AMERICAN HUMOR: A STUDY OF THE NATIONAL CHARACTER
"CORN COBS TWIST YOUR HAIR"
TOWARD evening of a midsummer day at the latter end of the eighteenth century a traveler was seen descending a steep red road into a fertile Carolina valley. He carried a staff and walked with a wide, fast, sprawling gait, his tall shadow cutting across the lengthening shadows of the trees. His head was crouched, his back long; a heavy pack lay across his shoulders.
A close view of his figure brought consternation to the men and women lounging at the tavern or near the sheds that clustered around the planter's gate. "I'll be shot if it ain't a Yankee!" cried one. The yard was suddenly vacant. Doors banged and windows were shut. The peddler moved relentlessly nearer, reached a doorway, and laid his pack on the half hatch. The inhabitants had barred their doors and double-locked their money-tills in vain. With scarcely a halt the peddler made his way into their houses, and silver leapt into his pockets. When his pack was unrolled, calicoes, glittering knives, razors, scissors, clocks, cotton caps, shoes, and notions made a holiday at a fair. His razors were bright as the morning star, cut quick as thought, and had been made by the light of a diamond in a cave in Andalusia. He showed hickory cups and bowls and plates, and mentioned the haste with which people in a neighboring village had broken their crockery and thrown it into the street since crockery was known to spread the plague. He told stories of the plague. In the end he invaded every house. Every one bought. The Negroes came up from their cabins to watch his driving pantomime and hear his slow, high talk. Staying the night at a tavern, he traded the landlord out of bed and breakfast and left with most of the money in the settlement.
A magnetized community watched his angular figure in butternut brown march steadily down the valley, climb a steep neighboring hill, and disappear over the top: the inhabitants then settled to a consideration of his singular character. He was said to have sold a load of warming-pans in the West Indies, and when he arrived in a Canadian village with a load of fashionable white paper hats and found no market because of cholera, he ground them up in a mortar and made them into pills. He always traveled alone; he declined to talk politics; he never drank or bet on cocks. When the barter was over he lapsed into an image as wooden as his ware, though he was prickly and local and could be roused to tart rejoinders. "Down east," said a Southerner to a peddler, "a cow and a calf and a calico frock is said to be a girl's portion, and that's the place you come from." "Well," said the Yankee, "an' you're from that place, ain't you? where a potato patch has cracks in it so wide the grasshoppers can't jump over, and that's the portion of the eldest son. My father told me," he continued, "that he was drivin' by one of your great farms, observin' the wretchedness of the land, and he said, 'The fellow that owns this must be plaguey poor.' 'Not so poor as you think,' said somebody from the blackberry bushes, 'for I don't own but a third on't. My father give away one third to a man to take t'other "
Abreast of the frontier, through the widening settlements of the Mississippi, tramped this long-legged wizard, decade by decade, bringing a splatter of color to farms buried deep in the forests, providing the zest of the new tales and sharp talk. He was forever pushing into new regions, and could be descried down the years, walking to Oregon at the heels of the settlers or on the march across the plains to the gold of California. The farther he receded from view the more completely he changed into a sly thin ogre something greater than human size. He was a myth, a fantasy. Many hands had joined to fashion his figure, from the South, from the West, even from New England. What the Yankee peddler was in life and fact can only be guessed. Bronson Alcott was once a peddler. Peddlers may have been chockfull of metaphysics. Their secret has been closely kept. By the end of the eighteenth century the shrewd image had grown secure.
But the peddler was only one aspect of the Yankee myth. A many-sided Yankee had emerged at a stride during the Revolution to the tune of "Yankee Doodle," and soon was scattered in numbers over the earth. Scratch the soil in China or Tibet or North Africa, and up would spring a Yankee, exercising his wits. Before 1800 a tale was 'current in London of a Passamaquoddy captain who was coaxed into a low tavern by some sharpers. Unable to induce him to play, they drank three bottles of wine and departed. "Ah," said the landlord, wagging his head in mock sympathy, "I see you are not acquainted with our London blades. You must pay the reckoning." Jonathan looked discomfited, slowly drew out a handful of silver, gazed at it, and ordered another bottle. When the landlord left to fetch this, simple Jonathan ran to the mantelpiece, chalked the sum, scrawled, "I leave you a Yankee handle for your London blades," and ran out of the door.
