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Opposing Voices, Apposing
Craig Sirles, Depaul University
Humor writing in this country came into its own with the popularity of Old Southwest frontier storytellers in the decades before the American Civil War and continued on with war-era "funny fellow" satirists and postbellum local colorists. Much of the humor of this period was situationally based (e.g., the exploits and misadventures of braggadocios, swindlers, quacks, dandies, rubes, and dudes), and much derived from the lampooning and parodying of disreputable politicians, preachers, bureaucrats, lawyers, financiers, and other violators of the public trust.
A closer look at these 19th-century works reveals another, more pervasive source of humor: interwoven into a large number of these texts are diametrically opposed discursive voices that I label orality and grandiloquence. Working in tandem, these two varieties produce a playful mismatch of language, character, and situation whose effect is to ennoble the ignoble and give eminence and eloquence to the ignoramus. Together they establish social and moral hierarchies both for characters within the text and for the largely semiliterate readership that was drawn to frontier and local color humor. Moreover, they affirm my belief that jocular commingling of language styles lies at the heart of 19th-century humor writing, and they help define Old Southwest, "funny fellow," and local color literature as quintessentially American.
What we are talking about here is literary discourse analysis above the level of the sentence. Over the last three decades a fair amount of scholarly attention has focused on at- and below-the-sentence analysis of literary texts and on the linguistic components that comprise or define an authors style: Crystal and Davys Investigating English Style (1969), which provided a comprehensive description of code and register; Enkvists An Essay in Applied Linguistics (1964), which argued that frequency of distinctive linguistic elements rather than their actual occurrence or non-occurrence within texts was the salient signaler of style; Gregory and Carrolls Language and Situation (1978), which offered a model of discourse description based on dialectal (user-based) and diatypic (use-based) variables; Widdowsons Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature (1975), which posited literary discourse as an interaction between reader and text; Leech and Shorts Style in Literature (1981), which proposed a solid framework for describing and dissecting narrative structure; Kollns Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects (1991), which focuses primarily on the function of particular syntactic structures in the style process. None of these works, however, deals specifically or substantively with textual analysis above the sentence level, which seems to point to a shortcoming in most approaches to the analysis of literary style. Raymond Chapman noted in 1973, "In fact stylistics, whatever style is being investigated, cannot proceed very far without recognition of units above the sentence.... The main reason why comparatively little work has been done on discourse is the difficulty of creating linguistic models from which a kind of grammar of discourse could emerge" (100-101). One writer who attempted such a model was Walker Gibson, whose Tough, Sweet, and Stuffy: An Essay on Modern American Prose Styles (1966) and Persona: A Style Study for Readers and Writers (1969) presented a systematic approach to the teaching of prose style. Both works contain excellent coverage of the voices or masks that writers assume and of the changing roles of the writer relative to text and audience, and both offer an array of syntactic and rhetorical categories that position the writer within or outside the discourse domain. Gibsons treatment of style and of textual interlocutors--reader, writer, and characters--was invaluable in the construction of this writers approach to the analysis of 19th-century humor analysis, but we are moving in different orbits around these texts. Gibsons aim was to provide readers and writers with the structural wherewithal to recognize and create different voices for different purposes; I seek to explain the rhetorical and comedic effects of drastically contrasting styles that coexist within the same discourse cluster, be it sentence, paragraph, or entire episode, and I seek to establish this style mixing as an essential defining element of much American humor written during the last century.
