Emerson’s essay reassesses representative texts of the popular antebellum tradition known as Old Southwestern Humor—among them Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes (1835), Johnson Jones Hooper’s Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845), and George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood: Yarns Spun by a Durn’d Fool (1867)— arguing for a new point of departure from the level of locality and with special attention to democratic decision making. Most nation-oriented readings portray the humor of the Old Southwest either as a regional subset supplementing nationalization via print culture or as reactionary polemics rejecting the impingements of nation, market capitalism, urbanization, or modernity. This essay, instead, reads these fictions in terms of locality and for their articulations of alternative democratic socialities. These socialities, Emerson argues, evidence local decision making existing alongside or outside the abstracting, normalizing tendencies of elitist republican ideology; they are unreceptive to traditional social hierarchies and civic institutions that supplement the Constitutionally managed nation-state; and they often engage in a more radical version of democracy characterized by dialogical negotiations in immediate spaces and temporalities. Unyoked from the nation and its norms, these local episodes yield an unexpected trove of alternative democratic positions in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to new readings of the primary texts, Emerson concludes with some consideration of their circulation in print culture across the country and their subsequent impact on democracy in the national imaginary.
D. Berton Emerson; “It’s Good to Be Shifty”: The Local Democracies of Old Southwestern Humor. American Literature 1 June 2013; 85 (2): 273–301. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2079161
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