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William Faulkner and George Washington Harris: frontier humor in the Snopes triology Stilley, Hugh Morgan

Abstract

The influence of the pre-Civil War Southwestern humorists on the work of William Faulkner has long been hypothesized. But it has received scant critical attention, much of it erroneous or so general as to be almost meaningless. While Faulkner's total vision is more than merely humorous, humor is a significant part of that vision. And the importance of frontier humor to Faulkner's art is further substantiated by the fact that many of his grotesque passages derive from elements of this humor. Frontier humor flourished from I830 to I860, and while a large group of men then flooded American newspapers with contributions, it now survives in anthologies and the book-length collections of its most prominent writers — Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Joseph Glover Baldwin, Johnson Jones Hooper, William Tappan Thompson, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and George Washington Harris. Their writings illustrate the genre's growth from mere regionalism in eighteenth century diction to the robust and masculine humor in the frontiersman's own language. Harris is the best of these humorists because he has a better sense of incongruity and consistently tells his stories in the earthy vernacular of the frontiersman; and Faulkner himself admires Sut Lovingood, principle character-cum-raconteur of Harris's best work. Therefore, in this thesis I focus on Harris's Sut Lovingood in relation to the Snopes trilogy of Faulkner — his longest unified work and a "chronicle” of Yoknapatawpha County with much frontier humor in it. A major parallel between Faulkner and Harris is their similar use of the story-within-a-story device and their similar technical rendering of the highly figurative and even in Harris's time somewhat stylized language of the frontier. Their common Southern heritage and the lack of change in the post-bellum Southern backwoodsman conduces to a similar milieu. Harris's and Faulkner's recurrent theme of retribution derives from the frontiersman's individualism and from his concern for at least the rudiments of society. Both authors create a large number of frontier characters at and their principal frontier characters are at once superb story tellers and epitomize the best ideals of the American frontier. The purpose of this thesis, then, is to examine the ways in which Faulkner parallels Harris's frontier humor. Having established Harris as the best writer in his group, I discuss the two authors' structures and techniques, their milieus and themes, and their characters. The trilogy's similarities with and deviations from Harris's Sut Lovingood help to illuminate Faulkner's artistry as well as to suggest the strength of Harris's influence on Faulkner.

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