The Yankee was often called practical, but in the bits of story and reminiscence quickly accumulating about him, his famed ingenuity often seemed less a practical gift than a knack for making changes. Some Yankees obtained the excitement of change by swapping. One Yankee swapped all the way to the Western Reserve, where he took up a claim, swapped in that region until he could swap no longer, swapped away his claim, and moved on from one piece of wild land to another, arriving at last on a sandy hillside with only the clothes on his back. The Yankee would often spend hours whittling; in his hands unexpected and fanciful shapes would emerge from white hickory, which added nothing to a practical existence. Nor was his favorite form of humor practical, though it bore that name. Elaborately prepared practical jokes consumed time, created enemies, brought into peril life and limb: yet the Yankee evolved a stock of these that amounted to lore and spread from Maine to Georgia.
Masquerade was as common to him as mullein in his stony pastures. He appeared a dozen things that he was not. Long-backed, thin, "lank as a leafless elm," a New England coach driver might look as though a high wind would blow him away, yet he would wear nankeens and low shoes in winter weather, and was not fragile but lusty. Crowned by an old bell-shaped white hat, a tall lad in tow linen trousers reaching halfway down his legs would appear at a tavern. Listless and simple, he might be drawn into a conversation with a stranger, and would tell a ridiculous story without apparent knowledge of its point. With no change of tone, out would leap an odd figure. "He walked away as slick as a snake out of a blackskin." "There we was amongst an ocean of folks and cutting up capers as high as a cat's back." A gulf often yawned between the large facts and his scanted version of them; as he marshaled the characters in a story he was an actor and a troupe.
He seemed cautious and solitary. Asked a question, he was likely to counter with another. One of the early wandering New Englanders who went to London soon after the Revolution wagered a friend that the first Yankee they met would answer any question with a question. They agreed to inquire the time and stopped a man from Salem, who pulled out his watch, gazed at it, said, "What time have you, sir?" Then, in reply to the stated hour, he asked, "Isn't your watch slow?" But this reluctance was only another form of masquerade. These bits of indirection were social; direct replies would end many a colloquy: questions or evasions prolonged the talk and might open the way for more. The habit had a deep root and appeared in many forms. For years stories were told of transplanted Yankees who-kept this pattern of conversation.
The plain, the practical, the saturnine and somber strains no doubt existed in the Yankee, but beneath these ran a surprising quickstep. "Yankee Doodle" was a jig; its innumerable versions told stories. One of them raced off into a runic rhyme--
Corn cobs twist your hair, Cart wheels run round you, Fiery dragons take you off, And mortal pestal pound you.
The Yankee seemed an aboriginal character sprung suddenly, long-sided and nimble, from the gray rocks of his native soil. Surely he was no simple son of the Pilgrim fathers.
As a people the Americans are said to have had no childhood, and the circumstance has been shown to contain pathos as well as loss. But the Yankee stepped out of a darkness that seems antediluvian. Even the name Yankee abides in a thick early dusk, though a passionate research has been devoted to its origin, and numberless theories formed to fit private notions of the Yankee character. The air of "Yankee Doodle" may have come from Galway, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Persia; it may have been a twelfth century church chant; in one stage it was probably a nursery rhyme. No one knows the lineage of the early words. In the matter of racial origins no greater stability has been reached. For many years in England the Yankee was compared with the yeoman of Yorkshire, who was also a wanderer, given to swapping. This ancient and inveterate practice among the northern Saxons was said to have driven hordes of invaders from the country. Many of the original Pilgrims came from Yorkshire, but the strain cannot be proved as determining the Yankee character, for numbers of others came from the south of England; and Ulster, France, Scotland, and Wales added their elements. Racial strains in the Yankee were well mixed.
As the texture of early Puritan life is examined, sources of Yankee strength become apparent, but not of Yankee humor: for humor is a matter of fantasy, and the fantasies of the Puritan, viewed with the most genial eye, remain sufficiently dark. After the abysses revealed by Cotton Mather had been skirted the New England imagination still ran boldly to witches and ghosts. Whittier said that some Irish immigrants settled in New Hampshire about 1820, bringing with them potatoes and fairies; the potatoes flourished, but the fairies died out. The native mind was not prosaic, but it perceived supernatural creatures of a large mold. Whittier wrote of an old strolling woman known as a witch through the valley of the Piscataqua, who once came to his grandfather's house and fell into a deep sleep of several hours. During this time wild gusts of wind swept over the valley and down the river, upsetting wherries and market-boats on the way back from Portsmouth, and the old woman was thought to have cast a vengeful wind-breathing spell. Whittier also pictured a grotesque and hideous phantasm that appeared more than once on the white shore of a little lake that mirrored spray and leaf of pine and maple, and was fringed with orchards. A woman standing at a crossroad near by saw a horse and cart of a style used in New England a century before drive rapidly down a steep hillside and pass over a stone wall a few yards in front of her. The driver's countenance was fierce; behind the cart and lashed to it was a struggling woman of gigantic size, her face contorted by agony and fear, her arms and feet bare, her gray hair streaming. At the edge of the pond the noiseless cavalcade vanished.