This view that commingling language styles are central to humor writing of this period assumes this fundamental difference between 19th-century British and American literary texts: words found within quotation marks--that is, characters speech--in American-authored works play a greater expository role in advancing the text to the reader and in moving the reader into the text. Speech found in much American literature defines the geographic, the social, the temporal, even the moral space in which characters are placed, and American writers far more than British writers have attempted to recreate these identifying sounds of speech. Whereas the narrator--that is, that portion of the text lying outside the quotation marks--serves as the readers primary source of information in most British literary works written during the past two centuries, characters speech in American literature--the quoted passages--often assumes a narrators role, providing readers with the sounds, cadence, and extemporaneous quality of spoken language as well as providing them with critical information about people and events. In a number of American literary texts, spoken lines are not merely "said"; indeed, readers dont just read the story, they listen in on the characters conversations, gleaning personal information from their speech.. As much as anything else, this gives American literature a distinctively oral and audible quality.
An analysis of this dialect-rich literature reveals a remarkable stylistic opposition in 19th-century humor writing: the narrator, typically represented as text outside the quotation marks, is hyper literate, metadiscursive, linguistically self-aware; by contrast, the characters, whose textual presence is within the quotation marks, are plain-spoken, rhetorically ingenuous, unassuming. Narrator and characters, whose words and passages mingle and merge within the text, actually end up at opposite ends of a discourse continuum, creating a stylistic schizophrenia that serves as the basis for the humor and comedic appeal of many works written during the several decades leading up to and following the American Civil War. The fancy discourse of the narrator I call grandiloquence, the plain language of characters I label orality. The table below lists salient structural and rhetorical features of these two voices.
FEATURES OF ORALITY
FEATURES OF GRANDILOQUENCE
Several of the items listed in the orality column derive from Poulsens insightful description of Appalachian tale-telling and mountain speech (59-79, ff.). The elements of grandiloquence are mine and derive from a fairly extensive examination of 19th-century Old Southwest humor writers. This list of features is by no means comprehensive, as other stylistic characteristics doubtless appear in humor works of this period. In addition, we would hardly expect to find all of these features in any single text, but my reading of a number of 19th-century humorists confirms that many of these oral and grandiloquent features coalesce in these texts and account for much, even most, of their farcical and comedic content. It should be noted also that orality and grandiloquence are dichotomous but not antithetical; that is, they oppose one another but are not opposites, and their simultaneity of contrasts produces a richly ironic, stylistically schizophrenic complementarity that serves as the defining element of a significant portion of humor writing during this period.
The opening paragraphs of "Swallowing an Oyster Alive," a short humorous story written in 1844 by John S. Robb, help reveal this.
At a late hour, the other night, the door of an oyster house in our city was thrust open, and in stalked a hero from the Sucker state. He was quite six feet high, spare, somewhat stooped, with a hungry, anxious countenance, and his hands pushed clear down to the bottom of his breeches pockets. His outer covering was hard to define, but after surveying it minutely, we came to the conclusion that his suit had been made in his boyhood, of a dingy yellow linsey-wolsey, and that, having sprouted up with astonishing rapidity, he had been forced to piece it out with all colours, in order to keep pace with his body. In spite of his exertions, however, he had fallen in arrears about a foot of the necessary length, and, consequently, stuck that far through his inexpressibles. His crop of hair was surmounted by the funniest little seal-skin cap imaginable. After taking a position, he indulged in a long stare at the man opening the bivalves, and slowly ejaculated -- "isters?"
"Yes sir," responded the attentive operator, "and fine ones they are too."
"Well, Ive heard of isters afore," says he, "but that is the fust time Ive seedm, and pre-haps Ill know what thar made of afore I git out of town." (Reprinted in Cohen and Dillingham 143.)
The pieces humor derives from a number of obvious situational elements, including an outlandish character garbed in equally outlandish costume who, we learn when we read farther in the story, becomes the unwitting dupe of some innocuous chicanery. But what about language-based sources of humor which were mentioned above? How do orality and grandiloquence figure into this equation? This interplay between orality and grandiloquence and its comedic role in 19th-century humor writing becomes obvious when the passage is bifurcated into narrators and characters columns.
