In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Frontier Humor

  • Introduction
  • Critics, Scholars, and General Sources
  • Indian Humor and Trickster Stories
  • Humor in Various Media Portrayals Concerning Indians
  • Mormon Humor
  • Cowboy Humor
  • Maritime Humor

American Literature Frontier Humor
David Sloane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0137


The idea of a special “native” American humor has flourished since the early 1800s when the divergence of American themes and subject matter became apparent as the restraints of the Augustan comic style of British and European writers were overwhelmed by the vulgar language and characters of the backwoods Jacksonian democracy. New subjects abounded as the woodlands and small villages brought out new cultural artifacts and unique American behaviors and incidents. Even then, numerous frontiers, including the colonial, tidewater, Appalachian, and Western Reserve—not to mention French Canadian and Nova Scotian which are largely outside the scope here—had been opened, breached, and closed, as western European immigration drove through the eastern states into tribal lands in the Midwest and Southwest and over the Mississippi. Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” in 1893 provided a landmark definition of the frontier, based solely on population density, with the announcement that the “frontier” in the continental United States Census had officially been closed in 1890, at which time no continuous tracts of land represented the wild line where “civilization” met undefined free territory. Indians, characterized as savages by white pundits like Turner, did not figure in this equation in any significant way, although they represented one of the forces that made American culture unique, especially as a “frontier” culture, as it moved ever further from European influences. Such a cultural history seems a dubious platform on which to perch a scholarly bibliography, but, be that as it may, American literary historians have been struggling to assert the uniqueness of American humor for many generations, although various antecedents in European folk literature are often cited. In order to understand why some redefinition is crucial, one need only read Bliss Perry’s chapter “Humor and Satire” in his The American Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912, pp. 166–208) which manages to assess the American urge to satire, exaggeration, and human sympathy without mentioning the frontier or southwestern humorists, even though mentioning in passing the regions and pioneer traits (195–197) and acknowledging Mark Twain’s importance (while regretting the occasional vulgarity that sometimes remains from his regional experience). Walter Blair’s Native American Humor (New York: American Book Company, 1937), which has rightfully held its place as the definitive anthology of American humor, throws the net wide and misses little, except that it was originally limited to the period 1800–1900, thereby largely avoiding questions of frontier humor in the old Yankee Northeast, the former middle colonies, and the Spanish Southwest, West, and Florida. Blair himself recognized a wider array of humor in other works, although the stress on “native” elements filtered out many worthy American comic writers who deserved more recognition, especially writers about urban subjects, immigrant dialects, and various genteel and domestic matters. We no longer assume that early humor, or more “literary” humor, was necessarily derivative, and present resources allow us to further develop and broaden a field that may be less narrowly focused and predictable than might have once seemed to be the case. Preceding Blair’s work in defining the genre of American humor, some substantial anthologies offered a wider range of sources, including works by W. E. Burton, A. R. Spofford, and Mark Twain assisted by W. D. Howells. In the post-20th-century critical reappraisal, other categories—including urban frontier humor, Indian humor, Maritime Humor, and a variety of other comic subcultures with “frontier” traits—are a useful broadening of the once-serviceable definition by Turner in 1893, as unique descriptors, language, and representations of comic behavior reflect “frontier” democratizing forces. Four undergraduate students responded to the challenge of locating resources to add to this bibliography, including Amelia Gustafson and Matthew Wozniak of the University of New Haven and G. Andrew Reynolds (who provided all the resources for Mormon Humor) and Austin Fuller of Charter Oak State College.

Critics, Scholars, and General Sources

Blair 1942, Rourke 1931, and Tandy 1925 establish the values across the wide spectrum of frontier comedy nationally. Botkin 1944 and Dorson 1959 bring the crucial perspective of folklore and folk culture to round out the ethical and cultural concerns involved. Royot 2010, Smith 1946, and Trachtenberg 1982 identify significant individual authors and provide details which make them accessible for further study.

  • Blair, Walter. Horse Sense in American Humor: From Benjamin Franklin to Ogden Nash. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

    Blair presents humor as “the literature of the people” from Davy Crockett to Artemus Ward to Bill Nye. This approach allows him to cover frontier myths like Davy Crockett and also discuss J. R. Lowell as a Yankee in Homespun, Samantha Allen and Josh Billings, and a wide array of humorists colored by pragmatism, vibrant outsize action, and popular language.

  • Botkin, B. A., ed. A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads and Traditions of the People. New York: Crown, 1944.

    Carl Sandburg’s brief preface justly praises the gloom-chasers in Botkin’s “boxcar” full of jokes, pranks, killers, backwoods boasters, miracle men and more, who populated the American frontier and broke the way for the modern America that came after. As always in Botkin, all the material is sourced, suggesting a wealth of further resources.

  • Dorson, Richard M. American Folklore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

    “The Rise of Native Folk Humor,” “Regional Folk Cultures,” and “The Negro,” among other chapters of this collection, and analyses of myriad comic artifacts, make this a valuable introduction to the wide array of comic experiences dealt with as native frontier comedy.

  • Rourke, Constance. American Humor: A Study of the National Character. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931.

    Rourke’s early study of humor as a representation of American character joined themes of Yankee humor, the humor of the frontier, and Negro minstrels—through Whitman, James, and others—to the contemporary period of her writing. Her work is one of the building blocks of the study of American literary culture derived from frontier experience.

  • Royot, Daniel. “How the West was Spoofed: Manifest Rascality and Revels with a Cause, From Yankee Humorists to the Literary Comedians and Mark Twain.” Studies in American Humor, New Series 3.22 (2010): 155–177.

    The brilliant French scholar connects the Yankee vision to decades of westward expansion including Seba Smith, J. R. Lowell, G. H. Derby, Matthew Whittier, Mark Twain, and Bill Nye.

  • Smith, C. Alphonso. “Dialect Writers.” In The Cambridge History of American Literature. 3 vols. Edited by William Trent, Carl van Doren, John Erskine, and Stuart Sherman, 347–366. New York: Macmillan, 1946.

    This chapter (in Volume 2, Prose Writing, 1820–1865) offers worthwhile insights into black dialect humor and other aspects of the humor of the South and the frontier. Originally published in 1917 (New York: Putnam).

  • Tandy, Jennette. Crackerbox Philosophers in American Humor and Satire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1925.

    One of the original critical studies of the pragmatic humor of American frontier and local writers. Tandy begins with the Yankee “Jonathan” and Seba Smith, A. J. Davis, and T. C. Haliburton before moving to the development of southern humor, the Civil War, and later funny men and philosophers.

  • Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed. American Humorists, 1800–1950. 2 vols. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1982.

    This major resource includes careful biographies, with bibliographies, of many humorists in this area of interest. Four useful essays on regional humor complete Volume 2.

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