Thursday, February 10, 2011

Style and Sex in G. W. Harris's Sheriff Doltin Sequence

Hershel Parker
On academic visits South I used to claim to be a Faulkner critic, according to my self-servingly stringent definition--anyone who had published at least three pages in an issue of Mississippi Quarterly edited by James B. Meriwether then had been argued with in print by Cleanth Brooks. My record as a George Washington Harris critic may look still more meager (the editing of a few Harris tales for the Norton Anthology of American Literature), but I have qualifications for writing on Harris shared by few. My mother learned to talk in a part of Mississippi where one of the pronouns is "hit," and my father learned to talk in the part of Oklahoma where people get frogs in their "froat" in bad weather. When I was in the eighth grade, I discovered that the pronunciation charts for vowels in Webster's Third Collegiate Dictionary were all wrong--the start of my career as a textual scholar. If you pronounced according to those charts, you couldn't eat aigs for breakfast or run away on your laigs, much less drive a tin pinny nail straight. On the other hand, I have some disqualifications. Harris helped to do in a lot of my Cherokee kinfolks, and I do not enjoy hearing Sut Lovengood on "Injuns," "niggers," or the "Israelite" who "vash not Levi Shacobs." (l use "Lovengood" because that was the way the name appeared in early newspaper printings.)

But anyone with a sense of history must deal with such passages In Harris as they do with similar passages in Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, without roiling in self-righteousness, Moral superiority to great artists is not one of our more admirable stances. And in the face of political correctness, I take Harris to be one of the greatest American artists. In saying this, I assume that men and women become professors of American and British literature because they love to read literature and love most of all to read that literature which most challenges and offers the most intense rewards--usually, the literature that generations of readers, or at least some fine readers in different generations, have identified as extraordinary, great, in one way or another. I assume also that professors of American and British literature as a matter of course try to surmount their own limitations of background and experience so as to comprehend attitudes relating to race, class, gender, genre, and style as they vary over decades and centuries, determined to understand as fully as possible before judging. Those assumptions, I acknowledge, are not universally shared among professors, many of whom in recent years have repudiated the very idea of literary greatness. Such professors, and those professors who have transformed some English departments into cultural studies departments, have not yet shown much interest in reading George Washington Harris sympathetically, however significant the role he played in forming mass American culture. Even undoctrinaire readers, those who try to listen sympathetically to diverse voices of the past, will have to overcome moral obstacles before enjoying the Sut Lovengood stories, as I do when I deal with Harris's behavior toward Cherokees in real life and Sut's attitude toward Injuns in Harris's fiction. I knew, in my youth, one Indian ancestor born to survivors of the Trail of Tears, and in 1994 I have a living half-Indian aunt, as old as the century, born in Indian Territory, whose mother was deprived of her tribal rights by white chicanery. [2011: She lived in three centuries, it turned out, but not very long in two of them.] Were I interested in feeling victimized, I could find grounds for not reading George Washington Harris. But by politically correct standards, no one in nineteenth-century American literature can escape whipping--not the sexist Hawthorne, sure that women should not try to think; not the bigoted Stowe, appalled at the immigration of Europeans who did not speak English; not anyone. If we decide to avoid reading and teaching once-popular or once-respected writers because we are morally superior to them, we quickly run out of people to read and teach. As we get older, most of us begin to accept our benighted parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents (as long as their behavior stops shy of criminality) rather than shunning them because their social views are less enlightened than ours at any given moment. Any best-selling therapy book tells us that if we write off our families we cut ourselves off from our own histories and go through life as less than whole human beings. In similar ways, writing off our great writers diminishes us personally and very quickly diminishes us as teachers.