At a late hour, the other night, the door of an oyster house in our city was thrust open, and in stalked a hero from the Sucker state. He was quite six feet high, spare, somewhat stooped, with a hungry, anxious countenance, and his hands pushed clear down to the bottom of his breeches pockets. His outer covering was hard to define, but after surveying it minutely, we came to the conclusion that his suit had been made in his boyhood, of a dingy yellow linsey-wolsey, and that, having sprouted up with astonishing rapidity, he had been forced to piece it out with all colours, in order to keep pace with his body. In spite of his exertions, however, he had fallen in arrears about a foot of the necessary length, and, consequently, stuck that far through his inexpressibles. His crop of hair was surmounted by the funniest little seal-skin cap imaginable. After taking a position, he indulged in a long stare at the man opening the bivalves, and slowly ejaculated--
responded the attentive operator,
"Yes sir," [ ] "and fine ones they are too."
"Well, Ive heard of isters afore," [ ] "but that is the fust time Ive seedm, and pre-haps Ill know what thar made of afore I git out of town."
We are immediately struck by vast differences in voice and style between a hyper articulate narrator and plain-speaking yokels in an oyster house. Even more interesting are the stylistic changes within the narrators texts, shifts that cannot be accounted for through conventional contrasts of formal/informal discourse or written/spoken styles. When these extreme registers collide, which they are wont to do within and across nearly every paragraph in this story, a distinct comic voice emerges. A bifurcated continuation of Robbs story reveals even more about this grandiloquent/orality connection.
Having expressed this desperate intention, he cautiously approached the plate and scrutinized the uncased shell-fish with a gravity and interest what would have done honour to the most illustrious searcher into the hidden mysteries of nature. At length he began to soliloquize on the difficulty of getting them out, and how queer they looked when out.
A wag, who was standing by indulging in a dozen, winked to the attendant
to shell out, and the offer was accepted
The bargain being fairly understood, our Sucker squared himself for the onset; deliberately put off his seal-skin, tucked up his sleeves, and, fork in hand, awaited the appearance of No. 1. It came--he saw--and quickly it was bolted! A moments dreadful pause ensued. The wag dropped his knife and fork with a look of mingled amazement and horror--something akin to Shakespeares Hamlet on seeing his daddys ghost--while he burst into the exclamation--
"I never seed any thin hold on so--takes an amazin site
of screwin, hoss, to get em out, and aint they slick and slipry when
they does come out? Smooth as an eel! Ive a good mind to give that feller
lodgin, just to realize the effects, as uncle Jess used to say about
"Two bits!" [ ] "now come, thats stickin it on rite strong, hoss, for isters. A dozen of em aint nothin to a chicken, and theres no gettin moren a picayune a piece for them. Ive only realized forty-five picayunes on my first ventur to St. Louis. Ill tell you what, Ill gin you two chickens for a dozen, if youll conclude to deal."
"Now mind," [ ] "all fair--two chickens for a dozen--youre a witness, mister," [ ] "none of your tricks, for Ive heard that your city fellers are mity slipry coons."
"Swallowed alive, as Im a Christian."
Several things in the "Oyster" passage are worth noting here. Because the narrators voice makes up the bulk of the text, grandiloquence predominates, and we see many of its features contained in this excerpt. Highfalutin words and phrasings--"anxious countenance," "surveying minutely," "scrutinized," "soliloquize"--jangle playfully against a burlesque, rough-and-tumble frontier setting, and stylistically opposed collocations--the narrators "ejaculated" with the rube characters "isters" and the allusion to Hamlets "daddy"--help give the writing its texture. Virtually every sentence from the narrator is complex or contains a sentence imbedding; by contrast, characters sentences, even those uttered by the non-comic operator, are overwhelmingly simple or are joined by coordinating elements. Moreover, one cannot help but notice the description of the rubes clothing, exaggerated as much by its detail and analogy as by its sinuous syntax.