Between these many shadows and the persistent humor of the Yankee the gulf seems wide. But humor bears the closest relation to emotion, either bubbling up as from a deep and happy wellspring, or in an opposite fashion rising like a re-birth of feeling from dead levels after turmoil. An emotional man may possess no humor, but a humorous man usually has deep pockets of emotion, sometimes tucked away or forgotten. If there were no index beyond these haunting shapes it would be clear that emotion was pervasive in New England. The exactions of pioneer life had deepened, yet suppressed, emotion. Again, emotion was stirred by the terror of the prevailing faith, yet caught within the meshwork of its tenets. Such compression with such power was bound to result in escapes and explosions. The result was a rebound; and frequently enough this occurred in New England, from the time of the revelers at Merrymount onward. A constant opposition existed between the dark emotions and an earthy humor.
The Revolution, with its cutting of ties, its movement, its impulses toward freedom, seemed to set one portion of the scant population free from its narrow matrix. The obscure dweller in the villages or on the farms - the Yankee bounded up with his irreverent tune, ready to move over the continent or to the ends of the earth, springing clean away from the traditional faith, at least so far as any outward sign appeared in his growing portrait. He could even take the Revolution as a joke; most of his songs about it streamed nonsense. He had left the deeper emotions behind or had buried them.
Proof of his anterior experiences remained in his use of the mask. The mask was a portable heirloom handed down by the pioneer. In a primitive world crowded with pitfalls the unchanging, unaverted countenance had been a safeguard, preventing revelations of surprise, anger, or dismay. The mask had otherwise become habitual among the older Puritans as their more expressive or risible feelings were sunk beneath the surface. Governor Bradford had encouraged its use on a considerable scale, urging certain gay spirits to enjoy themselves in secret, if they must be convivial. No doubt the mask would prove useful in a country where the Puritan was still a power and the risks of pioneering by no means over. The Yankee retained it.
BOSTONIANS were and were not Yankees for many years. Sooner or later most New Englanders acknowledged themselves to be Yankees. Abroad, all Americans, even those from the South, were promptly dubbed Yankee. By the end of the Revolution the small United States had emerged as Brother Jonathan, an out-at-elbows New England country boy with short coat-sleeves, shrunken trousers, and a blank countenance. In the following years of inflated triumph the quiet, uncouth Yankee lad was often innocently put forward as a national symbol. The image was adopted in another of those half-lighted transitions which belong to Yankee history. No one can be sure how or when it was chosen. The name has been thought to derive from Washington's friend, Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, but that dignified figure hardly embodied the Yankee. Out of a past crowded with many dark passages, out of the travail of the Revolution, by a sudden, still agreement the unformed American nation pictured itself as homely and comic.
"The comic," says Bergson, "comes into being just when society and the individual, freed from the worry of self preservation, begin to regard themselves as works of art." With his triumphs fresh and his mind noticeably free, by 1815 the American seemed to regard himself as a work of art, and began that embellished self-portraiture which nations as well as individuals may undertake. No one can say where or how these efforts might have ended if the American had been left to himself. He was not. Foreign artists insisted upon producing their portraits. After a few tours of observation the French, carrying the amiable light luggage of preconceptions derived from Rousseau, declared him to be a child of nature. The phrase gained a considerable popularity and had a long life, but it was difficult to graft the florid idea upon a Yankee base. The British schooling was more constant, and went deeper.
Notebooks in hand, British travelers poured across the sea; and while the onset was flattering the results were not, as these appeared in volumes that rose through many obscure writers to Captain Hall and the famous Mrs. Trollope and finally to Dickens and were echoed in British pulpits or in the august pages of the Quarterly Review. Perhaps the conscious or unconscious sense of an enduring tie between the two nations prompted this marked freedom of utterance. Accustomed to self-criticism of a quantity and stringency which the Americans and possibly no other people have ever attained, the British focused this talent without reserve upon the United States. In the intimate history of relations between the two countries these utterances played an important part; they were full of emotion and aroused emotion in return. The harsh accusations need not be repeated. Many of them were true. But the tacit sense of an alliance did not always make for British understanding. Irving, who surely cannot be accused of lack of sympathy for the British, discussed their extreme credulity in viewing American affairs. At the same time he indicated an essential flaw in the American armor. "Why are we so exquisitely alive to the aspersions of England?" he asked. He found the Americans "morbidly sensitive to the most trifling collision," and feared that the resultant sarcastic habit might ruin the national temper.