Of course even very competent writers can be so driven by bigotry, by sheer hatred, that any reader would want to avoid them, most of the time, the way a decent person may avoid any slasher movie, on principle, however cunning a reviewer says the camera angles are. Some of Harris's attacks on Lincoln, written in wartime (amid sufferings we cannot imagine), may be too rabid for us to read now with any aesthetic pleasure. Yet the pleasures of reading most of Harris are great indeed, and I deprive myself if I avoid Harris because of things he did to or said about some of my tribespeople. I reserve my outrage, just now, for anthologists who think they can enhance my self-esteem as a quarter-Indian by having me read a white man's homily packaged as if it were a speech delivered by "Chief Seattle," or a white racist's best-selling fake autobiography The Education of Little Tree, or a poem on "The Atlantic Cable" by John Rollin Ridge, an earnest Cherokee kinsman of mine who was just well-educated enough to write conventional English verse. I would rather enhance my self-esteem, the Cherokee and Choctaw parts included, by reading something better, even if it is by a white man or white woman. As a son of a halfbreed [less than half Indian, I know in 2011], I resented being excluded from good things when I was young, and I am not about to exclude myself from them now. Forty years ago [make that 60 and more, now], when I read Walt Whitman's announcement that his "Song of Myself" was the meal equally set, I knew he meant it, and I knew that my invitation was irrevocable, whoever I was. The Sut Lovengood stories are also a meal set for anyone to come to on equal terms, even-or especially-e-cultural materialists.

A problem beyond political correctness is that some people cannot easily decipher the invitation to read the Sut stories: the dialect looms as an intimidating barrier. Yet there is no need to feel left out. Even if you were not lucky enough to learn to talk from a mother who learned to talk in Mississippi (or, still better, Tennessee), all you have to do is read the stories aloud, learning pronunciation patterns as you go and pretending you are reading them the way William Faulkner or Eudora Welty would, on an uninhibited evening in a circle of friends. The effort it takes to enter into Sut's world is repaid by bounteous rewards, heaped-up delights. In all of nineteenth-century American literature, there is no politically correct meal that remotely compares to the riches of Harris's banquet, and, to tell the truth, even a lot of the passages we all teach in Mark Twain look a little watery when judged against the bald-face whiskey of Harris's prose.

Having held forth on political and linguistic hurdles to reading Sut, I will focus my loving tribute to his creator George Washington Harris on three Sut Lovengood stories, "Rare Ripe Garden-Seed." "Contempt of Court--Almost," and "Trapping a Sheriff"--what I call for convenience the "Sheriff Doltin sequence." I will lead into my discussion by looking at some of the preliminary biographical-bibliographical problems any reader of Sut Lovingood. Yarns Spun by a "Nat'ral Born Dum'd Fool" (1867) confronts, then by talking generally about author and audience in Harris's tales, a tricky subject, and unusually tricky because of the state of scholarship.

Despite the work of Franklin J. Meine, J. Cleveland Harris, John J. Hellin.jr., Donald Day, Ben Harris McClary, M. Thomas lnge, my student Janet Casey, and others, we do not have all the Sut stories that Harris published, some of which probably are no longer extant. Some stories that were printed are known only by references to them in surviving stories and some stories are known only by quotations from them or references to them by early admirers. We do not know in any detail the sequence in which the known Sut stories in Yarns were composed, because we have to rely on only a little external evidence--the knowledge of when a handful of stories were printed in newspapers--and some internal evidence, such as cross-references to earlier stories in later-written ones (though some of these references could have been planted as Harris put together the book). We assume that the stories in the newspapers were written in something like the order of their publication, but we do not know for sure. Some of us assume that many, if not most, or even almost all, the stories in the 1867 volume were first printed in newspapers, but we do not know for sure. (We do not know, for instance, of any previous publication of the Sheriff Doltin sequence.) We know not to assume that either the order of the first printings in newspapers or the order of the stories in the book will necessarily correspond with the order of composition. "Blown up with Soda" starts off as if it should follow the starched shirt story more closely than it does in the book, yet Milton Rickels lists the first surviving text of "Sut Levengood's Shirt" (Yankee Notions, October 1857) not earlier at all but later than the first known text of "Sut Lovengood Blown Up" (that of the Nashville Daily Gazette, 21 July 1857, reprinted from the Savannah Morning News of some unknown date). Janet Casey, one of the succession of students I sent down to the Library of Congress to solve such mysteries, found just what you would hope to find, an earlier printing of "Sut Lovengood's Shirt," in the Nashville Union and American (1 May 1857), as well as a reprint in the Louisville Democrat (7 May 1857). (I have been planning for years to make a systematic sweep for unknown Sut stories, as a gift for Nathalia Wright, and in the meantime have taken comfort from several reprintings of known stories that Janet Casey, and also Robin Gaither, have discovered.)

