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?
During the 18th and 19th century the American humor tradition for both male and female writers was based on exaggeration. The difference between what was promised in the new country: easy money, friendly natives, desirable living conditions, and what was experienced: starvation, cold, vicious natives brandishing sharp objects, was overwhelming. The colonists and settlers who braved the sea passage to follow the overwrought promises of the new land, were sorely disappointed but hid their emotions well. Historians cite letters home from average men and women describing their new land with hyperbole and exaggeration — the better to justify their decision.
American women also used exaggeration. They did so not to justify their choices—they had precious few of those— but rather to explain their situation and of course, satirize it. The women colonists and pioneers not only experienced the marked difference between the romance of homesteading and the realities of outhouses but during the nineteenth-century women humorists began to speak in clearer language about the incongruities between the reality of a woman’s experience and the sentimental vision fostered by unthinking men and overly romantic periodicals. Writers like Marietta Holley, producing work in the mid-nineteenth century, clearly protested women’s restrictive situations and the fact that society barred women from exercising their real talents in satisfactory ways.
In her introduction to From My Opinion and Betsey Bobbet’s (1873), Holley writes:
But still it kept a sayin’ inside of my mind, “Josiah Allen’s wife write a book about your life, as it passes in front of you and Josiah, daily, and your views on Wimmen’s Rite’s. The great publick wheel is a rollin’ on slowly, drawin’ the Femail Race into liberty; Josiah Allen’s wife, put your shoulder blades to the wheel.”
And so that almost hauntin’ voice inside of me kept a’ swaidin me, and finally I spoke out in a loud clear voice and answered it –
“I will put my shoulder blades to the wheel!”
I well remember the time I said it, for it skairt Josiah almost to death. (…)
“What is the matter Samantha?”
Says I, “Josiah I am goin’ to write a book.”
This skairt him worse than ever. . . ” (Walker 100).
At the same time that Holley wrote her “Josiah Allen’s wife” series (softening her forceful opinions women’s rights and her direct challenge against women’s subjugation by hiding behind the “wife” title), Parton published her newspaper column in two collections, Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Port-Folio (1853 and 1854).
In New York, the poet Phoebe Cary ran a popular literary salon and was considered a wit and a sophisticate. Instead of focusing on the domestic, her work included literary parodies and she had a reputation with both men and women as being a clever conversationalist. In her collection, Poems and Parodies (1854) she too parodies the idea that woman had to conform to prescribed roles, presaging Dorothy Parker’s work sixty years later.
Mary Abigail Dodge, who wrote as Gail Hamilton, published her columns in the 1860s and 1870s and wrote Twelve Miles from a Lemon about her experiences in the west. While the male writers of this period, like Bret Harte, turned the frontier experience into one big exaggerated adventure, the women writers turned their reluctant foray into the wilderness into one long exaggerated hardship. An attitude that began creeping into the mid-nineteenth century writing was the uncooked kernel that perhaps a woman didn’t always need to be a good sport about all of this. Perhaps a woman could intimate – subversively at first, that she was not having a good time. “Now I am tired of driving cows out of my yard. You make me pay taxes, and you won’t let me vote, and the least you can do is to keep the cows out of my garden ” (Walker 114).
No exaggeration there.
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