Irving's friend Paulding expressed the sarcasm and revealed the hurt in his John Bull in America, a highly popular allegory published in 1825 and many times reprinted. Paulding was acutely aware of a natural alliance between the two nations. With the familiar homely approach he said that Brother Jonathan "always wore a linsey-woolsey coat that did not above half cover his breech, and the sleeves of which were so short that his hand and wrist came out beyond them, looking like a shoulder of mutton.... He was a rather odd-looking chap, and had many queer ways: but everybody that had seen John Bull saw a great likeness between them, and swore that he was John's own boy, and a true chip off the old block. Like the squire he was likely to be blustering and saucy, but in the main he was a peaceable sort of careless fellow, that would quarrel with nobody if you would only let him alone." Because of his sense of a bond, British criticism stung Paulding sharply. Though he took many a neat pot-shot at the American character and scene he lapsed into confused and bitter anger when he saw shots coming thick from the British side. The outcome, however, was that he laughed, and turned his allegory into a trenchant broad burlesque of the British traveler in America, which had points of perennial application. The laughter spread, loud and confused, sensitive and satirical. A little sheaf of allegories similar to Paulding's were written, which made a running accompaniment for a wider and more emphatic assertion.
During the Revolution a fable had appeared on the stage called The Contrast, by Royall Tyler, whose theme was suggested by the exhortations and queries of its prologue -
Exult, each patriot heart!-this night is strewn A piece, which we may fairly call our own; Where the proud titles of "My Lord ! Your Grace !" To humble Mr. and plain Sir give place. Our Author pictures not from foreign climes The fashions or the follies of the times.... On native themes his Muse displays her pow'rs; If ours the faults, the virtues too are ours. Why should our thoughts to distant countries roam, When each refinement may be found at home? Who travels now to ape the rich or great, To deck an equipage and roll in state; To court the graces, or to dance with ease, Or by hypocrisy to strive to please ?Our free-born ancestors such arts despis'd, Genuine sincerity alone they priz'd; Their minds, with honest emulation fir'd, To solid good-not ornament-aspir'd....
Thus the prologue attacked a question referred to many years later in the title of Mrs. Trollope's famous book-the manners of the Americans, a subject, indeed, which was often to engage British attention.
The new American rejoinder was double: first that all refinements might be found at home; then that they didn't matter. On the whole the second view prevailed in the play and perhaps elsewhere. The contrast lay between an honest plain American and a silly, foppish, infamous Englishman. But it was a third character, the Yankee Jonathan, who gave savor to the notion that only a rough sincerity was of consequence in America. Introduced for the purpose of comic relief, he might easily have become a puppet; but his author hailed from Vermont, and Jonathan drew the breath of life. Astute and simple, gross and rambling, rural to the core, he talked "nat'r'l"-talked his way through the scenes, and became a presiding genius.
His appearance was dynamic. For a generation or more the fable and the portrait were worked over by many hands, until at last, from 1825 onward, when the British commentaries were in full swing, Yankee plays began to appear on the American stage all over the country.
Neat, small, and brightly colored, they repeated the original fable with a naive and belligerent charm; each was sharply different from the others in scene and thread of story; in each the Yankee was a looming figure. He might be a peddler, a sailor, a Vermont wool-dealer, or merely a Green Mountain boy who traded and drawled and upset calculations; he was Lot Sapsago or Jedediah Homebred or Jerusalem Dutiful; sometimes he was a sailor. But he was always the symbolic American. Unless he appeared as a tar his costume hardly varied: he wore a white bell crowned hat, a coat with long tails that was usually blue, eccentric red and white trousers, and long boot-straps. Brother Jonathan had in fact turned into Uncle Sam. Half bravado, half cockalorum, this Yankee revealed the traits considered deplorable by the British travelers; he was indefatigably rural, sharp, uncouth, witty. Here were the manners of the Americans! Peddling, swapping, practical joking, might have been national preoccupations. He burst periodically into song, with variations of "Yankee Doodle," with local ballads celebrating Yankee exploits, or chanteys. Some of the plays verged upon the operatic, and the prevailing high national pitch was repeated by casual allusions. A tavern was called "The Sign of the Spread Eagle." Beneath this aegis roamed the Briton, still wicked, still mannered and over-polished, either rich or nefariously seeking riches, and always defeated by simple rural folk to the accompaniment of loud laughter. Once indeed there was no contrast; rather the wistful contention of an alliance was repeated, and a gawky Yankee lad proved to be the son of an English nobleman.
