Southwestern Humor in 19th Century American Literature
During the period of 1830-1860, a new genre in America literature has emerged, which is called the Southwestern Humor genre. This new form of literature illustrates and discusses issues and themes that are depicted effectively through humor and exaggeration. Technically defined, Southwestern Humor is identified as "a name given to a tradition of regional sketches and tales based in the 'old South-West': Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas." This genre is also characterized by its use of the following thematic elements: "tall tales, thick regional dialect, ironic humor, and a tradition of tricksterism in... stories and sketches" (Campbell 2003).
Aside from the characteristics enumerated above, Southwestern Humor is also remarkable in its ability to effectively mirror the social landscape of the Southwestern region of the United States. In the study and analysis of Southwestern Humor genre, important themes that can be found are the social, political, and psychological illustrations and portrayals in the story, all of which are reflections of the writer's perception of his or her society during the period where this genre has flourished. Take as an example the work of Thomas Bangs Thorpe, entitled, "The Big Bear of Arkansas." This short story focus on Jim Doggett, who earned the title of "The Big Bear of Arkansas" because of his extraordinary skill in hunting bears. The story tackles the themes of the protagonist's affinity with nature, the rural and natural life and Arkansas, and the conflict between nature and civilization. This paper will discuss these three themes in accordance to its social, political, and psychological perspectives. Thus, this paper will set out to prove that the short story "The Big Bear of Arkansas" by Thomas Bangs Thorpe is a story that illustrates the following: (1) the social issues of rural life and conflict between civilization and development and nature; (2) the political orientation of Arkansas as a rural society; and (3) the character portrayal of Jim Doggett as an individual who has close affinity with nature.
The first theme, which mirrors the social landscape that is portrayed in the story, illustrates the theme of rural life and conflict between civilization and nature. In Southwestern Humor literature, it is important to determine the social context of the story because through the social analysis of the text, one will be able to discern the "issues of power, class, etc., reflection of American social values and attitudes, and functions as 'therapy' for humans living in societies" (SDSM&T 2003). In the short story, the theme of preference or rural over urban life is evident in Thorpe's portrayal of his characters in the story. The introductory paragraphs of the story show how the author favors rural life and society over urbanism in the following passage from the story: "Here may be seen, jostling together, the wealthy Southern planter and the pedler of tin-ware from New England the Northern merchant and the Southern jockey a venerable bishop, and a desperate gambler the land speculator, and the honest farmer professional men of all creeds... beside a "plentiful sprinkling" of the half-horse and half-alligator species of men, who are peculiar to 'old Mississippi'..." This illustrates how people from the South are depicted as hardworking people while the people from the North are capitalists who does not possess good virtues, and are referred to as "half-horse and half-alligator species" in the story in contrast to the "wealthy," "venerable," and "honest" people from the South.
The second theme in the story that illustrated the social situation of the characters in the story shows the conflict that occurs between nature and human civilization and development. In the story, Jim Doggett as the protagonist reflects Thorpe's thoughts about nature and the goodness of a simple life communing with nature. In his narrative of his life as a hunter of bears in Arkansas, Jim Doggett explains how bear-hunting is a preferable industry over planting in Arkansas. Doggett describes the physical environment of Arkansas as a place where the "the sile is too rich, and planting in Arkansaw is dangerous." Instead, Doggett best describes the state as a place for hunting ("... natur intended Arkansaw for a hunting ground, and I go according to natur").
These passages are best examples that show how Arkansas is defined by nature as a place where hunting thrives and planting is futile. Hunting and planting are both symbols of the social progress that human civilization has undergone for many years. Hunting is a symbol for man's primitive nature, while planting is equated with progress (as man learned to live a sedentary life). Thus, Thorpe illustrates Arkansas as a place where nature takes control instead of human civilization and wherein hunting and leading a 'primitive life' with nature is still evident through Jim Doggett's character. Doggett's failure to plant crops in his place illustrates how progress did not develop in Arkansas. In effect, because of the underdevelopment of urbanism, the state remained one of the 'primitive' regions in America where humans are one with nature.
The second theme that will be discussed and analyzed is through the political and historical perspective of the short story. The historical/political theme in Thorpe's short story shows how Arkansas is depicted as a rural state, yet, "looming large" over her contemporaries (other states). The story also uses the symbol of the bear representing Arkansas as the natural and big state. One particular narrative in Jim Doggett's story is his description of Arkansas: "Arkansaw is large, her varmints ar large, her trees ar large, her rivers ar large, and a small mosquito would be of no more use in Arkansaw than preaching in a cane-brake." This passage presents the characteristic of Southwestern Humor literature, wherein the use of the "tall tale tradition" (use of exaggerated stories) and earthy language are evident (Campbell 2003). The extreme qualities Doggett assign to Arkansas shows how the state dominates over the other states, perceiving the place as the 'leader' among all the states of the country.
Indeed, the greatness of the Arkansas state parallels with Thorpe's superior regard of it because of its rural life and society, which the author approves of. Furthermore, Arkansas' dominating character is further reiterated through the use of the bear character as a symbol that represents the state. In fact, the very basis of the short story shows Arkansas and its social, political, and historical tradition through the character of the 'bear.' This point is well-discussed by Fred Williams in his analysis in the "Arkansas Historical Quarterly": "Thorpe pictured the "bear of Arkansas" as a larger than life symbol for frontier society-of which Arkansas was the best example. The "Big Bear," larger than any on record, was hunted... In a land of natural abundance" (1980). It is evident that the state of Arkansas assumes a dual role in Thorpe's short story: one being the character of the bear, signifying the natural environment of the state, and the second role is through Jim Doggett's ("The Big Bear") character, as the man who finds close affinity with nature and practices the 'primitive' life and industry of hunting.
The most important character in the story is Jim Doggett, otherwise known as "The Big Bear of Arkansas." Thorpe utilizes Doggett's character in a number of ways, in which he is both illustrated as a symbol of nature and primitive or urban living in the Arkansas setting. The discussion of Jim Doggett's character is an essential perspective to be explored because this is where the story gains it strength and remarkable quality, that is, through Thorpe's portrayal of Doggett as a "mighty hunter." The concept of the "mighty hunter" is an essential quality in most Southwestern Humor literary pieces, and in which the "mighty hunter" possesses the qualities of being a "braggart" through his tall tales and proud manner of narrating his experiences and stories to his audience.
In the story, Jim Doggett as the primary character is described as "... The character of the mighty hunter will transform from a representative of the new American frontiersman into a representative of the diminishing southwestern frontier" (Univ. Of Virginia Library 2003). Jim Doggett is indeed portrayed as the Arkansas "representative" in which he advocates and lives a life of rural and simple living and assumes the role of a 'hunter,' a role that is symbolically and literally used in the story. His being a hunter is literally meant by his bear-hunting activities while the symbolic meaning of Doggett's role as hunter signifies the character's acceptance and preference of rural, even 'primitive,' living as opposed to urban development.
Jim Doggett's preference of rural over urban life shows how Thorpe created his character as being in 'affinity' with nature. In fact, if the readers of Thorpe's story will observe, Doggett personifies nature itself, as is evident in his lifestyle and opinion about his life as a bear-hunter. One of the remarkable events that show how Doggett closely relates himself with nature is his affinity with the bear with…