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The following review appeared 6 December 2006 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Fetching the Old Southwest, James H. Justus's ambitious and sprawling examination of newspaper humor from the Old Southwest, provides an excellent overview of the antebellum literary production of a region Justus defines as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina, and Missouri. Justus conceives the book as an attempt to provide a "comprehensive account" of the subject (2), and, checking in at just under six hundred pages, Fetching certainly offers a wealth of information and analysis. It focuses on about twenty humorists, their writings, and the culture which produced them. In fact, Justus claims that the work of the humorists is a "reliable index" of that culture, and a good deal of Fetching the Old Southwest is devoted to delineating exactly how, and to what extent, it serves as such an index.
A reader of Fetching the Old Southwest will quickly come to realize that Justus's aims do not serve to create a tightly plotted narrative. Rather, Justus approaches his subject on a grand scale. To a certain extent, this book is a cultural history of the antebellum South, but Justus does not demonstrate the historian's attention to chronology. Instead, he organizes the book around a series of thematic elements: the lost cause, the southern aristocracy, itinerancy and migration, planting and farming, the confidence game, race, hunting, the river, authorship, language, narration, character types. Throughout this varied approach, however, Justus never loses sight of his initial focus. He sees the genre of Southwestern humor as fundamentally democratic, and he returns to this idea regularly throughout the book.
Fetching the Old Southwest offers layered complexity beneath a veneer of simplicity. On the face of things, the book is divided into three fairly well defined and appropriately titled sections: Mythmakers and Revisionists, The World the Humorists Found, and The World the Humorists Made. In practice, however, Justus's analysis tends to be recursive. The first two chapters set up themes which are revisited throughout the text: the mythology of the "Old South" and the commonly-held belief that the elite humorists led lives segregated from their "common" subjects. In both cases, Justus argues against the reality of the myth, and these ideas crop up later in the text. His rejection of these myths serves as the opening of his argument for the democracy of Southwestern humor, and later chapters regularly revisit versions of that contention. For example, after laying out the linguistic democracy inherent in the use of the vernacular in the second chapter, Justus returns to the linguistic analysis of the narrative frame in chapter ten, the "Languages of Southwest Humor." Where the second chapter provides analysis of the framed narrative in broad outlines, chapter ten pursues the linguistic shades of the humorists in greater detail, building on the foundation of the earlier discussion.
The middle section of the book, "The World the Humorists Found," contains six chapters that carve the "world" into six loosely organized types often utilized in humorous writing: the itinerant, the farmer, the confidence man, the Other, the sportsman, and the river man. His chapter on the figure of the confidence man, "Fetching Arkansas," provides layered possibilities for reading the title of the book: Justus asserts that "fetch" means both "to bring around, to bring off successfully" and "to hoodwink" (148). The third section, "The World the Humorists Made," first looks at the profession (versus the "hobby") of authorship for humorists, then the use of dialect and vernacular, then the notion of oral storytelling versus written narration, then offers a study of types, before launching into a more careful study of three texts. In the final three chapters, Justus turns to extended analyses of William Tappan Thompson's Major Jones's Courtship, Johnson Jones Hooper's Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, and George Washington Harris's Sut Lovingood's Yarns. These chapters offer the only sustained analysis of individual texts in the book, and in some ways, offer the culmination of what the rest of the book has been setting up. They are the strongest and most focused chapters in the book and offer a fitting end to Justus's sweeping achievement.
On the whole, Fetching the Old Southwest is copiously and accurately researched. Justus orchestrates an astounding number of primary documents surrounding the humorous tales, including diaries, correspondence, histories, and travelogues, in order to place the humorists within the broader culture of the era. He also relies on a number of historians of the era in order to frame the historical context. In addition, the book pushes at the margins of the literary canon, making interesting connections between the humorists and better-known authors, such as James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. For example, in his discussion of river men, he weaves together a comment Thoreau makes in his A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers with Joseph Baldwin's Keelboat Age, an 1828 Geography and History of the Western States, and the 1855 Memoir of S. S. Prentiss (277-79). Justus writes in a clear, eloquent prose that shifts gears effortlessly, combining history, literary analysis, and journalistic reportage.
One complaint: there's not enough Twain, especially given his appearance in the book's subtitle. Readers looking for a comprehensive guide to Twain's use of the humorist tradition in his writings would best look elsewhere, such as Bruce Michelson's Mark Twain on the Loose, James Cox's Mark Twain: the Fate of Humor, and Kenneth Lynn's Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor. However, this is not really a fault of the book; Justus focuses his lens on the generation that gave birth to Twain and Artemus Ward, and they appear only as occasional counterpoint.
Despite its comprehensive approach, Fetching the Old Southwest
is not really an introduction to the Southwestern humorists. In fact, in its
very construction, it assumes a certain level of proficiency with the discourse
and its authors. Save for the final three chapters, most of the discussion
of any one author is rather fragmented; to be sure, the chapters are thematically
coherent, but Justus's frequent shorthand references to his cast of characters
might be confusing to a reader not fluent in the discourse. The index, which
is detailed and useful, might provide an antidote for a potential reader's
confusion. Ultimately, however, such difficulties are worth enduring, as Fetching
the Old Southwest is a worthy addition to the criticism of southern literature,
and it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in antebellum southern