The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter XIX

§ 1. Two Forms of American Humour: Classical and Native.Edit

Although American literature was, even at the beginning, not without its humour, much of the early writing which seems to us whimsical and amusing may have had no humorous appeal for contemporary readers. From an early period, however, we can discern symptoms of the two kinds of humour which were to be represented by American writers: the one following closely English models, especially Addison, Steele, Defoe, and Goldsmith in the eighteenth century, and Lamb, Hood, Jerrold, and Dickens in the nineteenth century; the other springing from American soil and the new conditions of American life, and assuming a character as new to the world as the country that produced it. Franklin,[1] Irving,[2] Holmes[3] belong to what we may call the classical tradition; the present chapter is concerned with those aspects of American humour which are more essentially native, at least in form and tone.

The great period of American humorous writing has been the last three quarters of the nineteenth century. For all the preceding periods a very brief sketch must here suffice. In the seventeenth century the conditions of colonial life were not propitious to any sort of writing, humorous or other. To secure the means of a livelihood was a practical problem which left little time for the cultivation of the more genial side of life. In bleak surroundings where there was little physical comfort, and under the gloom of Puritanism, most writers were practical and serious. But there are a few exceptions. New England’s Annoyances (1630),[4] a piece of anonymous doggerel, shows that even the Puritans could smile as they regarded some of their discomforts. Nathaniel Ward[5] wrote The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America (1647), which Moses Coit Tyler called “the most eccentric and amusing book that was produced in America during the colonial period,” although Ward insisted that it should be accepted as a trust-worthy account of the spiritual state of New England. John Josselyn, who wrote New England’s Rareties (1672), declared that most of what he wrote was true; he admits that some things which he recorded he had heard but not seen: for example, that “Indians commonly carry on their discussions in perfect hexameter verse, extempore,” and that “in New England there is a species of frog which chirps in the spring like swallows and croaks like toads in autumn, some of which when they sit upon their breech are a foot high, while up in the country they are as big as a child of a year old.”

§ 2. Colonial Humorists.Edit

In the eighteenth century humour assumed a more important place in American literature, being represented less by naïve recitals of incongruous situations and incidents and more by a conscious recognition of the incongruity. The narratives of William Byrd (1674–1744),[6] perhaps the wittiest and most accomplished Virginian of the colonial time, are remarkable for their civil geniality amid rude circumstances, and for their touches of cultivated irony. Madam Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727),[7] in her diary written in the pauses of her horseback journeys between Boston and New York in 1704 and 1705, recorded in a most amusing manner the humours of the rough roads, the perilous crossing of rivers, the intolerable inns, and the coarse speech of the inland rustics. John Seccomb (1708–93) wrote a piece of verse called Father Abbey’s Will (1732) facetiously describing the estate of Matthew Abdy, sweeper, bed-maker, and bottle-washer to Harvard College. These lines found their way into The Gentleman’s Magazine. Joseph Green,[8] who became well known for his puns, has left us some mischievous lines on Doctor Byles’s Cat (1733). The popular impression of Green is embodied in an epitaph which was written for him by one of his friends:

Siste, Viator, Here lies one
Whose life was whim, whose soul was pun,
And if you go too near his hearse,
He’ll joke you both in prose and verse.

These few specimens show, if they show nothing more, that other spirits than Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards were alive in America in the eighteenth century.

§ 3. Revolutionary Satirists.Edit

The Revolution produced its humour chiefly in the form of political satire; the principal names are Francis Hopkinson, John Trumbull, Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau.[9] The first two were perhaps most important in this connection. Hopkinson’s Battle of the Kegs was as good for the American cause as the winning of a real battle. In the grim year of 1778, this poem went into every American camp, cheered the patriots, and provoked hearty laughter at the awkwardness and stupidity of the enemy. And Trumbull in McFingal produced a Hudibrastic epic whose anger and irresistible logic reflected ingeniously the temper of a colony of sturdy militiamen that had taken upon themselves the task of offering opposition to the mother country—a task in itself not without its incongruous aspect.

During the period that followed the Revolution the colonists doubtless told their stories of war and sea, “swapped yarns,” and recounted deeds of adventure along the frontier, but little has remained to show the character of the writing and to enable us to know what impression it made upon the time. There was not a little humorous political and satirical verse. Certain writers, like William Austin, Irving, Paulding, Drake, Halleck, Sands, Verplanck, brought into American literature an estimable sort of humour, but little was produced by any of them that had an emphatically native quality.

