How they loved their dialect humor

One of the least attractive qualities of Lincoln, to many observers and commentators, was his love of dialect humor. One senses that the vast popularity of dialect literature during and after the war was offset by tastes that regarded it as uncouth.

It certainly is (or was) perishable, with the writer relying on readers awarding points for accuracy in accent engineering. Funny nuances in misspeaking get lost over time, so, too does the color fade from all those vibrant regionalisms.

A couple of weeks ago I met with a client who told me where she was from. Me: "I knew right away by your accent." She gave me a hurt look and said, "People tell me I speak the least accented American English they have ever heard." I speak with the same accent as she and could render our exchange in dialect for you, but you would have no idea how to read it: where the stresses go, how to make the sounds, and how to string it together into its local rhythm. I'm convinced that many today cannot hear or distinguish among even the strongest accents.

For instance, actor Richard Briers was in an online chat a few years ago. He had done three seasons as the laird emeritus in TV's Monarch of the Glen (a kind of minstrel show staged by BBC Scotland for export markets). His character and his TV kin spoke perfect Oxbridge English on the set to servants owning rich Scottish brogues, exactly as the Cabots and the Lodges today speak in neutral Mid-Atlantic tones to their servants, who then respond in barbaric Bostonspeak.

One of the online chatterers asked Briers (IIRC) How did you manage to perfect your Scottish accent? Was it hard to do? Did you take lessons? After an online stutter, the actor gently noted that the Scottish nobility is anglicized and so his character lacked a Scottish accent; despite the presence of Scots' English on the show, Briers' questioner could not hear the difference between Upstairs and Downstairs.

It seems, however, some do laugh at dialect humor nowadays, but not on the written page. Think low (Beverly Hillbillys), think high (Fargo). And here comes that problem again of hearing your own voice:
There is a distinctive Minnesota accent that the makers of this film [Drop Dead Gorgeous] nailed absolutely dead to rights, and the proof is that most native Minnesotans, when shown this film, respond by saying, "That's not funny. We don't really talk like that." And they will say it in the accent from the movie!
Fun with accents - we still have a little but it represents risky humor in a tone-deaf oral culture. To release a book of Civil War dialect humor in this time and place therefore seems odd.

Bill Arp's Peace Papers collects the humorous newspaper writings of Charles Henry Smith, which I assume are rendered in a North Georgia accent I shall never hear ... and therefore cannot translate from the written page. Reference is sometimes made to Arp in ACW writings (most recently in War Like The Thunderbolt), so I suppose having the whole collection helps future researchers. But as no one is releasing Artemus Ward nowadays, what commercial chance does Bill Arp stand if the king of dialect is neglected?

Dialect humor, in addition to being fragile and perishable, wears down a reader. Book-length Arp can be too much of a good thing, especially since Smith was an amateur writer building on the accidental success of his first article.

Mr. Linkhorn, sur, privately speakin, I'm afeerd I'll git in a tite place here among these bloods, and will have to slope out of it...

By the turn of the century, the better dialect humor had morphed into standard English, laced with slang, in which patterns and argot conveyed locale and humor. I'm thinking of George Ade. Here's a rare passage where Ade actually lapses into dialect writing per se, but it's handled with restraint:

"Don't you know me?" he asked.

"Rully, it seems to me I have seen you, somewhere," she replied, "but I cahn't place you. Are you the man who tunes the piano? ... I dare say you called to see Pu-pah; he will be here presently."

Then she gave him ... a few other Crisp Ones, hot from the finishing school, after which she asked him how the dear Villagers were coming on.
Well, one could write a lengthy treatise on this, so let's tally up the score for Bill Arp's Peace Papers.

- The introduction by David Parker is fine - biographical information reveals Smith's background as a refugee from Sherman's advance and much more.

- The (uncredited?) illustrations from an earlier edition are delightful Wilhelm Busch pastiches.

- The design perpetuates white space anomalies from the earlier edition. The book could have been typeset anew, adjusting an earlier layout that ill fits modern book dimensions.

- Smith, if you dare take all your medicine, has a few interesting pieces here, including one on the ravages of Confederate cavalry among a Confederate population.

Overall this book is a good thing and worth doing although not necessarily worth having in everyon'e collection. To quote Bill Arp,
But somehow I like the plagy things, and while I last on the top side of this sile, I want 'em a hangin around.
What he said.