At a recent workshop, I was asked about humor, how to be funny. I regaled the group with stories about American female humorists with the caveat that I had not written the book on humorists. Then realized, hey, I but DID write my Master’s Thesis on them. Why not share a bit about the history of funny American woman?
Nancy Walker and Zita Dresner in their collection, Redressing the Balance address and categorize early American female humorists far more completely than I can here. Suffice to say, there is a chronology of early American feminine authorship that connects humorists one to another. Early in the nineteenth-century writers like Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864) who wrote as Mrs. Mary Clavers and Sara Willis Parton (1811-1872) who wrote a newspaper column as Fanny Fern, earned their living and at times supported their families, on their writing. Like their contemporary, Miriam Whitcher, the articles and essays were concerned with the ridiculousness of roles in society, the disappointing frontier, and their own feminist opinions. What is interesting to note is that many female humorists wrote under either a pseudonym or they created characters alter egos who could speak for the writer without being the writer. It was an effective way to shield themselves from societal sanctions. They could always claim they didn’t really mean it. Even though they did.
Popular enough to be semi-canonized was Miriam Whitcher. Whitcher created the Widow Bedott to be her mouthpiece. The Widow spoke out against the current social stratification in her small New York state community and made pointed observations about her neighbors. Whitcher’s work did not have to be as timid or subtle as Bradstreet’s primarily because Whitcher work wasn’t published until three years after her death. Societal reprisal was not a concern. But most of society loved the work. The Widow Bedott Papers has been described as “A muscular forerunner of literary realism and certainly one of the most incisive pieces of social criticism to surface in antebellum America” (O’Donnell 184).
The Widow Bedott Papers was a huge success during its time. Historians write that the popularity of the collection was instant and unprecedented. Demand eventually resulted in 100,000 copies that were issued over the issued in 1856, 1864, 1880, 1883 and 1893. The catch, as with most vernacular humor, was that Whitcher wrote in the local Yorker dialect. While she effectively and humorously captured the color and manners of her hometown, her work languished as readers tired of translating the phonetic spelling and dialect pieces.
Today Whitcher and her heroine, the Widow Bedott is now considered one of the vanguards of American humor:
In her use of vernacular humor as a vehicle for social criticism, Miriam Whitcher was in the vanguard of the American humor tradition that ultimately included writers as diverse as Thomas B Thorpe, George Washington Harris, Marietta Holley, and Samuel Clemens. (221) […] Miriam Whitcher’s particular form of social satire represented groundbreaking work: she was the first vernacular humorist to create a female narrator, and the first to focus almost exclusively upon women’s domestic sphere. (Morris 221).
The cautionary moral to this tale is that as much as we want to preserve and capture the idiocentric language of a region, often it doesn’t last. Busy readers will only read and enjoy works they can quickly comprehend, which isn’t bad, it’s just the reality. That’s why Mark Twain, with his only interment paragraphs of regional dialect, is still read. Oh, and also because he was a white male.
Maybe the moral to this tale is that there is sometimes no winning at all.
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