Clearly, however, the deliberate, dramatic juxtaposition of grandiloquence with oral situational factors and discourse (item #8 listed above in the Grandiloquence column) lies at the heart of Robbs humor, and his "Swallowing an Oyster Alive" exemplifies ideally my contention that simultaneity of orality and grandiloquence is the defining stylistic feature of 19th-century American humor writing. Robbs narrator in the story spins a homefolk yarn but the idiom is anything but homefolk vernacular as he melds hyper colloquial and hyper literate expression and cloaks ordinary people and situations in extraordinary verbal garb. Without this uniting of top and bottom registers the humor becomes topic- or situation-based, but when highbrow and down-home styles co-occur, as they do in this and in so many other pieces from this period, language is the humor. Indeed, a stylistic examination of some of the principal humor writers of the period, including Robb, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, George Washington Harris, David Ross Locke (P. V. Nasby), George Washington Cable, and Mark Twain bears this out.
Longstreets "The Horse Swap" (1835) provides a classic example of the sort of Southern humor that appeared in books and gazettes until the Civil War. The story line is simple enough, involving a swindler being outswindled in a horse trade. The excerpted passage below is the narrators description of the braggart horse-swapper gallivanting about the town.
...I observed a young man riding up and down the street, as I supposed, in a violent passion. He galloped this way, then that, and then the other. Spurred his horse to one group or citizens, then to another. Then dashed off at half speed, as if fleeing from danger and suddenly checking his horse, returned--first in a pace, then in a trot, and then in a canter. When he was performing these various evolutions, he cursed, swore, whooped, screamed, and tossed himself in every attitude which man could assume on horse back. In short, he cavorted most magnanimously (a term which, in our tongue, expresses all that I have described, and a little more) and seemed to be setting all creation at defiance. As I like to see all that is passing, I determined to take a position a little nearer to him, and to ascertain if possible, what it was that affected him so sensibly. Accordingly I approached a crowd before which he had stopt for a moment, and examined it with the strictest scrutiny.... (Cohen and Dillingham 30-31)
At the onset of the passage, Longstreet is clearly in an oral register: the sentences are short, simple, almost staccato-like, as though the narrator is a play-by-play announcer. In fact, nothing in the word choice or structure of the first three sentences suggests that language will figure at all into the storys humor. But readers funny bones are tickled in the next sentence when the situationally haughty phrase "performing those various evolutions" collocates with "cursed, swore, whooped, screamed...", and the language play moves into full swing in the next sentence with "cavorted magnanimously" and the metalinguistic parenthetical clause that follows. Unlike the narrator in Robbs text, whose voice remains virtually locked in an elevated register, Longstreet chooses to punctuate his narrators largely oral style with bits and pieces of grandiloquence, and he does so to great humorous advantage.
The next passage from Longstreets "The Horse Swap," a description of the tail of a horse named Bullet, is one of the outstanding examples of 19th-century American humor writing and illustrates as well as any text written in the period the hugely comic effect of circumlocution and infinitesimal detail.