Many other matters that look anomalous to us may yet be explained, such as possible clues to the time of composition of the Sheriff Doltin sequence in relation to other stories. The Sheriff Doltin sequence in the 1867 book follows well after the story of "Bart Davis's Dance," which like the Doltin stories is not known prior to book publication. There is one clue to the date of the Bart Davis story, Sut's allusion to the famous wartime phrase "all quiet on the Potomac," which does not particularly help, because it could have been added in 1867 or before and because there is no such datable reference in the Doltin sequence. However, in "Contempt of Court--Almost" Harris has Sut use the word "horspitable" without playing upon it in any way, an odd lapse unless this story was written before "Bart Davis's Dance," where Sut creates chaos by persuading Davis that "ole Sock" the "hard-shell preacher" had insulted him by saying" 'Yu is hosspitabil.'" There is, in short, a lot we do not know (even whether or not Harris wrote the Sheriff Doltin stories sequentially).

Ignorance, however, is not going to stop me from making some more guesses now. I would guess, for starters, that Harris was a remarkably privileged writer. That may sound like an odd thing to say about a man who was long frustrated in his efforts to publish a collection of the Sut stories, who faced censorship in the Spirit of the Times at least once, who made arrangements for a series of Sut stories to appear in the New York Atlas only to have the project fizzle out, who died on the way home after arranging to publish his second book, the manuscript of which disappeared (left on the train when Harris was carried off unconscious at Knoxville, as Professor Meriwether thinks possible, or kept and suppressed by his new second wife and her family, as some of Harris's children thought). Privileged indeed! But as far as we know there was a ready market for his stories in the newspapers once Harris had published "Sut Lovengood's Daddy, Acting Horse" in the Spirit (4 November 1854). In a backhanded way, it is a great privilege not to have to get paid for your stories but to publish them to the delight of your friends in Tennessee and strangers around the country. [You could say something of the same sort about the privilege of blogging in 2011.] I would guess that the references in the stories to earlier Sut stories are not at all evidence of self-promotion for Harris or even a calculated attempt to establish a richly storied background for Sut. Knowing that his stories were reprinted enthusiastically all around the country--knowing of printings in some papers we have not yet searched--knowing of printings in many other papers no longer extant--Harris made these references as a convivial way of recalling and celebrating pleasures he and his readers had already shared.

And I would guess that once the "Acting Horse" story was published and widely reprinted and talked about, Harris did not have to worry about holding an audience. After a while, in any newspaper story (certainly in any story first printed in the Yarns), Harris could trust the reader to have confidence in Sut as a narrator, to know that Sut's self-deprecation of his ability as a storyteller was a surefire way of entrapping any unwary auditor around the camp or outside the doggery. In "Mrs. Yardley's Quilting," for instance, Sut claims to ladle out his words at random, "like a calf kicking at yaller-jackids" (135), but he turns that mock apology into a put-down of the man with a wen over his eye. In "Frustrating a Funeral," Sut says he thinks at random, just as he talks and does. He knows better, and we had better know better. In "Eaves-dropping a Lodge of Free-masons" Sut taunts George into trying to tell the story, but when George starts off in pompous formal style, Sut breaks in and decides to tell it his way, to "talk hit all off in English" (I 16). No contemporary reader could have doubted that Sut was in control in the narration. The modern reader, coming without preparation to one story or another, may have more trouble. A reader of the Cohen and Dillingham Humor of the Old Southwest, for instance, might well be confused about Harris's skill as a storyteller, inasmuch as that collection includes the first two stories in the Doltin sequence but not the final one, which resolves the plot lines.

