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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Jeffrey



_Fetching the Old Southwest: Humorous Writing from Longstreet to Twain_.
James H. Justus. University of Missouri Press, 2004. Pp. xiii + 591.
Hardcover. $54.95. ISBN  0-8262-1544-0.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Jeffrey W. Miller
Gonzaga University

Copyright  2006 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

_Fetching the Old Southwest_, James H. Justus's ambitious and sprawling
examination of newspaper humor from the Old Southwest, provides an
excellent overview of the antebellum literary production of a region Justus
defines as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas,
North Carolina, and Missouri. Justus conceives the book as an attempt to
provide a "comprehensive account" of the subject (2), and, checking in at
just under six hundred pages, _Fetching_ certainly offers a wealth of
information and analysis. It focuses on about twenty humorists, their
writings, and the culture which produced them. In fact, Justus claims that
the work of the humorists is a "reliable index" of that culture, and a good
deal of _Fetching the Old Southwest_ is devoted to delineating exactly how,
and to what extent, it serves as such an index.

A reader of _Fetching the Old Southwest_ will quickly come to realize that
Justus's aims do not serve to create a tightly plotted narrative. Rather,
Justus approaches his subject on a grand scale. To a certain extent, this
book is a cultural history of the antebellum South, but Justus does not
demonstrate the historian's attention to chronology. Instead, he organizes
the book around a series of thematic elements: the lost cause, the southern
aristocracy, itinerancy and migration, planting and farming, the confidence
game, race, hunting, the river, authorship, language, narration, character
types. Throughout this varied approach, however, Justus never loses sight
of his initial focus. He sees the genre of Southwestern humor as
fundamentally democratic, and he returns to this idea regularly throughout
the book.

_Fetching the Old Southwest_ offers layered complexity beneath a veneer of
simplicity. On the face of things, the book is divided into three fairly
well defined and appropriately titled sections: Mythmakers and
Revisionists, The World the Humorists Found, and The World the Humorists
Made. In practice, however, Justus's analysis tends to be recursive. The
first two chapters set up themes which are revisited throughout the text:
the mythology of the "Old South" and the commonly-held belief that the
elite humorists led lives segregated from their "common" subjects. In both
cases, Justus argues against the reality of the myth, and these ideas crop
up later in the text. His rejection of these myths serves as the opening of
his argument for the democracy of Southwestern humor, and later chapters
regularly revisit versions of that contention. For example, after laying
out the linguistic democracy inherent in the use of the vernacular in the
second chapter, Justus returns to the linguistic analysis of the narrative
frame in chapter ten, the "Languages of Southwest Humor."  Where the second
chapter provides analysis of the framed narrative in broad outlines,
chapter ten pursues the linguistic shades of the humorists in greater
detail, building on the foundation of the earlier discussion.

The middle section of the book, "The World the Humorists Found," contains
six chapters that carve the "world" into six loosely organized types often
utilized in humorous writing: the itinerant, the farmer, the confidence
man, the Other, the sportsman, and the river man. His chapter on the figure
of the confidence man, "Fetching Arkansas," provides layered possibilities
for reading the title of the book: Justus asserts that "fetch" means both
"to bring around, to bring off successfully" and "to hoodwink" (148). The
third section, "The World the Humorists Made," first looks at the
profession (versus the "hobby") of authorship for humorists, then the use
of dialect and vernacular, then the notion of oral storytelling versus
written narration, then offers a study of types, before launching into a
more careful study of three texts. In the final three chapters, Justus
turns to extended analyses of William Tappan Thompson's _Major Jones's
Courtship_, Johnson Jones Hooper's _Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs_, and
George Washington Harris's _Sut Lovingood's Yarns_. These chapters offer
the only sustained analysis of individual texts in the book, and in some
ways, offer the culmination of what the rest of the book has been setting
up. They are the strongest and most focused chapters in the book and offer
a fitting end to Justus's sweeping achievement.

On the whole, _Fetching the Old Southwest_ is copiously and accurately
researched. Justus orchestrates an astounding number of primary documents
surrounding the humorous tales, including diaries, correspondence,
histories, and travelogues, in order to place the humorists within the
broader culture of the era. He also relies on a number of historians of the
era in order to frame the historical context. In addition, the book pushes
at the margins of the literary canon, making interesting connections
between the humorists and better-known authors, such as James Fenimore
Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry
David Thoreau. For example, in his discussion of river men, he weaves
together a comment Thoreau makes in his _A Week on the Concord and
Merrimack Rivers_ with Joseph Baldwin's _Keelboat Age_, an 1828 _Geography
and History of the Western States_, and the 1855 _Memoir of S. S. Prentiss_
(277-79). Justus writes in a clear, eloquent prose that shifts gears
effortlessly, combining history, literary analysis, and journalistic

One complaint: there's not enough Twain, especially given his appearance in
the book's subtitle. Readers looking for a comprehensive guide to Twain's
use of the humorist tradition in his writings would best look elsewhere,
such as Bruce Michelson's _Mark Twain on the Loose_, James Cox's _Mark
Twain: the Fate of Humor_, and Kenneth Lynn's _Mark Twain and Southwestern
Humor_. However, this is not really a fault of the book; Justus focuses his
lens on the generation that gave birth to Twain and Artemus Ward, and they
appear only as occasional counterpoint.

Despite its comprehensive approach, _Fetching the Old Southwest_ is not
really an introduction to the Southwestern humorists. In fact, in its very
construction, it assumes a certain level of proficiency with the discourse
and its authors. Save for the final three chapters, most of the discussion
of any one author is rather fragmented; to be sure, the chapters are
thematically coherent, but Justus's frequent shorthand references to his
cast of characters might be confusing to a reader not fluent in the
discourse. The index, which is detailed and useful, might provide an
antidote for a potential reader's confusion. Ultimately, however, such
difficulties are worth enduring, as _Fetching the Old Southwest_ is a
worthy addition to the criticism of southern literature, and it is
essential reading for anyone with an interest in antebellum southern humor.