§ 4. The New Humour of the Thirties.Edit

About the time of Andrew Jackson, along with the birth of popular national self-consciousness, the emergence of the frontier as a social entity in the nation’s imagination, and the rise to power of the newspaper (for almost without exception the professional American humorists have been newspapermen), the kind of humour that we think of as American took on new life. It first found voice in New England, the section which was eventually to shudder at the tide of boisterous, outlandish mirth that set in from the new South and the newer West, along and beyond that “highway of humour,” the Mississippi.

§ 5. Seba Smith; “Jack Downing”; Haliburton.Edit

First in point of time among the new humorists came Seba Smith (1792–1868), whose Letters of Major Jack Downing appeared in 1830. Almost immediately after his graduation from Bowdoin College in 1818, Smith began to contribute a series of political articles in the New England dialect to the papers of Portland, Maine. These illustrated fairly well the peculiarities of New England speech and manners, and doubtless had a great influence in encouraging similar sketches in other parts of the country. Smith was in several ways a pioneer. He led the way for The Biglow Papers and all those writings which have exploited back-country New England speech and character. He anticipated, in the person of Jack Downing, confidant of Jackson, David Ross Locke’s Petroleum V. Nasby, confidant of Andrew Johnson. He was the first in America, as Finley Peter Dunne, with his Mr. Dooley, is the latest, to create a homely character and through him to make shrewd comments on politics and life. Charles Augustus Davis (1795–1867) of New York created a pseudo Jack Downing (often confused with Smith’s) who was intimate with Van Buren and the National Bank in the thirties and with Lincoln in the sixties. In 1835, only two years after Smith’s first collected volume appeared, Judge Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a prolific Nova Scotian, began the series of short sketches from which emerged one of the most famous of the early Yankee characters, Sam Slick the Clockmaker.

§ 6. David Crockett.Edit

It must suffice barely to mention a number of the earlier volumes of American humour which attained popularity but which today are known only to the student. David Crockett’s Autobiography (1834) may not belong here, though it is certainly one of the raciest of all the books in its kind.

Crayon Sketches (1833), by William Cox (d. 1851), an English journalist working in New York, consists of a series of amusing essays contributed to The New York Mirror, satirizing the literary infirmities of the times and hitting off well-known actors. Especially popular were the sketches of himself and the burlesque biography of the old city constable, Jacob Hays. The Life and Adventures of Dr. Didimus Duckworth, A. N. Q. to which is added the History of a Steam Doctor (1833), is a mock-heroic biography of a spoiled child, in the style of broadest farce; The Perils of Pearl Street (1834) tells of the fortunes and misfortunes of a country lad who comes to New York in search of wealth. Both were written by Asa Green (d. 1837), a New England physician, who moved to New York and established himself as bookseller. A clever book, hustling with action, is Novellettes of a Traveller, or, Odds and Ends from the Knapsack of Thomas Singularity, Journeyman Printer (1834), which was written by Henry Junius Nott (1797–1837), of South Carolina, distinguished at the bar for his learning and afterwards as professor of belles-lettres. The Ollapodiana Papers, in the style of a more boisterous Lamb, were contributed to The Knickerbocker Magazine[10] by Willis Gaylord Clark (1810–41), whose twin brother, Lewis Gaylord Clark (d. 1873), for a long time editor of the Knickerbocker, was an accomplished journalist and humorist of the chatting sort. The Motley Book (1838) was a collection of original sketches and tales by Cornelius Mathews (1817–89), a versatile poet, dramatist, and journalist who was very prolific during the forties and whose Career of Puffer Hopkins (1841) is one of the most interesting of minor American political satires. The sprightly and observant Sketches of Paris (1838), by John Sanderson (1783–1844), were made a good deal of in London and Paris for a decade or so after their first appearance. George P. Morris (1802–64),[11] one of the founders of The New York Mirror, collected in 1838 a volume of his sketches of New York life; the leading one, called The Little Frenchman and his Water Lots, is a pathetic but graphic account of a little French merchant duped by a Manhattan real estate dealer. The Annals of Quodlibet, a Political Satire by Solomon Secondthought, Schoolmaster (1840), by John Pendleton Kennedy, has been treated elsewhere in this history.[12] The influence of Dickens is potent in Charcoal Sketches or Scenes in a Metropolis (1840), by Joseph Clay Neal (1807–47), whose work was seen through the press in England by Dickens himself.