Sure, Sut's way of telling a story may seem random enough to any new reader. In "Rare Ripe Garden-Seed" Sut bombards the reader, rapid-fire, with an anecdote about his "fust big skeer" from the sheriff who took away the bed and chairs when Sut was the baby of the family; a philosophical digression on the pecking order of the universe (better than anything in Dreiser); a little essay on sheriffs and their uneasy consciences; a mention of old John Doltin, a "'spectabil sheriff" (a new one, we have to figure out, not the one who gave Sut his first scare); the introduction of Wat Mastin and the splendid evocation of what it is to be young, healthy, and in bad need of sex; an interruption by an officious encyclopedia salesman; the obscene but delicately euphemistic account of the devastating effects marriage has on War's health; and the rest of the wonderful fabliau about Wat, his wife Mary, her mother Mrs. McKildrin, and Little Rar Ripe, Mary's baby by Sheriff Doltin; and a final interruption by the salesman. In "Contempt of Court-Almost" Sut starts with an essay (better than Poe's) on human perversity, a subject suggested by the encyclopedia salesman (whom Sut, feigning to confuse the man's product with his name, refers to as Onsightly Peter), and leading into the illustrative anecdote of Sut and the dandy (which you think will have to do with Doltin but does not, and which itself is interrupted by a little disquisition on mustaches), followed by a one-sentence shift to Judge Smarty and a new shift to Wirt Staples (smoothed by Sut's promise to make it relevant to the Doltin story). Then comes Wirt's magnificent tall talk and Sut's tribute to Wirt as champion man, fit to be displayed at a fair, then the rampaging scene in which Wirt comes close to committing contempt of court by slamming the sheriff with his ham of venison then flinging it at the judge. In the concluding story, "Trapping a Sheriff," Sut has fun indulging in high Victorian sentimentality in describing Doltin's wife, then sabotages that style and moves on to a speculation on "hereafters," especially the part of hell where sheriffs go. After Sut's conversation with Doltin (who is nursing his head after Wirt's onslaught), there comes the conspiracy of Sut, Wirt, and Witt's wife Susan that is broken by an enthusiastic, digressive tribute to Susan's cooking (capped by the great bit of deflected sexuality: "I gets dorg hongry every time I sees Witt's wife, ur even her side-saddil, ur her frocks a-hangin on the close-line" [262]). Then comes more of the ironic sentimentalizing, a self-conscious "word-portrait" of Susan pouring coffee (the sort of portrait the grown-up Huck might have given of Mary Jane Wilks, if Mark Twain had been as good as Harris), then the story of the trapping of Doltin and his punishment--pages about as good as the best trickery in Twelfth Night mixed up with the most rambunctious pages of Tom Jones.

All this may seem to be a run-amok narrative extravaganza. Characters come in without being part of the present story, other characters come in looking as if they are part of another story but turn out to belong to this one, times shift without transition, from Sut's boyhood to the present, sheriff replaces sheriff, and literary styles change abruptly. But everything is in the control of one of the greatest characters in American literature, Sut--always peering (or peeping), absorbing, philosophizing on human nature and animal nature (making it clear they are the same), drinking, bullying, eating, inventing outrageous pranks, rampaging (by proxy), escaping serious punishment, and loving good (or well), entertaining us in his way, in his own good time, in words that are Shakespearean in plentitude and precision and felicitous combinations. The narration is not at all aimless, never like Mark Twain's Jim Blaine and the story of the old ram, where the point is not to get to the point. There is a character in Harris like Blaine, but it is not Sut--it is the late Mrs. Yardley, who in her prime talked in free association, nonstop. Sut's narration is headlong, pell-mell, but always controlled, always delighting us.

