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Rowdy Tales from Early Alabama: The Humor of John Gorman Barr

Rowdy Tales from Early Alabama: The Humor of John Gorman Barr

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Rowdy Tales from Early Alabama: The Humor of John Gorman Barr

Longueur:
307 pages
4 heures
Sortie:
Sep 7, 2014
ISBN:
9780817388713
Format:
Livre

Description

The rollicking tales of Old Southwestern humor were a distinctive contribution to American folk culture provided by the frontiersmen of the South and Southwest, a tradition brought to its highest form in the work of Mark Twain. Among the precursors of Twain was John Gorman Barr of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Like Twain, Barr grew up in a river town, worked in a printing office, and traveled widely; and again like Twain, Barr drew upon the people and places of his home region as the primary sources for his tales.

In addition to the pure entertainment Barr’s stories provide, they also furnish a comprehensive picture of Tuscaloosa and western Alabama in the 1850s—the roaring river town coexisting uneasily with the intellectual sophistication of the recently established University of Alabama.


Sortie:
Sep 7, 2014
ISBN:
9780817388713
Format:
Livre

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Rowdy Tales from Early Alabama - John Gorman Barr

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Preface

As published in the New York Spirit of the Times and Porter's Spirit of the Times, John Gorman Barr's stories are full of irregular and archaic spellings, many deliberately used for comic effect. In addition, there are numerous apparent typesetting errors affecting both spelling and punctuation. In comic writing (and especially in dialect writing) it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between intentional and unintentional errors. In editing Barr's stories for this volume, therefore, I have allowed Barr and the original typesetters to have their way in matters of spelling, even when I was certain that many of the irregularities were typesetters’ goofs that Barr himself, were he here to help us, would be the first to correct. In matters of punctuation, however, I have taken the liberty of silently amending some of the more outlandish errors, here and there in several of the stories, so as to render the passages involved a bit more consistent with their contexts. In so doing, I have limited myself to the most obvious of the typesetters’ errors, as found, for example, in the original printing of Piscatory Reflections and Reminiscences, where we read:

One daguerreotype, (male;) two finger-rings, (gold alloy;) one lady's hair-bracelet, (male and female hair intermixed;) one Book of Common Prayer, (much worn about the marriage-service ceremony;) one album, (filled with selections from the standard poets, above all sorts of signatures;) and one MS. poem, (delivered on a fourth-of-July celebration by E. G.)

As silently amended, the passage reads:

One daguerreotype (male), two finger-rings (gold alloy), one lady's hair-bracelet (male and female hair intermixed), one Book of Common Prayer (much worn about the marriage-service ceremony), one album (filled with selections from the standard poets, above all sorts of signatures), and one MS. poem (delivered on a fourth-of-July celebration by E. G.).

Although all of Barr's stories reveal something of everyday life in the antebellum South, they are not all of equal quality; four of them stand out as especially appealing because of their historical and literary merit. These are: Old Charley's Impromptu Ride, New York Drummer's Ride to Greensboro', John Bealle's Accident—or, How the Widow Dudu Treated Insanity, and Relief for Ireland! or, John Brown's Bad Luck With His Pickled Beef.

I wish to express my appreciation to Mrs. Joyce Lamont and others on the staff of the William Stanley Hoole Special Collections Library of the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library of The University of Alabama. I did nearly all of my research there, and the staff was always extremely helpful in making the collection's extensive resources available to me. Professors Philip Beidler, Robert Mitchell, and Fred Hobson of The University of Alabama also have my gratitude for their constructive criticisms and suggestions.

Most importantly, I want to thank my father, LaMar Hubbs, for doing the photographic work (a big job) and for his encouragement.

Introduction

Southwestern humor, with its racy, rollicking tales, was a distinctive contribution by America's Southern and Southwestern frontiersmen. Long before Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) set the high watermark for the genre, funny stories were being told and retold throughout the South. Some stories probably originated during the sultry summer evenings when members of the family would relax in their rockers on the porch. Other tales were first told around the campfires of hunters. Stories were retold on the decks of steamboats as they plied the rivers, in stagecoaches as they crossed the land, and in saloons and coffee houses with the good old boys. In time, some of these tales were printed in the local newspapers, which were always hungry for something to print. Some of the amateur humorists submitted their best stories to the popular journals of the day—notably the New York Spirit of the Times and Porter's Spirit of the Times, the latter A Chronicle of the Turf, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage. John Gorman Barr was one such humorist, and some of his stories are among the best examples of Southwestern humor.

