William Faulkner said much about Southern writing when he called Henry James “the nicest old lady lever met.” He indicated, of course, the sense of humor that the region has always had. And he indicated his disregard for the kind of psychological drama that identifies the target of his joke. If James liked to have a character weep seriously over wall paper, as he did in The Spoils of Poynton, Faulkner was likely to come up with a well-armed Sutpen or Sartoris for some blood and guts violence.
The South has always done it that way. We tend to express our conflicts with dramatic external gestures rather than let them rest on the psychological level. Our literary heritage accepts easily that Oedipus would actually gouge out his eyes when he discovers just how useless they have been. And the terrible violence at the end of Hamlet seems perfect [to us] as it brings to the surface the psychological conflicts that have gone before it.
An agrarian economy probably explains this literal approach best. Life close to the land just does not call for much abstraction or much weeping over wall paper. The Greeks showed us that as they gave their gods human form and brought them to earth. Things are equally definite for Southerners. Our guilt is not something in the back of the mind; it stands before us in the black man. Our religion often comes straight off the pages of the Bible and can call for baptisms in the river as well as for taking up serpents. And our conflicts with each other take physical form often enough to give us a grand rate of violent crime. We owe that curious and ironic mix of intense religion and real violence to the same source—our inclination to the literal and dramatic.
Perhaps the familiar tale of the Mississippi father, who had sent his son off to an eastern college, makes the point. The father heard the boy, home from college, swear “Jesus Christ” and was quick to point out that Southerners who curse say “god damn.” The former curse is ambiguous enough even to be taken as a prayer. The latter gets the job done with some drama and without any doubt.
Our comedy comes forward in the same way. Humor thrives on incongruity, a pie in the face when we have on our best outfits, a Charlie Chaplin carving up a boiled boot as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey. Thus the South’s particular advantage, for its incongruities emerge in literal and dramatic form. We are not talking so much about wit and word play but about our good old boys and girls who are forever having head-on conflicts with each other and with modernity. So, subtlety may not always be our long suit, but good broad comedy is. And most good anthologies of Southern humor make that point. The pieces in such collections usually range widely—from some of our best known fiction writers and their followers through some of the many essayists who have brought Southern ways to what is loosely called the new journalism.
I want to make two additional points. First, the South’s comic sensibility almost always indicates a general acceptance of the human situation. Our foibles are conspicuous enough; but the approach of our best writers is to let that be what it may, perhaps even to enjoy some of it. Almost never do they pass large moral judgments. Flannery O’Connor may have had the sternest vision; yet her characters are notably human, and moral superiority just does not exist even when, as in “Revelation,” she brings her Wellesley girl face to face with her woman from the hog farm. And among more recent examples, William Price Fox’s Doug Broome is the ultimate con artist, a fast food man who knows that there is no such thing as a small Coke, and yet he turns out to be notably humane as he takes care of the haphazard folks who drift through his establishment. Lewis Grizzard’s preacher, Brother Roy Dodd, who heals only internal organs and no broken bones, calls for our laughter and our sympathy in his wackiness. And Larry King’s whores, just one more fact of life, do have hearts of gold.
And finally, some of our best writers of Southern humor are still alive and productive. Thus the hope that the good times will continue. Additional comfort lies in the extraordinary ability of contemporary humorists, like their predecessors, to both understand and accept human nature. Perhaps the cultivation of this particular ability led them to comedy in the first place since the laughs are the best mark of a forbearance of humanity, since they make happy the business of seeing ourselves so clearly.