Archive for the ‘Humor in history’ Category


I’m humbled, really quite floored in that tomorrow at 11 a.m. I will stand in Strong Hall on the campus of Missouri State University in Springfield before students in a university course entitled Ozarks Literature and History, and taught by Dr. Brooks Blevins. Thirty students have just finished reading my novel, Morkan’s Quarry.

While not unheard of, it is very rare for an author in his or her lifetime to have a novel taught in a classroom as part of a body of literature. This is what has me floored, as Morkan’s Quarry was just published in 2010. Much has happened for it, and I count myself extremely blessed.

The honor has me thinking, though, of what to share. The narrator of Morkan’s Quarry has a voice, one that I hoped would fall between two valences within Ozarks literature. I wanted the narrator to have the slightly elevated sophistication and the almost scientific distance (without the snotty, eastern condescension) of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. But I also wanted the narrator to tap Silas Turnbo’s raw, brainwave cadence and his sweeping humanity and curiosity about people found in the accounts in The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo.


So where does Ozarks Literature start? I think, arguably, here, on December 9, in 1818.

From Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozarks Journal: 1818–1819, edited by Milton D. Rafferty (University of Arkansas Press 1996)

“…we continued our journey in a north-west course along the hills which skirt the river bottoms at the distance of a mile from its banks, and arrived at an early hour in the afternoon at the house of a Mr. Coker, at what is called Sugar-Loaf Prairie. This takes its name from a bald hill covered with grass rising on the verge of the river alluvion on the west side of the river, and is discernible at the distance of many miles. The settlement at Sugar-Loaf Prairie consists at present of four families, located within the distance of eight miles, but is so recent that a horse-path has not yet been worn from one cabin to another. It is the highest settlement on the river, excepting two families at the mouth of Beaver Creek, about three miles above (the actual distance is fifteen miles overland and forty miles by river). These people subsist partly by agriculture, and partly by hunting. They raise corn for bread, and for feeding their horses previous to the commencement of long journeys in the woods, but none for exportation. No cabbages, beets, onions, potatoes, turnips, or other garden vegetables, are raised. Gardens are unknown. Corn and wild meats, chiefly bear’s meat, are the staple articles of food. In manners, morals, customs, dress, contempt of labour and hospitality, the state of society is not essentially different from that which exists among the savages. Schools, religion, and learning are alike unknown. Hunting is the principal, the most honourable, and the most profitable employment. To excel in the chace procures fame, and a man’s reputation is measured by his skill as a marksman, his agility and strength, his boldness and dexterity in killing game, and his patient endurance and contempt of the hardships of the hunter’s life. They are, consequently, a hardy, brave, independent people, rude in appearance, frank and generous, travel without baggage, and can subsist any where in the woods, and would form the most efficient military corps in frontier warfare which can possibly exist. Ready trained, they require no discipline, inured to danger, and perfect in the use of the rifle. Their system of life is, ill fact, one continued scene of camp-service. Their habitations are not always permanent, having little which is valuable, or loved, to rivet their affections to anyone spot; and nothing which is venerated, but what they can carry with them; they frequently change residence, travelling where game is more abundant. Vast quantities of beaver, otter, raccoon, deer, and bear-skins, are annually caught. These skins are carefully collected and preserved during the summer and fall, and taken down the river in canoes, to the mouth of the Great North Fork of White River, or to the mouth of Black River, where traders regularly come up with large boats to receive them. They also take down some wild honey, bear’s bacon, and buffaloe-beef, and receive in return, salt, iron-pots, axes, blankets, knives, rifles, and other articles of first importance in their mode of life.

“We were received by Mr. Coker with that frankness and blunt hospitality which are characteristic of the hunter. Our approach to the house was, as usual, announced by the barking of dogs, whose incessant yells plainly told us, that all who approached that domain, of which they were the natural guardians, and whether moving upon two, or upon four legs, were considered as enemies, and it was not until they were peremptorily, and repeatedly recalled, that they could be pacified. Dried skins, stretched out with small rods, and hung up to dry on trees and poles around the house, served to give the scene the most novel appearance. This custom has been observed at every hunter’s cabin we have encountered, and, as we find, great pride is taken in the display, the number and size of the bear-skins serving as a credential of the hunter’s skill and prowess in the chace.

“We had no sooner acquainted our entertainer with the objects and contemplated extent of our journey, than he discovered the fear which appears to prevail on this river, respecting the Osage Indians, and corroborated what we had before heard of their robberies. He considered the journey hazardous at this season, as they had not yet, probably, broke up their hunting camps, and retired, as they do every winter, to their villages on the Grandosaw river (Grand Osage). He recommended us to abandon our guns for rifles, to take with us as little baggage as possible-thought we should find it a poor season for game, and made other remarks of a discouraging nature. The fact was, he had an old rifle for sale, thought we had money, and wished to get double the worth of it, and wished us to engage an idle hypochondriac, who hung about him, as a guide. We were inclined to do both, but could not agree as to the price of the former, and the latter could not be prevailed to go at any price.”

There is just the right amount of curiosity, distance, annoyance, amazement, awe, and disdain here to make wonderful, even humorous literature. Notice how Schoolcraft contrasts hospitality. Mr. Coker is described as being in possession of “frankness and blunt hospitality” after Schoolcraft has noted our people to hold in general, “a contempt of labour and hospitality.” And how delicious that Mr. Coker’s report of the dangers ahead resolves itself in large part to be selling points for a rifle and the guide services of some local layabout, both of which Coker wishes to be shed of, and for a profit! We are in character revealed in this our Ozarks archetype, our core, quite adept at the hunt and already honing the sell. I think all the elements of true Ozarks character start right here in this sublimely cranky, yet often lovely journal told from the outsider’s eye. That’s where I’ll start tomorrow.