An antebellum Alabamian from the Old Southwest, Barr had much in common with other humorists of his day. Like A. B. Longstreet (Georgia Scenes, 1835) and J. J. Hooper (Adventures of Simon Suggs, 1845), he was both a lawyer and a newspaper editor. Like Clemens, Barr grew up in a river town, worked in a printing office, and traveled in foreign lands. And like Clemens’ Hannibal, Missouri, Barr's home town, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was the setting of many of his stories.

But Barr is distinguished from most Southwestern humorists because of the large extent to which the characters and the settings of his stories arose from the real persons and places he knew. Over half of his stories take place in or about his native Tuscaloosa, several tales being set in the taverns and hotels that were the social and political heart of the town. Most of Barr's main characters, and even some of the minor ones, were his neighbors; fortunately, it has been possible to document, through census records, journals, cemetery records, autobiographies, histories, and the like, the important facts about many of Barr's characters. This background is what makes Barr's stories special. He offers both a good laugh and a rich first-hand look at everyday life.

The reader of Barr's stories gets a fairly comprehensive picture of life in Tuscaloosa as Barr knew it. In the 1850s Tuscaloosa was a river town just recovering from the sudden removal of the state capital to Montgomery in 1845. Tuscaloosa had been founded at the Falls of the Black Warrior River and was the most inland port on the Black Warrior. Like Clemens, Barr grew up with stern-wheelers, docks, steamboat captains, and a lazy-moving river as part of his daily life. Among other things, the river traffic, the location of the state capital at Tuscaloosa in 1826, and the establishment of The University of Alabama there in 1831 had all brought prosperity and sophistication to Tuscaloosa. Its citizens were perhaps not typical of many Alabama towns of its size. There were university professors, lawyers, planters, steamboat captains, a large number of doctors, merchants, and former politicians. Some of these people would become characters in Barr's stories.

But Barr wrote principally about the common folk, such as John Brown, an Irish bootmaker whose shop was close to Barr's office. There was also old Charley Patterson, an Irish boniface (tavern keeper) who ran the La Grange House; old Charley could never refrain from practical joking. Jemmy Owen, doorkeeper to the State House of Representatives, figured in several stories; he believed anything and everything he heard. Barr even casually mentions Ned Berry, a free black who, after securing his freedom from slavery, became moderately wealthy through his industry as a wagoner. These characters were not the products of Barr's imagination; rather, they were his personal friends and neighbors.

In many ways, Barr's own life was more colorful than the subjects of his stories. He was born 22 November 1823 in Milton (Caswell County), North Carolina.¹ Soon after John Gorman's birth, the family moved to Raleigh, where Thomas Barr (the father) died in 1826. Mary Jane Gorman Barr took her two children, John Gorman and Martha Margerette, to live in Tuscaloosa in 1835. Mary Jane died soon after reaching Tuscaloosa, and the two children were thus orphaned. Tuscaloosa became Barr's home base for the rest of his life.

Barr's mother had tutored him in his earliest years, but being orphaned at age twelve, he apprenticed himself to a printing office studying and improving himself every spare moment. His industry, fine mind, and unfortunate circumstances attracted the attention of a merchant, David M. Boyd, who got Barr out of the printing office and generously funded him all the way through graduation from The University of Alabama.

Barr's work at the university was outstanding. He was admitted in October 1838 as a freshman, age fourteen, and was graduated three years later. His academic record showed a .99 average in 1841. He then stayed on an extra year to complete his master's degree. While at the university, Barr gave at least four addresses: a speech entitled The Inquisition at the Junior exhibition, 10 July 1840,² the Valedictory Oration at commencement, 15 December 1841, a second speech the same day entitled Popular Superstitions,³ and the Resident Graduate Oration, 13 December 1842, Science and Nature, Handmaids of Revealed Truth.⁴ None of these orations seems to have survived, and perhaps this is just as well, if one judges by a eulogy on Burwell Boykin that Barr delivered in 1857.⁵ (This is the only writing known to be by Barr that is not included in this volume.)

After receiving his master's degree, Barr was hired by The University of Alabama as a tutor in mathematics. W. Stanley Hoole relates in detail the unusual circumstances under which Barr was denied the position of librarian for the university.⁶ Basically Barr seems to have been caught in the middle of an intrafaculty struggle between the president, Basil Manly (later a fiery secessionist Baptist minister), and the secretary of the faculty, Frederick A. P. Barnard (eventually the distinguished president of Columbia College, now University).

