The Georgia humorists were early-nineteenth-century writers who published satiric sketches about the lawlessness and debauchery of frontier conditions in antebellum Georgia.
Mostly lawyers, newspaper editors, and other professional men, they included Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790-1870), William Tappan Thompson (1812-82), and John Basil Lamar (1812-62). Lesser-known writers were T. A. Burke, T. W. Lane, Oliver H. Prince, and Francis James Robinson. More conservative than the later writers who followed the southwestern expansion of the frontier toward the Mississippi River (such Southwest humorists as Johnson Jones Hooper of Alabama, Thomas Bangs Thorpe of Louisiana, and George Washington Harris of Tennessee), the Georgia humorists strove to protect plantation society from further erosion by satirizing the earthiness, deceit, and violence of the frontier.
Drawing their topics from the events of everyday life, including hunts, fights, courtship and marriage, dances, horse races and other contests, militia drills, elections, the law and courts, religion, gambling, practical jokes, illness, drinking bouts, and the treatment of country bumpkins in the city, the Georgia humorists used the literary device of the frame to distance themselves and their readers from the harshness of life on the frontier. Longstreet, for example, created the narrators Abraham Baldwin and Lyman Hall, naming them in honor of two Yale-educated men who had provided Georgia with outstanding leadership in the more virtuous days of the early republic. Thompson, in his epistolary sketches and stories, used the first-person voice of his character Major Jones, a rustic farmer and homely philosopher, to comment on the customs and quirks of rural life in middle Georgia. Although Major Jones is not as refined as Longstreet’s narrators, he represents the simple virtues of rural life, symbolizing the promise of social mobility through hard work and a good marriage.
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet
Born in Augusta in 1790, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet was the dean of the Georgia humorists. Admitted to the Georgia bar in 1815, he settled into a successful life as a lawyer-farmer. After he was elected to the state legislature and named judge of the Superior Court of the Ocmulgee District, he stood for Congress in 1824, but the deaths of his eldest son and mother-in-law led him to abandon further efforts to win political office. After a long period of melancholy that culminated in a religious conversion, he returned to Augusta in 1827 and joined a prosperous legal practice. Drawing on his experiences of riding the circuit, he published several humor sketches in the Milledgeville Southern Recorder. He then purchased the Augusta newspaper the North American Gazette, changed its name to the State Rights Sentinel, and began publishing additional sketches in 1834. The next year he published his collected sketches under the title of Georgia Scenes (1835); the book made his literary reputation.
Underlying all of the sketches of Georgia Scenes is the tension between town and country and the gradual emergence of social and moral controls over the violence and unrestrained behavior of the frontier. Law and order prevail, but it is a tenuous victory at best. Longstreet’s comedic talents are most evident in his often-anthologized sketches “The Gander Pulling,” “The Fight,” and “The Horse-Swap.” His patrician narrators are scandalized by such country recreations as pulling the head off a greased gander while riding by at a canter; settling differences of honor with a no-holds-barred, nose-biting, dirt-grinding fist fight; and hiding a horse’s huge saddle sore so he can be offered up for trade. But the moralizing of the narrators does little to undermine the humor of the sketches, in which a character like Ransy Sniffle, a poor white dirt-eater who loves fights, listens in “breathless delight” as a local champion calls the wife of another a “sassy heifer,” or a horse trader boasts that he can “outswap any live man, woman, or child that ever walked these hills” and gets a horse that is both “blind and deef” for his trouble.
William Tappan Thompson
Although his talent for comic exaggeration did not equal that of his mentor Longstreet, William Tappan Thompson’s epistolary sketches and stories paint a realistic picture of southern rural life. Born in Ohio in 1812, Thompson moved to Augusta in 1834 or 1835 and studied law while managing Longstreet’s printing establishment. When the Second Seminole War erupted (1835), Thompson enlisted in the Richmond Blues, a local militia unit. His militia experiences inspired two sketches, which he published in his literary periodical, the Augusta Mirror. When the Mirror merged with a Macon periodical Thompson served briefly as coeditor before moving to Madison to edit a weekly entitled the Southern Miscellany. Within two years he had established his reputation as a humorist with his character Major Jones. A collection of his Major Jones letters appeared in 1843, and an expanded edition was published the following year under the title Major Jones’s Courtship. A revised edition in 1872 added two Major Jones letters and a series of sketches Thompson had published in periodicals in the late 1840s and early 1850s.
Most of the Major Jones letters deal with such topics as a coon hunt, a ride on a new railroad, the food at the Planter’s Hotel in Madison, the trouble and confusion caused by the move into town from the plantation each winter, and the joys of hog-killing time, pulling”lasses” candy, and Christmas. Rustic, uneducated, and unfamiliar with the manners of polite society, Thompson’s spokesman Major Jones is nevertheless generous, good-hearted, and sensible. Whiggish in his political sympathies, this uncommon common man communicates through his marriage to the polished Mary Stallins that the best hope of the South is unity among planters, small slaveholders, and yeoman farmers rather than an alliance with the commercial North.
Several other Georgia humorists are included in the anthology Polly Peablossom’s Wedding (1851), edited by T. A. Burke. The author of the title sketch, John Basil Lamar, is the best known of these writers. Born in Milledgeville in 1812, Lamar was a substantial planter who lived near Macon. He owned holdings in thirteen Georgia counties and in Florida. Highly literate and well traveled, Lamar supported secession, joined the Confederate army, and was killed in the Battle of Crampton’s Gap in Maryland in September 1862. His known literary canon consists of six sketches. “Polly Peablossom’s Wedding” is a brief tale of a comic wedding that celebrates egalitarianism on the Georgia frontier. Another sketch by Lamar, “The 'Experience’ of the Blacksmith of the Mountain Pass,” recounts the conversion of a proud, free-thinking mountain artisan who is beaten in a fair fight by a Methodist circuit rider.
Burke’s own contribution to the anthology, “A Losing Game of Poker; or, The Gambler Outwitted,” follows the form of the moral disclaimer established by Longstreet: while the subject of the tale is gambling, drinking, and swindling, the narrator makes it clear that such behavior is no longer the social norm. Burke’s anthology also includes a sketch by the Augusta author T. W. Lane, “The Thimble Game,” about a country bumpkin in the city who is conned out of four hundred dollars by a “Gimblet-man” (cotton buyer) in a shell game.
Francis James Robinson
A final writer of interest is Francis James Robinson, who published a collection of seven humor sketches entitled Kups of Kauphy: A Georgia Book in Warp and Woof (1853). Little is known about Robinson except that he was a country doctor and newspaper writer who was born around 1820. Fiercely partisan toward the South before the Civil War (1861-65), Robinson supported the Republican Party during Reconstruction and apparently died in Oglethorpe County in 1870. Several of the sketches in Kups of Kauphy show the influence of Longstreet and Thompson in theme, setting, and dialect. Robinson also incorporated a lengthy proslavery argument into the frame of one sketch that reveals the impact of the sectional crisis on the Georgia humor tradition.
Spokesmen for a social system that rejected the free labor assumptions of the North, the Georgia humorists initially dedicated many of their literary efforts to the cause of moral reform. The escalation of sectional conflict in the 1850s, however, made life more difficult for literary reformers in Georgia. Every agency of cultural expression was enlisted in the defense of slavery as the secession crisis drew near.