§ 7. Longstreet; Georgia Scenes; W. T. Thompson; Hooper; Charles Henry Smith; “Bill Arp”; Bagby; Harris; Prentice.Edit

Of more importance in these times was Georgia Scenes (1835), a series of inimitable and clear-cut pictures of the rude life of the South-east, by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790–1870). Longstreet, who was the son of a prominent inventor, graduated at Yale, and won distinction as lawyer, judge, newspaper editor, Methodist minister, and president of Emory College. His realistic descriptions of country parties, debating societies, horse-trades, fox-hunts, shooting-matches, brutal fights, and the adventures of his hero, the practical joker Ned Brace, insured a fruitful career to humour in the South, which before the Civil War enlisted at least a dozen considerable names in its ranks. From Georgia also came Major Jones’s Courtship (1840), intimate and comic letters by William Tappan Thompson (1812–82), who had an interesting career as editor and soldier in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Maryland, and Georgia. One of the best of early Southern humorists was an Alabama editor, Johnson J. Hooper (1815–62), whose Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1846) was admired by Thackeray. Captain Suggs is an amusing rascal, who lives by his wits and who is presented with rare irony by an author who had perhaps the most delicate touch of his time and section. Charles Henry Smith, “Bill Arp so-called” (1826–1903), wrote from Georgia a series of letters, beginning with the mildly defiant “Bill Arp to Abe Linkhorn,” which marked him as a brave and sensitive voice for the Confederacy. After the war Bill Arp was the first to smile and relieve the gloom. A trifle later, and farther north, appeared the letters of Moses Adams, in real life George W. Bagby (1828–83), of Virginia, editor of The Southern Literary Messenger and other periodicals and among the earliest to master negro psychology and dialect in literature. Tennessee is represented in this period by George Washington Harris, “Sut Lovengood” (1814–69); and Kentucky by George Denison Prentice (1802–70), who came from Connecticut in 1830 and made The Louisville Journal a powerful Whig organ as well as a repository for the widely quoted epigrammatic paragraphs which he collected in 1859 as Prenticeana.

§ 8. Baldwin: The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi.Edit

Perhaps the most significant volume of humour by a Southerner before the Civil War was The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853), by Joseph Glover Baldwin (1815–64), who was born in Virginia, practised law in Alabama, and spent the late years of his life in California. Like Lincoln, as a lawyer he had learned much from riding the circuit, and traced in his book the evolution of a country barrister with considerable skill and imagination. Although chiefly concerned with the Flush-time bar, Baldwin described as well most of the sharpers, boasters, liars, spread-eagle orators, the types of honesty and dishonesty, efficiency and inefficiency, in the newly rich and rapidly filling South. Unlike some of the books of his time, this one does not degenerate into mere horse-play or farce. We may still find interest in the characters of Simon Suggs, Jr., Esquire, and Ovid Bolus, the former a good trader and the mean boy of the school, the latter a great spend-thrift and liar although handsome and possessed of a generous and winning manner.

§ 9. Mrs. Whitcher; “The Widow Bedott”; Cozzens; Goodrich; Wise; Thorpe; Hammett; McConnel.Edit

In the North and West meanwhile, humorous books were growing steadily in number and importance. During the late forties Mrs. Frances Miriam Whitcher (1811–52) wrote for several journals a series of articles purporting to come from the pen of the Widow Bedott, “an egregiously wise and respectable and broadly humorous matron.” Such was the demand for her writings that after her death two collections were published, The Widow Bedott Papers (1855) and Widow Sprigg, Mary Elmer, and Other Sketches (1867). Her humour is spirited but often obvious. Frederick Swartout Cozzens (1818–69), a New York wine merchant with literature as a hobby, cultivated a pleasant vein of mild, dry humour which produced The Sparrowgrass Papers (1856), describing the experiences of a New York cockney who retires to Yonkers to live. The Travels, Voyages, and Adventures of Gilbert Go-Ahead (1856), recording the deeds of a shrewd clock-selling Yankee in different parts of the world, was probably by the most prodigious literary hack of his day, Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793–1860), “Peter Parley.” A widely travelled New York naval officer, Henry Augustus Wise (1819–69), wrote several extravagant volumes of sea exploits, of which Tales for the Marines (1855) was probably best known. Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815–78), a Massachusetts man who went as a journalist to Louisiana and became known as the author of highly coloured tales of the South-west, adopted the name of “Tom Owen, the Bee-Hunter,” an eccentric person who had picturesque adventures on the frontier. Two other men, Samuel A. Hammett (1816–65) of Connecticut and John Ludlum McConnel (1826–62) of Illinois, travelled in the West and South-west and described their experiences in racy volumes.