It was around this time that Barr studied law under a local attorney, Harvey Ellis, and was admitted to the bar. The office of the clerk of the Alabama Supreme Court states that Barr was admitted to practice on 9 July 1843. (Most other sources also give this date, although his sister, Martha Margerette Barr Gooch, writing in 1907, put the date at 1839—a bit early even for a person of Barr's abilities.) Barr set up his law office in Washington Hall in 1845.

Barr did not limit himself to the practice of law. A Democrat, he ran for the House of Representatives in 1847, but failed to win election. By the fall of 1847, the United States had invaded Mexico, and Barr organized more than a hundred volunteers to fight in the Mexican War. He was unanimously elected their captain and commanded the first contingent of Alabama troops to arrive in Mobile and be accepted for war duty. Barr performed his duties in Mexico well enough to be made a lieutenant-colonel of volunteers, but he did not actually engage in combat. Even so, he was thereafter referred to as Captain Barr or, sometimes, as Colonel Barr.

Upon his return home, the Tuscaloosa Observer noted that he appear[ed], unfortunately, to have forgotten his razor.⁸ Barr was suffering from poor health (rheumatism), and it took him some time to recover. Upon his recovery, he resumed his law practice, opening his office this time above Dr. Searcy's on Market Street (now Greensboro Avenue). Full of energy and interested in writing, Barr also assisted in the publication of the Tuscaloosa Observer, serving as one of its managing editors. The Observer was the local organ of the Democratic Party, and it is frustrating that only a couple of issues from the 1840s and 1850s have survived, although many copies of the rival paper, the Independent Monitor, are preserved.

In 1855, at the age of thirty-two, Barr published his first story in the New York Spirit of the Times. The tale was entitled Salted Him, or An Auctioneer Doing All the Bidding, and he signed it, as he would all but one of his stories, with the nom de plume Omega. The New York Spirit, a weekly, published reports on hunting, fishing, horse racing, and news of general interest to its generally male readership. Under the editorial leadership of William T. Porter, it also became the most important vehicle for Southwestern humor. Such classics as The Big Bear of Arkansas by T. B. Thorpe, the Sut Lovingood stories by George W. Harris, and Hooper's Simon Suggs adventures appeared in this paper.

Barr's early stories for the Spirit are generally rudimentary. The first one, for example, uses no proper names except in the postscript. His early stories tend also to be short and simple, but have lengthy introductions. Probably their biggest fault, for modern readers, is their excessive use of literary allusions, few of them quoted exactly, and some of them quite obscure even to literate people of the day. The seventh and eighth stories are the worst in this respect, and are also marred by their excessive sentimentality.

All this changed rather abruptly with New York Drummer's Ride to Greensboro', Barr's ninth story and the first to appear in Porter's Spirit of the Times. Less than a year after Barr made his first contribution to the New York Spirit, William T. Porter resigned as editor of that journal in order to form his own competing magazine, Porter's Spirit of the Times. Most of the contributors remained loyal to Porter, including Barr, whose New York Drummer's Ride to Greensboro’ appeared in the first issue, dated 6 September 1856. Starting with this tale, the introductory portions of Barr's stories are short and include only a minimum of literary allusions, and the stories themselves are longer and more polished in style, with engaging and sometimes complex plots. It is possible that Porter edited the material that appeared in his own magazine more carefully than he had material published in the New York Spirit of the Times.

Barr's literary life was relatively short; his first and last stories were published just two years and four days apart, the last one appearing on 24 October 1857, after a seven-month interval.

During those seven months Barr had become more deeply involved in politics—a move that would have a direct bearing on the course of his short life. Barr served as an elector from Tuscaloosa in the presidential election of 1856. In an election just a year before, the Tuscaloosa district had given the American Party (the Know-Nothings) a two-thousand-vote majority; but in 1856, according to newspaper accounts, Barr's eloquence, personal canvassing, and hard work resulted in a six-hundred-vote majority for the Democratic candidates James Buchanan and John C. Breckenridge over the Know-Nothing candidates Millard Fillmore and Andrew J. Donelson.

In the spring of 1857, Barr sought the Democratic nomination for Congress.⁹ The District Democratic Convention was held in Tuscaloosa in June. After leading for at least sixty ballots, Barr realized that the deadlocked convention was threatened with irreconcilable division. He requested that his name be withdrawn in order to preserve harmony within the party.

This sacrifice of self for the harmony and success of the party to which he was ardently attached, served but to endear him more closely than ever to his many political friends; and will always remind them of his disinterested patriotism.¹⁰

Barr's action was more than merely appreciated; the entire Alabama delegation to Congress, as well as the Democratic members of the Alabama legislature, recommended to President Buchanan that Barr be appointed to a foreign consulship. This was in reward both for Barr's withdrawal and for his efforts to elect Buchanan.