This wry triumphant portrait was repeated again and again, up and down the Atlantic coast, over and over in the newly opened West, where its popularity had a quirk of oddity .r Sectionalism had become remnant in the late 1820's; the western almanacs and papers were full of stories disparaging the Yankee. But of all portions of the country the West was smarting most acutely from British criticism; the emblematical Yankee was boisterously applauded there. He also traveled to England, where he was viewed with disapproval, not because of his derision of the British, which seems to have been received with equanimity, but because the character was genuinely disliked. Still, the Yankee was a novelty, and the Americans a favorite subject. With a sturdy disregard of pleasure London audiences continued to attend the Yankee plays.
Phantasmal conceptions may have sprung from this simple early stem, at home and abroad. Other national types had developed slowly, even through centuries, without close definition by themselves or by others. The American stepped full-length into the public glare, and steadily heightened the early yellow light. He gazed at himself in the Yankee plays as in a bright mirror, and developed the habit of self-scrutiny, which may have its dangers for the infant or youth, whether the creature be national or human.
THE image did not remain fixed; Yankee aptitudes took care of that. The local Yankee came into closer view. No one contributed more to this alteration than a now forgotten artist, Yankee Hill-George Handel Hill. Merry, improvident, unworldly, in his own character he offered proof of Yankee variability. He liked fine clothes, good living, a pair of spanking horses with a brightly painted carriage. He was always deciding to give up the stage and adopt another profession; he studied half a dozen, but he remained an actor all his days. In New York he found that every touch of his native lingo brought applause even when he slipped into it by accident. He soon made Yankee portraiture his own, and went back to New England repeatedly to renew and widen his knowledge of the native character. His scribbled reminiscences abound in slight and charming New England sketches. He wrote of a fashionable dressmaker in a tiny village, with her faded blue and red swinging sign, her fondness for Byron, Bohea, and blushes. He pictured an old Revolutionary pensioner telling stories at a tavern over mugs of cider with the help of the villagers, who knew the stories all by heart.
Full of observation, full of affection, Hill's acting was pure in outline. Native traits were gently laid on-the stumbling security, the evasions that were social in intention, the habit of masquerade. His Yankees, quiet and low voiced, wearing his own mild countenance, whittled a great deal and talked quite as much, but never very loud. They might have been evolved over hasty pudding and cider, at quilting-bees or husking-parties. They were deeply relished in New England. Hill was often invited to "come down our way and give a show." In Maine a Yankee from one of the farms was perturbed throughout an evening's performance because he thought that Hill had failed to arrive and that the part was being taken by one of his own neighbors.
In England this racy quiet portraiture commanded a considerable enthusiasm. The Yankec--- and in England the Yankee still invariably meant the American-was now warmly received, and understanding between the two peoples may have lightly teetered in the balance. But it was on native ground that Hill expanded and enriched his style. Stories had always been a Yankee habit. Hill increased their number until he bordered upon monologue, occasionally interrupted by the other players and by the progress of the action. Soon he adopted the monologue outright for some of his performances. Alone on the stage he could create an awkward young crowd of Yankees at a militia training, or a New England family in the midst of small affairs, with neighbors coming and going. His lecture called a Learned Society was a small comic monument to the New England thirst for abstruse discussion. He was full of simple satire, and gave many a sly thrust at New England pride before his native audiences, even touching on the character of the original Pilgrims, whom he appeared to regard with bored irreverence.
Yankee speech with its slow-running rhythms and high pitch-as if an inner voice were speaking below the audible one was well adapted to the monologue. Its sound was subtly varied; the cautious drawl served to feel a way among the listeners. As Lowell pointed out some years later, Yankee speech was not so much a dialect as a lingo: that is, its oddities were consciously assumed. It was another form of masquerade. Homely comparisons belonged to it-"strong as whitleather," "so thin you could pitch him clean through a flute." Hill used these sparely: "If you catch me there agin, you'll catch a white weasel asleep, I tell you." All his handling was narrow and thin; his lines rarely held of their own weight, yet they grew in texture.
Hill had drawn the native Yankee from the life, yet he sheered away from the highly individualized portrait. Though the monologue is essentially a personal affair, always verging upon soliloquy, he never turned it to individual uses. What came out was the group, the family, the little crowd. His portraits were generic, and in the end, for all the purely local emphasis, his Yankee was something more than Yankee. He was still the American. For the mock lectures as for the plays Hill continued to wear the flaxen wig, the red-white-and-blue costume, the high bootstraps and tall white hat of the nationalistic Yankee; and until his death in the late '40's he appeared in the fables of the contrast with their stress upon the nationalistic character.