Bullets tail, however, made amends for all his defects. All that the artist could do to beautify it, had been done; and all that horse could do to compliment the artist, Bullet did. His tail was nicked in superior style, and exhibited the line of beauty in so many directions, that it could not fail to hit the most fastidious taste in some of them. From the root it dropt into a graceful festoon; then rose in a handsome curve; then resumed its first direction; and then mounted suddenly upwards like a cypress knee to a perpendicular of about two and a half inches. The whole had a careless and bewitching inclination to the right. Bullet obviously knew where his beauty lay, and took all occasions to display it to the best advantage. If a stick cracked, or if any one moved suddenly about him, or coughed, or hawked, or spoke a little louder than common, up went Bullets tail like lightning; and if the going up did not please, the coming down must of necessity, for it was as different from the other movement, as was its direction. The first, was a bold and rapid flight upward; usually to an angle of forty-five degrees. In this position he kept his interesting appendage, until he satisfied himself that nothing in particular was to be done; when he commenced dropping it by half inches, in second beats--then in triple time--then faster and shorter, and faster and shorter still; until it finally died away imperceptibly into its natural position. If I might compare sights to sounds, I should say, its settling, was more like the note of a locust than anything else in nature. (Cohen and Dillingham 32)
Particularly interesting is the kinetic effect of the description of the movement of Bullets tail in the fourth sentence beginning, "From the root it dropt...". The stop-and-go semicolon punctuation and terse phrasing yanks us through the movements, forcing us to shift directions as the tail bounces first downward, then up, then down again before inching back up; in essence, the syntax "wags" the reader in tempo and in tandem with Bullets bobbing caudal appendage. Similarly, Longstreets pacing of detail and his periodic clause structures produce the same perlocutionary kinesis several sentences later as the author returns to his description of the stirring movements of the horses tail. But it is the authors subtle and not-so-subtle weaving of grandiloquent elements--particularly those involving sentence structure and exaggerated detail--into an overwhelmingly oral discourse venue that forms the basis of the pieces humor and that accounts for Longstreets mastery of this genre.
Certainly the best-known dialect writer of the 19th century to meld orality and grandiloquence in humor writing was Mark Twain, with perhaps the best-known character being the king in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Bombastic malapropism gave the king his respectability in the eyes and ears of the illiterate audiences who saw his Shakespearean theatrical antics; indeed, without this verbal arsenal, the king was impotent. Yet other writers also combined orality and grandiloquence with nearly equal effectiveness. George Washington Harriss "Parson John Bullens Lizards" (ca. 1854) offers a peek into the swaggering, pretentious nature of an illiterate country parson who announces a reward for Sut Lovingood, the anti-hero in many of Harriss comic pieces:
This kash wil be pade in korn, ur uther projuce...fur the karkus ove a sartin wun SUT LOVINGOOD, dead or alive, ur ailin, an safely give over tu the purtectin care ove Parson John Bullen, ur lef well tied, at Squire Mackjunkins, fur the raisin ove the devil pussonely, an permiskusly discumfurtin the wimen very powerful,an skeerin ove folks generly a heap, an bustin up a promisin, big warm meetin, an a makin the wickid larf, an wus, an wus, insultin ove the passun orful. (Cohen and Dillingham 162)
The passage illustrates a particular challenge that dialect writers face in integrating features of grandiloquence and orality when characters basic levels of speech are so low. Harris, like most other writers of his ilk, can only lightly season their folksy, unlettered banter with an unexpected Latinate word here or an unmanageable circumlocution there, but that is usually sufficient.
A richer combination of grandiloquence and orality can be found in the writings of David Ross Locke, whose nom-de-plume miscreant Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby satirized post-bellum Southern bumpkin politicians opposed to Reconstruction and the reuniting of the South and North. Labeled by Locke himself as "a sort of nickel-plated son of a bitch" as well as "an ignoramus, a hypocrite, a sluggard, an alcoholic, a coward, a bigamist, a thief, a corrupt politician, and a traitor," (Blair and McDavid 144-145), Nasby was worthy of neither respect nor humor, but his verbal forays into grandiloquence--usually in the form of mispronunciations, malapropisms, and overblown diction-- endowed him with his sardonic appeal. In a short piece called "Why He Should Not Be Drafted" (1861?), which satirized men who were dodging the military draft by concocting bogus illness, Nasby wrote:
I see in the papers last night the Government has instituted a draft.... I know not what others may do, but...I cant go. Upon a rigid examination of my fizzleckle man, I find it would be...madness for me to undertake a campaign, to wit: [...] I have a chronic catarrh. [...] My teeth is all unsound; my palate aint exactly right, and I have had bronchitis 31 years last June. At present I have a cough, the paroxysms of which is frightful to behold. [...] I am afflicted with chronic diarrhea and costiveness. The money I have paid (or promised to pay for Jaynes carminative balsam and pills would astonish almost anyone. [...] I dont suppose that my political opinions, which are aginst the prosecution of this unconstooshnel war, would have any weight, with a draft officer. But the above reasons why I cant go, will, I make no doubt, be sufficient. (Blair and McDavid 146-147)
To a modern audience, such a harangue comes across as rhetorically unappealing and even vulgar, but Nasbys sprinkling of arcane medical terminology into this vinegary peroration was just the stylistic ticket for his readership.