President Buchanan appointed Barr to be the American consul at Melbourne, Australia. He sailed from New York in March 1858. Barr had completed his last story, Misplaced Confidence, between the time of the district convention and his sailing for Australia.

He sailed first to Europe and, according to his sister, used the opportunity to visit the sights there. He continued his journey to Australia aboard the Royal Mail steamer Emeu. Three days from Melbourne, 18 May 1858, John Gorman Barr died of sunstroke. Wrapped in the stars and stripes, he was buried at sea.

It took several months for the news of Barr's death to reach Alabama. Barr's friend Johnson Jones Hooper, the famous author of Adventures of Simon Suggs and later the secretary of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States, wrote in the Montgomery Daily Mail:

With the deepest regret we learn of the death of our accomplished friend John G. Barr, of Tuscaloosa, on board the vessel conveying him to Melbourne, at which post he had been appointed Consul. . . . We knew Mr. Barr intimately. No nobler nature ever existed. In intellect, as well as moral constitution, he was particuliarly gifted. The pages of the Knickerbocker and of Porter's Spirit amply attest his genius. Mr. Barr was about thirty-four years of age. He leaves, we believe, no relatives except a sister who resides at Tuscaloosa.¹¹

Barr's estate was not settled until 9 May 1860. He owed money to at least eight people, including Shandy Jones, a prominent free-black barber in Tuscaloosa, and Matthew Duffee, a character in New York Drummer's Ride to Greensboro', whom Barr owed $1017.26. Because Barr's estate amounted to only $826.98, each of his creditors was paid a percentage of what was owed him.¹²

Although Barr's creditors received less money than was their due, Barr did leave a considerable literary legacy; and as it is, one can only speculate how his writing and his life generally might have developed had he lived longer.

Except in one important respect, Barr was typical of the Southwestern humorists, as Kenneth Lynn has characterized them in Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor. The ideal Southwestern humorist, Lynn writes, was a professional man—a lawyer or a newspaperman, usually, although sometimes a doctor or an actor. He was actively interested in politics, either as a party propagandist or as a candidate for office. He was well educated, relatively speaking, and well traveled, although he knew America better than Europe.¹³ According to these criteria, Barr came close to being the ideal Southwestern humorist. He was both a lawyer and a newspaperman; he was an active candidate for office; he had an excellent education, and he traveled widely. But Lynn goes on to suggest that the most important feature that the Southwestern humorists had in common was their commitment to the aristocratic ideals of the Whig party. According to Lynn, the Whigs, represented by the newspapermen and lawyers, wrote humorous tales as a means of lampooning the poor whites. Indeed, he cites many Whig writers whose funny characters were poor whites and who capitalized on the poor-white vernacular in order to belittle the reckless spirit and childish ignorance¹⁴ of the Jacksonian democracy.

Barr, however, was a first-rate Southwestern humorist who was a committed lifelong Democrat. William R. Smith, a Whig politician who later became president of The University of Alabama, related a revealing episode. John Gorman Barr was raising some objections of the common people to a proposed tax bill when he stated that his own opinion was that the bill was infinitely better than any other tax bill the State had ever had, but that the people were dissatisfied with it, and he was simply carrying out their wishes in his opposition.¹⁵ Smith was horrified at Barr's position. Barr's championing the will of the people over his own opinion puts him squarely in the camp of the Jacksonian Democrats, and makes him, in this respect, a clear exception to Lynn's thesis.

Barr's political convictions are evidenced in his tales. He does not viciously poke fun at the poor whites, or generally use the poor-white vernacular. He is, however, a master at writing in the Irish dialect; the Irish play jokes on each other and yet are never portrayed in a truly bad light. At other times, the aristocracy is the object of the laughter, such as in Old Charley and the President's Veto, where the dude is vanquished by the local-yokel hero (the vernacular characters increasingly dominated American literature after the Civil War, as Clemens so well illustrates). In John Bealle's Accident—or, How the Widow Dudu Treated Insanity, one gentleman tricks another in thorough-going fashion. Blacks are not treated at all well by Barr; in Relief for Ireland, for example, a free black's home and well are torn up by a gang of tricksters, the man himself is insulted and accused of a crime of which his accusers know he is innocent—all in a spirit of fun, in which the black man is not permitted to share. In other tales, yankees and a steamboat captain are

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