Other players followed Hill in strengthening the local style and in maintaining the nationalistic outline. Silsbee and Marble, also Yankee born, disguised themselves as sailors or country lads and went to the villages and water fronts of New England to pick up new talk and new situations. They too centered upon the single character and drifted into monologues; they also kept the red-white-and blue costume, and continued to act in the fables of the contrast. The Yankee had leapt into national stature, then had turned back, so to speak, to his native soil, but he again slipped outside the local character and became a national myth.
ABOUT the time when Hill first enlarged the Yankee portrait, in the late '20's, a lad traveled from a small village in Maine to Portland with a load of ax-handles, a cheese, and a bundle of footings. As his stay lengthened he grew reminiscent in letters home, writing of an old neighbor who sometimes drank a toast to the apple-trees in cider, and of the first arrival of the family in the Maine woods when they had all camped under a great oak, and of his Aunt Nabby, and of "making wall." He was not particularly successful in barter, though in Boston he got his watch off "pretty curiously." When he showed it in a barroom a man stepped up who offered to trade. "Says he, I'll give you my watch and five dollars. Says I, it's done! He gave me five dollars, and I gave him my watch. Now, says I, give me your watch-and says he, with a loud laugh, I han't got none and that kinda turned the laugh on me. Thinks I, let them laugh that lose. Soon as the laugh was well over, the feller thought he'd try the watch to his ear why, says he, it don't go-no, says I, not without it's carried."
The lad soon slipped away from trading; he had ambitions, and hoped to make "them are chaps that have been a sneering at me here stare at me like an owl in a thunderstorm." Presently he settled in Washington as adviser to President Jackson, "the old Gineral," as he called him.
This character was Jack Downing, whose author, Seba Smith, was born in Maine. The Downing papers were first printed in a Portland newspaper. They were as Yankee as the mock lectures of Hill, and read as though they were spoken or drawled, they were monologues. In them the Yankee emerged in a new role, as oracle. Downing was the President's friend in the unfolding situations, and this relationship was humanly drawn and kept: but beneath the placid stream of talk ran a drastic criticism of the Jacksonian democracy. The Peggy Eaton affair was satirized in an account of a similar scramble among the farmers' wives of Downingville. Nothing could have been more searching than the mild narratives that pictured the hordes of office seekers and the extremes of land speculation. Leading Jacksonians were gently lampooned. According to one letter, when the President's bedroom window was found open a discussion ensued among his friends, who decided that a thief had come and gone that way. To test the possibility a long ladder was placed against the wall, and several of the gentlemen mounted, but were unable to reach the top. Van Buren almost reached it, then descended. "He turned right round to the Gineral calm as moonshine, and says he, 'Gineral, it wouldn't prove anything if I should get up to the window and I guess we may as well let it alone.' "
During the Mexican War Jack Downing reflected, "Some think the business isn't profitable; but it's only because they haven't ciphered into it fur enough to understand it. Upon an average, we get at least ten to one for our outlay, any way you can figure it up-I mean in the matter of people. Take, for instance, the City of Mexico. It would cost us only two or three thousand men to annex it, after we got into the neighborhood of it; and we get at least one hundred and fifty thousand in that city, and some put it down as high as two hundred thousand. Some find fault with the quality of the people we'd get in this country, jest as if that had anything to do with the merits of the case. They ought to remember that in a Government like ours, where the people is used for voting, and where every nose counts one, it is the number we are to stan' about in annexin' and not the quality, by no means....
"The long and short of it is, we fit our way into the City of Mexico and annexed it. Santa Anna cleared out the night afore with what troops he had left, and is scouring about the country to get some more places ready for us to annex. When he gets another place all ready for the ceremony, and gets it well fortified, and has an army of twenty or thirty thousand men in the forts and behind the breastworks, we shall march down upon 'em with five or six thousand men, and go through the flurry. After they have shot down about half of us, the rest of us will climb in, over the mouths of their cannons, and annex that place; and so on, one after another. It's pretty hard work annexin' in this way but it's the only way it can be done. It will be necessary for the President to keep hurryin' on his men to keep our ranks full, for we've got a great deal of ground to go over yet. What we've annexed in Mexico, so far, isn't a circumstance to what we've got to do.... It's dangerous standin' still in this annexin' business. It's like the old woman's soap-if it don't go ahead it goes back."
Later Jack Downing said to General Pierce: "Uncle Joshua always says, in nine cases out of ten it costs more to rob an orchard than it would to buy the apples."
