: Humor Writers


New Frontiers. In July 1893 at the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) delivered an address on The Significance of the Frontier in American History. The true point of view in the history of this nation, Turner argued, is not the Atlantic coast, it is the great West. Throughout the course of American history, the West had beckoned to explorers, settlers, and speculators, inspiring all with visions of untamed land and untapped resources. Turners dismissal of the Atlantic coast turned traditional cultural valuations topsy-turvy. In literary circles, the East had always reigned supreme. New England monopolized the literary marketplace through the mid nineteenth century. New York, the center of commerce, began angling for position as the American cultural capital in the decades following the Civil War. Yet even as the frontier celebrated by Turner closed, a new chapter in American literary history opened. When western writers began to speak out, in the 1880s and 1890s, they did so with a distinctive and compelling literary voice.

Self-Definition through Opposition. Telling tall tales or spinning gothic yarns, writers such as George Washington Harris (1814-1869), William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), and Bret Harte (1836-1902) reminded readers that civilization as defined by New England literary tradition was no match for the brutality, diversity, and sheer exuberance of western life. From the start western literature was characterized by linguistic vitality. Slang and broad humor suffused the work of western writers, tickling readers while dismaying literary purists. Western writers experimented with form as well as with style. As William Dean Howells commented, The West, when it began to put itself into literature, could do so without the sense of any older or politer world outside of it; whereas the East was always looking fearfully over its shoulder at Europe, and anxious to account for itself as well as represent itself.

Dissemination by the Press. The daily press played an invaluable role in defining the voice of the West. Columnists and contributors experimented with dialect and light verse; readers, many of them settled in sparsely populated regions, made newspapers their primary source of information and culture. Journalist Eugene Field (1850-1895) wrote a humor column, Sharps and Flats, for the Chicago Daily News during the 1880s and 1890s. Many of Fields poemsamong them Little Boy Blue and Wynken, Blynken, and Nodbecame national treasures. James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916), a native of Indiana, wrote sentimental poems narrated in a distinctive Hoosier dialect for the Indianapolis Journal. William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), who became famous as O. Henry in the early years of the twentieth century, honed his story-telling skills with humorous pieces published in Texas newspapers during the mid 1890s.

Americas Favorite Humorist. Of all the westerners to dabble in literary journalism, the most famous by far was Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910). Raised in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri, Clemens adopted the pen name Mark Twain in 1863, after he started work at the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise. Over the following decades Clemensa journeyman printer, riverboat pilot, itinerant traveler, lecturer, and writer saw the old southwest of his youth

civilized by new settlers and altered forever by the abolition of slavery. His writing combines hints of nostalgia with sharp political commentary on the economic and moral inequities that sustained a nonidyllic past. His travel narratives The Innocents Abroad (1869), Rough-ingIt (1872), and A Tramp Abroad (ISSO) humorously depict the plight of typical Americans in unfamiliar territory. The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court (1889) are historical fantasies set in England. Twains masterpiece, Adventures ofHuckleberry Finn (1884)a sequel to his earlier boys story, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)combines nostalgic reveries and humorous sketches with a biting attack on the institution of slavery. A later work, Puddnhead Wilson (1894), skewers American attitudes toward race with its tale of two infants, one white and one black, swapped at birth. As his life progressed, Twains outlook grew darker. Frequently in debt, deeply dismayed by the corruption of Americas Gilded Age, the preeminent American humorist went I to his grave a pessimist.


Christine Bold, Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860 to 1960 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987);

Michael Kowalewski, ed., Reading the West: New Essays on the Literature of the American West (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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