Not all humor writers were able to meld high and low styles with textually satisfying results. An example of such rhetorical failure is found in this passage from Charles Chesnutts "The Conjurers Revenge" (1889). This tale, like so many of Chesnutts other humor works, juxtaposes a hyper literate white property owner and a venerable but illiterate ex-slave named Uncle Julius. The white mans speech always begins and ends the stories and serves as a framing device for Uncle Juliuss tale, which is always expressed in deep dialect.
...One Sunday afternoon in early spring--the balmy spring of North Carolina, when the air is in that ideal balance between heat and cold where one wishes it would always remain--my wife and I were seated on the front piazza, she wearily but conscientiously plowing through a missionary report, while I followed the impossible career of the blonde heroine of a rudimentary novel. I had thrown the book aside in disgust, when I saw Julius coming through the yard, under the spreading elms, which were already in full leaf. He wore his Sunday clothes, and advanced with a dignity of movement quite different from his week-day slouch.
"Have a seat, Julius," I said, pointing to an empty rocking chair.
"No, thanky, boss. Ill just set here on the top step."
"Oh, no, Uncle Julius," exclaimed Annie. "Take this chair. You will find it much more comfortable."
The old man grinned in appreciation of her solicitude, and seated himself somewhat awkwardly.
Two paragraphs later, the white man continues the conversation:
"...I think Ill get a mule; a mule can do more work, and doesnt require as much attention as a horse."
"I wouldnt vise you to buy no mule," remarked Julius, with a jerk of his head.
"Well, you may low hits all foolishness, but if I was in your place I wouldnt buy no mule."
"But that isnt a reason; what objections have you to a mule?"
"Fact is," continued the old man in a serious tone, "I dont like to drive a mule. Is allus afeared I might be imposin on some human creetur. Evy time I cuts a mule with a hickory, pears to me most likely Is cuttin some of my own relations, or somebody else what cant hep theyseves."
"What put such an absurd idea into your head?" I asked.
My question was followed by a short silence, during which Julius seemed engaged in a mental struggle. (Blair and McDavid 220-221)
What is wrong here? Chesnutt was an adept storyteller, and his representation of Southern creolized plantation speech places him in the upper echelon of American dialect writers, but his non-dialect speech falls woefully short. There is no discursive linkage of characters, and the two men, through their stylistically monolithic speech, remain at opposite ends of the oral-grandiloquent spectrum. To be sure, humor abounds in this tale, but it is all encapsulated within the spoken text of Uncle Julius. Speech has riven the characters, placing them in mutually exclusive discursive worlds. Chesnutts failure here is that oral and grandiloquent features never combine in the speech of either character. There is none of the stylistic jostling seen in the writings of Robb, Longstreet, Harris, Locke, Twain, and others, and the humor relies totally on situational elements. Readers lose all sympathy, if they had any, for the narrator, and yet Chesnutts failure to make Julius a true man of words vis-a-vis the white property owner rhetorically emasculates the old ex-slave.
To date, neither 19th-century nor 20th-century humor texts have been objects of much serious stylistic investigation. For contemporary texts, which derive their humor almost completely from content or socio-political context, such lack of scholarly attention might be understandable. For these comic gems of the last century, however, this failure to appreciate the centrality of language in literary humor is no small analytical oversight. Indeed, while character and situation contribute to the farcical delight of writers during this first golden age of American humor, their true creative genius lies in their sportive commingling or orality and grandiloquence.
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