§ 10. Shillaber: “Mrs. Partington”.Edit

Mrs. Partington, the American Mrs. Malaprop, was created by Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber (1814–90) of The Boston Fost and forms the central figure in at least three books, Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington (1854), Partingtonian Patchwork (1873), and Ike and his Friends (1879). Her character and manner of expression may be seen in her chance remarks:

I am not so young as I was once, and I don’t believe I shall ever be, if I live to the age of Samson, which, heaven knows as well as I do, I don’t want to, for I wouldn’t be a centurion or an octagon and survive my factories and become idiomatic by any means. But then there is no knowing how a thing will turn out until it takes place, and we shall come to an end some day, though we may never live to see it.

Her benevolent face, her use of catnip tea, her faith in the almanac, her domestic virtue, and her knowledge of the most significant facts in the life of every person in the village immediately made a large circle of readers recognize the lifelike portrayal of a person known in every American community. It is interesting to observe that her nephew Ike and his experience with the dog and cat and with “spirits” is a striking prototype of Tom Sawyer in his relationship to his Aunt Polly.

§ 11. Halpine: “Miles O’Reilly”; Mortimer Thompson; Newell; “Orpheus C. Kerr”.Edit

Three New York writers of broad burlesque in both prose and verse may be mentioned together. There appeared in The New York Herald a series of satirical lyrics in the assumed character of an Irish private in the Union Army who rapidly became famous. These were written by Charles Graham Halpine (1829–68), a versatile Irish journalist and poet who had been with General Hunter in South Carolina, and were published subsequently in two volumes as Life and Adventures, Songs, Services and Speeches of Private Miles O’Reilly (1864). The best of this collection is the amusing account of the visit of the hero to the President, the members of the Cabinet, and foreign ministers at the White House. Mortimer Thompson (1832–75), actor, salesman, journalist, rhymester, was one of the most spirited of mid-century humorists, though his work is little more than (to use his own phrase) “a series of unpremeditated extravagances.” He indulged in impudent prefaces, incredible titles, fantastic illustrations, and breathless satire upon every current popular enthusiasm. He went to Niagara and wrote back contemptuous letters to The New York Tribune. His Plu-Ri-Bus-Tah (1856) burlesqued Hiawatha in meter and the American eagle in attitude. His pseudonym was characteristically “Q. C. Philander Doesticks, P.B.” In their day The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers[13] (1862–68) had a great vogue. They furnished sharp satire upon civil and military affairs in the darker days of the war. Lincoln read with great satisfaction their burlesque of the unescapable office-seeker of the time. The lampooning seems rather reckless today and the characterization overbroad. Newell was also a writer of serious and burlesque poems; he was well read, a clever wag, and an effective parodist.

§ 12. Derby: “John Phœnix”.Edit

George Horatio Derby (1823–61) has been called the real father of the new school of humour which began to flourish toward the middle of the nineteenth century. His sketches, with the signature “John Phœnix,” began to appear about 1850, and were afterwards collected in two volumes, Phœnixiana (1855) and Squibob Papers (1859). Derby had graduated from West Point, had served in the Mexican War, and, as an engineer, had been engaged in surveying in the West and South. As a means of relaxation from his strenuous and exacting work, he set about writing down in humorous fashion his observations upon the life about him. In his books are to be found most of the elements used by humorists of more recent times. He delighted in the use of big words, highsounding phrases and figures of speech, and euphemistic statements. We quote a short example:

This resplendent luminary, like a youth on the Fourth of July, has its first quarter; like a ruined spendthrift, its last quarter; and like an omnibus, is occasionally full and new. The evenings in which it appears between these last stages are beautifully illumined by its clear, mellow light.

As a Western humorist, the first to introduce the spirit of the Pacific Coast into humorous literature, he influenced his admirer, Mark Twain, and as a writer of easy, fertile monologue he anticipated “Josh Billings,” and “Artemus Ward,” two of his most famous successors.