The low-keyed satire, the faint masquerade, might have been rooted national habit, so snugly did these fit into the popular fancy. Here was the other side of cockalorum and bravado, swinging to satire and understatement, using a delicately edged weapon. There was irony in the situation, irony in the immense popularity which the Downing papers commanded. These monologues were spoken by a humble character who might have been expected to exalt rather than to puncture the workings of the democracy. This mythical oracle from a down east village had risen to his dominating position at the very moment when the power of New England appeared to be in decline, signalized by the reluctant departure of John Quincy Adams from the White House. Out of apparent defeat the legendary Yankee had risen like a jack-in-the-box, thriving on contention. He was still a national figure, however often he dipped into the life of Downingville or Portland; and he still belonged to fantasy rather than to actuality. He seemed a person; indeed Seba Smith considered his drawing of the character of greater importance than the political satire. Truly enough in the first view Jack Downing makes the appeal of a genuine character. Yet as he is approached personal signs disappear. The tiny idiosyncrasies, the positive reactions, the many involvements which set off one character from another are never the focus of attention. He is lucid and large; he belongs with the Yankee of the fables.
The Downing papers continued for twenty years almost without a break, and were copied by newspapers throughout the country. They had an immense circulation in book form under the faintly satirical title, My Thirty Years Out of the Senate and were shamelessly imitated by half a dozen prolific writers who signed themselves Jack Downing and often matched his author in wit. In fact Jack Downing had opened a sluice. Sam Slick, the Yankee clock peddler, would probably never have existed without the figure of Downing as a model. Never so clearly drawn as Downing, the creation of a Nova Scotian who hardly knew New England, Slick achieved a mammoth popularity that lasted for three decades or more, and in the end all but obliterated the reputation of the quiet original. After Slick came Hezekiah Biglow, who forsook subtle Yankee prose rhythms for rhyme, and who with all his timely challenges was somewhat Rigidly governed by Lowell's theory that "true humor is never divorced from moral conviction." But lapses in drawing seemed to make little difference, so deep was the hold of the Yankee upon the popular fancy. For forty years or more after Jack Downing's first appearance, the country was never without a Yankee oracle or even half a dozen.
IN THE early '30's on the levee at New Orleans Audubon saw a Yankee in a wide flopping hat, a light green coat, flowing yellow nankeen trousers, and a pink waistcoat. From the waistcoat arose the billowing frill of a shirt, from the shirt a magnificent bunch of magnolia flowers, from the magnolias the head of a young alligator, "swinging to and fro amongst the folds of finest lawn." The Yankee, walking pompously, carried a bright silk umbrella in one hand, a cage of brightly plumaged birds in the other. He was singing "My love is but a lassie yet" in broad Scots, but his conversation proved his origin. He remains as a note-a brief wash-drawing-in Audubon's rapidly written journal. In letters, diaries, travels of the first half of the nineteenth century many similar jottings were made, which were seldom deepened or enlarged. In the main, the more abstract elements in the Yankee character commanded attention. John Neal's paper, The Yankee, founded in 1828, overflowed with generalized sketches from "about the middle of down east" and serious definitions of Yankee traits.
Something of a cult of the Yankee developed. "The word Yankee is no longer a term of reproach," said Neal defensively. "It is getting to be a title of distinction." "So far from being a talking boor," said Seba Smith, "he is on the contrary singularly wise, penetrating, and observant,reproducing in our day, from traditional use, the language of Shakespeare and Milton." Whether or not this was true, the Yankee had created a speech of his own with an abundance of homely metaphor; and his lingo was greatly relished even outside New England. "Coming on full chisel." "Saw my old hat in two if I don't do it." Such expressions were garnered in almanacs and joke-books that penetrated to all parts of the country. Small stories were told of how Jonathan climbed a greased pole by a trick; sketches were drawn of Jonathan sleighing in a pung. Occasional sea tales pictured him off for a "Nantucket sleigh-ride," and strange ghostly exploits in far parts of the world were added to the range of his accomplishments.
These tales were often full of circumstance, yet Jonathan remained, as in the beginning, an abstract figure. Even longer efforts to picture the Yankee proved no closer to the full character. From the '30's onward a small crop of Yankee novels appeared whose delineations almost invariably paused with a simple sketch, as though the writers found themselves unable to push beyond general outlines. It is true that one of them, Jonathan Slick in New York, by Ann Stephens, was full of fresh detail, so fresh indeed that it sparkled and glinted. In Jonathan's letters home some pretentious people in New York, their ambitions, their ways of living, their houses and furniture, appeared as in a bright-colored print; even the contours of the mahogany sofas and the silver on the dining-table and the chintzes at the windows were clear. Jonathan himself was there. talking-for the book is a monologue in his native lingo. But with these accomplishments the line was drawn. Jonathan was still the old Jonathan; the story was the old fable of the contrast, slightly altered, now proving the superiority of the rural Yankee over the New Yorker.