Sometimes our delight arises directly from our pride in following Sut's fancy turns, ambushes, leaps, shifts, digressions, and seeming irrelevancies. We know Sut, and we are up to the challenge. Sometimes Sut even cheats a little so as to set us up for special surprise, as in the great fabliau section of "Rare Ripe Garden-Seed," where he makes it look as if Mrs. McKildrin is going to persuade Wat Mastin, the April Fool bridegroom, that her daughter Mary conceived promptly after the wedding and bore his baby before the middle of August, all because of the "rar ripe garden-seed" Wat had bought from a Yankee peddler. Mrs. McKildrin serves Wat whiskey after he revives from his faint at the sight of Little Rar Ripe, and Sut reminds us of the power of alcohol: "Wun ho'n allers saftens a man, the yeath over" (234). Wat counts the months, and recounts, and says, "Haint enuf, is hit mammy?" (236), But she sweetly reminds him how active he had been about the place: "yu planted hit waseful , , ." (237). And Sut comments on her strategy of patient waiting: "Widders allers wait, an' alters win" (237). Then Sut gives us a marvelous turn: obtuse Wat Mastin rises to the occasion at last with a retentive memory and a quite unexpected capacity for irony when he throws up to Mary her mother's description of her as a "pow'ful interprizin gal" (239): she ought to be good for twenty-six or maybe thirty children as opposed to the thirteen her mother had "the ole way." After this turn of events we have the delight of Sut's sudden, unaccounted-for presence, just in time to step on Doltin's note to Mary and pick it up when no one is looking so he can get Jim Dunkin to read it to him. You do not want to know why Sut is suddenly there, any more than you want to know why he is suddenly peeping out of the old doggery door at Wirt in "Contempt of Court--Almost." He is always around at just the right time.

In "Contempt of Court--Almost" the reader delighting in Sut's dazzling turns may well be thrown by two textual errors. In the 1867 edition Sut says that Wirt Staples "tuck a skeer in what's tu cum" of his "narashun about the consekinses ave foolin wif uther men's wives" (249), but that is a slip brought about, probably, by a compositor's memory of Sut's "furst big skeer"; the word has to be "sheer," the usual spelling of "share" in Sut's dialect. The first edition also contains a garbled passage describing how fast the spirits from the new doggery were working on Wirt: "So when cort sot at nine o'clock, Wirt wer 'bout es fur ahead es cleaving, ur half pas' that." As a native speaker of this dialect as well as a textual scholar, I figured out that what Harris wrote was '''bout es fur ahead es eleving, ur half pas' that" (249). The word has to be an hour of the day, and in Sut's dialect "seven" comes out "seving," so eleven should come out "eleving"--a form mysterious enough to baffle a compositor. What Harris meant was that when court went into session at nine in the morning, Wirt was as drunk as he would normally have been at eleven or eleven-thirty.

Quite aside from these unintended pitfalls, Harris set loose in his narrative a series of questions any good reader will have to hold suspended. What does all the opening of "Contempt of Court--Almost" have to do with Wat Mastin? Does the dandy, a new character, fit somehow into Doltin's punishment? Who is Judge Smarty? Who, for that matter, is Wirt Staples?--though Sut assures us that Wirt "tuck a sheer in what's tu cum" about Doltin. In listening to Wirt's tall talk we forget about Doltin, for it is not the sheriff but Judge Smarty he is insulting so magnificently. After the heroic challenge has been followed by the wreck of the watch tinker's shop, Wirt gets a little more liquid kindling wood from Sut. That is when Doltin comes waddling out of the courthouse and when Sut says, "Now Wirt were Wat Mastin's cuzzin, an' know'd all about the rar ripe bisness, an tuck sides wif Wat strong" (253). Wonderful surprise, wonderful fun to have Wirt quote back to the sheriff his love note to Mary. It is even better--more coherent and more satisfying than we thought it would be, for Wirt is on the rampage not only against Judge Smarty but also against Sheriff Doltin, as well as the assorted deputies who get laid low by the "buck's hine laig."