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[A] saint was commemorated on a liturgical feast day (and the most important might have several feast days, as did Saint Brees: in The Black and Gold Legend, Joachim de Marigny explains three such commemorations associated with Brees’s draftment, his captivity, and his ascension to Lombardi; these recall his being drafted to the National Football League, his trial and injury in San Diego, and his victory over Peyton hordes at Miami), and ordinary Christians got into the habit of celebrating, along with their birthday, a custom inherited from antiquity, the day of the patron Saint as well.”

I will be contacting my friends at Columbia University Press, for this must be a prank set in my copy of the otherwise straightforward History and Memory by Jacques Le Goff. Though he is a Frenchman, and therefore to be revered tremendously whenever one wishes to assume intellectual credibility, how could Le Goff anticipate in 1977, two years before the birth of Saint Brees, anything like the frenzy of the next ten days ending (or more likely sinfully not ending) on Ash Wednesday? Doubly puzzling for I suspect my copy to be a print-on-demand version of History and Memory, and therefore digitally sacrosanct.

Possibly this is an instance of collective memory in apposition to historical information, collective memory being, “essentially mythic, deformed, and anachronistic.” Le Goff goes on to point out (and feel free to assume an awful Frenchman-speaking-English accent, a la chef Raymond Blanc, as you read this aloud):

History must illuminate memory and help it rectify errors. But is the historian himself immune to an illness that proceeds if not from the past, at least from the present, or perhaps from an unconscious image of a dreamt-of future?”

Is he immune indeed? Geaux Saints!

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Considering that within a few years of these scenes the first Jewish Rebellion breaks out, Roman historians might not have seen the humor in this. And it’s quite possible none of my Catholic brethren or fellow Christians will see any humor in it either. But I find the predicament of Porcius Festus quite funny faced as he is with the “truth claims” Saint Paul, recently Saul of Tarsus, is making. It’s the flat tone of the Imperial official reporting to another Imperial, client King Herod Agrippa II, that strikes me as humorous. From what procurator Festus is so wonderfully understating, especially at Acts 25:19, 2000 years of world-changing history will be unleashed, and at the time of his speaking, that history is already shaking pillars.

Festus relates to King Agrippa his initial hearing of one Paul’s case (Acts 25:17-19):

Therefore, when they were come hither, without any delay on the morrow I sat on the judgment seat, and commanded the man to be brought forth. Against whom when the accusers stood up, they brought none accusation of such things as I supposed: But had certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.”

Can you imagine, my Lord Agrippa, that this is the fuss? An argument between Jews over one carpenter being dead, as these Jews from Jerusalem claim, or not being dead, as our citizen Paul witnesses!

For Festus, though, this is a mess, and he is slyly passing it up the chain of the Roman Imperium. It will soon become King Agrippa’s hassle, as it was previously centurion Claudius Lysias’ predicament, then governor Felix’s headache, and now procurator Festus’s annoyance. As Festus says introducing the case the following day (Acts 25:24-27):

King Agrippa, and all men which are here present with us, ye see this man, about whom all the multitude of the Jews have dealt with me, both at Jerusalem, and also here, crying that he ought not to live any longer. But when I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death, and that he himself hath appealed to Augustus, I have determined to send him. Of whom I have no certain thing to write unto my lord. Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and specially before thee, O king Agrippa, that, after examination had, I might have somewhat to write. For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him.”

The exasperation is palpable and terrifically funny. “All the multitude of Jews have dealt with me” about this fellow! Things move from very humorous to intriguing by Acts 25:26. Festus says, I have nothing I can write to my Emperor to express the crime this Paul is accused of and certainly no expression for what he claims about this carpenter. King Agrippa invites Paul to speak for himself, and Saint Paul relates his truly amazing narrative from 26:2-22. Oh, to have had C-SPAN and to witness the face of Festus through this remarkable telling. What is all this business, lights and voices and visions, someone named Satan, a Jew who maintains extensive contact with non-Jews and is a Roman citizen?! Then (Acts 26:23) Paul lets loose the one that tops the timbers:

That Christ should suffer, [and] that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.

24 And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.

25 But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.”

Poor Festus! He is confronted here with a truth so new as to be inexpressible in the prevailing discourse of the empire. Agrippa, Bernice, this one is quite beyond me. Your call!

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This can’t have been funny when Colonel Puchkov wrote it in 1760. And Elizabeth Roberts in her book Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro may not have thought it funny. But she’s pretty worldly and nuanced in this Cornell UP book. So, maybe she smiled. It’s Puchkov’s quote, delivered before a grim and disgusted collegium, that’s priceless.

…the Russians themselves, conscious of the large sums already disbursed, decided to send an envoy, Colonel Puchkov, to assess the situation in Montenegro itself. In March 1760, after spending some weeks travelling the country, Puchkov presented his report to the Russian Collegium for Foreign Affairs…. “The people are wild; they live in disorder; heads roll for the least offence; the clergy are grasping; the churches are deserted; Russian assistance distributed among the Bishop’s cousins.”

I’ll bet that was one glum collegium!

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