In the middle '40's the fable was repeated again in Mrs. Mowatt'sFashion, which was almost a precise echo of the original Contrast, even to the prologue. Its Yankee was none the less Yankee for being a Cattaraugus farmer. Mr. Tiffany had been a peddler; the old consciousness of for eign criticism was still sharp. "In a word, madam," said the Count, "I have seen enough of civilized life-wanted to refresh myself by a sight of barbarous countries and customs-had my choice between the Sandwich Islands and New York-chose New York!" With the appearance of Fashion the fable had been maintained for nearly three quarters of a century; and it was destined to endure many decades longer. Its repetition proved a lasting involvement with foreign opinion, just as the noisy assertion of American superiority suggested an underlying doubt that this superiority existed. The popular gaze was still fixed upon the homely and triumphant nationalistic figure.
The Yankee was never passive, not the crackerbox philosopher seated in some dim interior, uttering wisdom before a ring of quiet figures; he was noticeably out in the world; it was a prime part of his character to be "a-doin'." But though he often pulled strings, always made shrewd or caustic comments, though he often belonged to a family- like the Downing family-he was seldom deeply involved in situations; even his native background was meagerly drawn. A fence, a bit of stone wall, or the remembrance of wild life showing in his talk-not too wild, recalling only the smaller creatures of the wood: these made his spare setting. Though he talked increasingly his monologues still never brimmed over into personal revelation. He was drawn with ample color and circumstance, yet he was not wholly a person. His mask, so simply and blankly worn, had closed down without a crack or a seam to show a glimpse of the human creature underneath.
A barrier seemed to lie between this legendary Yankee and any effort to reach his inner character. The effect was so consistent, so widespread, so variously repeated that the failure to see him closely must be reckoned not a failure at all but a concerted interest in another direction. He was consistently a mythical figure; he appeared in the forms of expression taken by myth, in cycles of short tales, fables, and plays. Plain and pawky, he was an ideal image, a self image, one of those symbols which peoples spontaneously adopt and by which in some measure they live. Overassertive yet quiet, self-conscious, full of odd new biases, he talked- this mythical creature: that was one secret of his power. A deep relish for talk had grown up throughout the country, on solitary farms, in the starved emptiness of the backwoods, on the wide wastes of the rivers. The response seemed an outcome of isolation; yet the same thirst existed upon the denser populations of the East. His slanting dialect, homely metaphor, the penetrating rhythms of his speech, gave a fillip toward the upset of old and rigid balances; creating laughter, he also created a fresh sense of unity. He ridiculed old values; the persistent contrast with the British showed part of his intention; to some extent he created new ones. He was a symbol of triumph, of adaptability, of irrepressible life-of many qualities needed to induce confidence and self-possession among a new and unamalgamated people. No character precisely like him had appeared before in the realm of the imagination. In the plays he may have stemmed at first from the Yorkshireman of early English plays; the framework of many a situation in which he appeared may have been borrowed; but he had existed in life outside all these; and his final character was newly minted. It was to survive in many fanciful manifestations as an outline of the American character; it has never been lost.
BUT again the character of the legendary Yankee was altered. The backwoodsman, rising in the West, was also destined to command the national horizon. It was not for nothing that the living Yankee brushed against him in his travels; by the middle '30's he had appropriated western tall tales in a spare gingerly fashion of his own.
"Did you ever hear of the scrape that I and Uncle Zekiel had duckin' on't on the Connecticut?" asked a peddler of an old Dutch woman who had let him spend the night in her cottage in return for a new milk-pan. The story went the round of the almanacs.
"Well, you must know that I and Uncle Zeke took it into our heads one Saturday's afternoon to go a gunning after ducks, in father's skiff; so in we got and sculled down the river; a proper sight of ducks flew backwards and forwards I tell yc and by'm by a few on 'em lit down by the ma'sh, and went to feeding. I catched up my powder horn to prime, and it slipped right out of my hand and sunk to the bottom of the river. The water was amazingly clear, and I could see it on the bottom. Now I couldn't swim a jot, so sez I to Uncle Zeke, you're a pretty clever fellow, just let me take your powder horn to prime. And don't you think, the stingy fellow wouldn't. Well, says I, you're a pretty good diver, 'n' if you'll dive and get it I'll give you primin'. I thought he'd leave his powder horn; but he didn't, but stuck it in his pocket, and down he went-and there he staid." Here the peddler made a perceptible pause. "I looked down, and what do you think the critter was doin'?" "Lord," exclaimed the old woman, "I don't know !" "There he was," said the peddler, "setting right on the bottom of the river, pouring the powder out of my horn into hizen."