Here the reader holds a question in suspension until things turn out better than anything that could have been expected. Such rewards are joyous to encounter, but I think Harris gets stronger effects by having Sut leave us at times in a state of unresolved curiosity, or even uneasiness, which colors our response as we proceed through the tale. Sut does not acknowledge that he knows the cause of our uneasiness--a technique akin to his use of euphemism in order to be more suggestive than if he were direct; for euphemisms of this sort implicate the reader in the obscenity. The best example in the Sheriff Doltin sequence is at the start, the time the former sheriff traumatizes little Sut. Things were going along fine because Sut was getting fed: "Mam hed me a-standin atwixt her knees. I kin feel the knobs ove her jints a-rattlin a-pas' my ribs yet. She didn't hev much petticoats tu speak ove, an' I hed but one, an' hit were calliker slit frum the nap ove my naik tu the tail, hilt tugether at the top wif a draw-string, an' at the bottom by the hem" (227). When the sheriff comes, Sut darts "on all fours onder mam's petticoatails" (229). Naturally, if you are solemncoly, you do not want to think about what little Sut might have seen there, especially if you remember how sharp-eyed he always is and if you recall a later story in which Sut watches his mother lose most of her clothes while fighting with Sall Simmons in the creek (after the fight is over; Sut says he "never seed a frock fit an 'oman as clost as hern did"--so close he could count her ribs through it). But naturally, if you are scholarly, you want to know when Sut gets out from under there. He does not. Well, he must have gotten out sometime, but you are not told when, and you worry about it, a little, in the back of your mind. If you are just a little prurient, you are bothered enough about it to be in a heightened state of awareness when you read about the manifestations of Wat Mastin's interest in Mary McKildrin (his bellowing and pawing up the dust around Mrs. Mckildrin, and so on). You might even worry about it through the whole Sheriff Doltin sequence, for you may be reminded by contrast when Doltin shows up with all that excessive yardage for Mary. For sure, you are reminded by the way the ferryman's wife exposes herself during Doltin's flight in "Trapping a Sheriff." She bounces out of bed and comes to the door in her "shif-tail." Then at the great spectacle of Doltin and the tomcats and the lighted, turpentine-soaked ball of tow, she forgets what she is wearing. As Sut says, she "pulled up what she tuck tu be her aprun, an' kivered her face, an' shet the door wif a snap, an' lef hersef on the outside. I holler'd 'Higher---yer forrid ain't kivered yet.' She run roun the chimley outen sight, still holdin up her aprun" (272).

Well, most of the narrative threads in the Sheriff Doltin sequence are tied up well enough. We know the "consekinses ave foolin wif uther men's wives," for instance. But maybe some of the best questions are left unresolved. Does Mrs. McKildrin ever return after she flees the accusing ghost of her husband? Mary comes back after her own flight, but does Wat keep her--and her and Doltin's Little Rar Ripe? When does Sut get out from under his mam's petticoats?--a question the more urgent because we know she was standing, the sheriff having taken away the chairs. These matters are not only un resolved but unresolvable; Sut is too far away to ask, working his long laigs, his flask glinting in the sun, leaving us a little uneasy, and a little in awe. He would not have told us anyhow, and in the present academic climate it will be a long time before many professors ask such serious questions about either Sut or the man who created him, George Washington Harris, a man who could write about as good as anybody in our country.

I read "Style and Sex in G. W. Harris's Sheriff Doltin Sequence" at the American Literature Section at the Louisville South Atlantic MLA, November 1981. The talk was much later printed as “A Tribute to Harris’s Sheriff Doltin Sequence” in James E. Caron and M. Thomas Inge’s SUT LOVINGOOD’S NAT’RAL BORN YARNSPINNER: ESSAYS ON GEORGE WASHINGTON HARRIS (Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1996).

No comments:

Post a Comment