For the present discussion there remain three men who, in the history of American humour, stand out more prominently than all others from colonial days to Mark Twain: Henry Wheeler Shaw, “Josh Billings” (1818–85); David Ross Locke, “Petroleum V. Nasby” (1833–88); and Charles Farrar Browne, “Artemus Ward” (1834–67).

§ 13. Shaw: “Josh Billings”.Edit

The first of these, a child of Massachusetts, wandered out to Ohio and finally settled as an auctioneer in New York State, where he began to contribute to various newspapers and magazines. His early writings attracted no attention until, in 1860, he changed his spelling in the Essa on the Muel, and then he achieved a popularity which never failed him. As a lecturer and as a witty philosopher he was not surpassed in his day. He is the comic essayist of America rather than her comic story-teller. His humour and his only strength lie in his use of the aphorism which is old but which he brings forth with as much sententiousness as if it were new. “With me everything must be put in two or three lines,” he once said. He was not one to write humorously merely to amuse. He took delight in ridiculing humbug, quackery, and falsity of all kinds. His burlesque Farmers’ Allminax (1870–80) were exceedingly popular.

§ 14. Locke: “Petroleum V. Nasby”.Edit

Locke was born in New York State and became in turn journeyman printer, reporter, and editor in an Ohio town only a few miles west of Cleveland and Artemus Ward, whom indeed Locke began by imitating. In 1861 he began a series of letters in his paper over the signature “Petroleum V. Nasby.” These letters were supposed to come from a pastor of the New Dispensation with “Copperhead” sympathies. Shortly afterwards “Nasby” settled in “Confedrit X Roads,” Kentucky, where he drank whiskey, and preached to negro-hating Democrats of the type of “Deekin Pogram.” After the war he received a commission as postmaster from Andrew Johnson. “Nasby” is a type of the backwoods preacher, reformer, workingman, postmaster, and chronic office-seeker, remarkable for his unswerving fidelity to the simple principles of personal and political selfishness. To him the luxuries of life are a place under the government, a glass of whiskey, a clean shirt, and a dollar bill. No writer even achieved popularity more quickly. The letters were published in all the Northern papers, were as eagerly expected as news of the battles, and universally read by the Federal soldiers. “Nasby” was not only a humorist but he was a great force in carrying on the reconstructive measures of the Republican party after the war by his laughable but coarse and merciless pictures of the lowest elements in the Western States that had been opposed to the policy of equal justice.

§ 15. Browne: “Artemus Ward”.Edit

Of all the humorists mentioned in this chapter “Artemus Ward” alone was known beyond the seas. He was born in Maine, travelled as a wandering printer in the South and West, and really began his career in 1857 when he was called to the local editorship of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. To this paper he began to contribute articles purporting to describe the experiences of Artemus Ward, an itinerant showman. He began to lecture in 1861 and had an unprecedented success on the platform in this country and in England, where he was a noted contributor to Punch and where he died. He had many and varied experiences and in them all saw nothing but humanity. He wrote of people and of their doings, not unkindly or profanely, but always as a moralist, waging warfare with abounding good humour upon all things that were merely sentimental and insincere and doing good service by exposing them in vivid caricatures. Although it was his genius for misspelling that first attracted attention—he was the first of the misspellers—his plaintive personality proved more attractive still, and may prove permanently so.

Derby, Shaw, Locke, and Browne carried to an extreme numerous tricks already invented by earlier American humorists, particularly the tricks of gigantic exaggeration and calmfaced mendacity, but they are plainly in the main channel of American humour, which had its origin in the first comments of settlers upon the conditions of the frontier, long drew its principal inspiration from the differences between that frontier and the more settled and compact regions of the country, and reached its highest development in Mark Twain, in his youth a child of the American frontier, admirer and imitator of Derby and Browne, and eventually a man of the world and one of its greatest humorists.


  1. ^  See Book I, Chap. VI.
  2. ^  See Book II, Chap. IV.
  3. ^  See Book II, Chap. XXIII.
  4. ^  See Bibliography to Book I, Chap. IX.
  5. ^  See also Book I, Chap. III.
  6. ^  See also Book I, Chap. I.
  7. ^  Ibid.
  8. ^  See also Book I, Chap. IX.
  9. ^  For these four poets see Book I, Chap. IX.
  10. ^  See also Book II, Chaps. III and XX.
  11. ^  See also Book II, Chap. V.
  12. ^  See Book II, Chap. VII.
  13. ^  Orpheus C. Kerr=Office Seeker.