Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

William J. Cooper, Jr


This work revises earlier interpretations of antebellum American humorists and sets forth a new model for understanding their accomplishments. Rooted in historical thinking, this study integrated biography, publishing history, critical responses, and a penetrating analysis of the sketches of several major figures. The first third examined Seba Smith, Joseph C. Neal, and Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. A devotion to their communities in Maine, Philadelphia, and Georgia, respectively, and preference for writing warm, genial selections remained important shared influences while cultural differences between the societies in which each matured and wrote made their humor diverge significantly. In both content and expression their stories about the market revolution, politics, and other important topics possessed distinctive characteristics. The middle chapters examined the western humorists Caroline Kirkland, Baynard Rush Hall, and Thomas Bangs Thorpe. Their perspectives originated in cultural backgrounds in the East and observations of dissimilar communities in Michigan, Indiana, and Louisiana. Each made fun of the people involved in the settlement process and discovered that culture played a major role in how people organized their communities. The last third asserted the continuing importance of culture and place by discussing the perspectives of three humorists popular during the 1850s. Benjamin Shillaber from Boston, Henry Riley in western Michigan, and Joseph G. Baldwin of Alabama conveyed different concepts of change, and reviewers around the country responded to their published collections more favorably if the material came from their own region. This enthusiasm for a local humorist and apathy for those from elsewhere gave the first indications that the sectional crisis had intruded into the creative process. Over the 1850s as tensions rose, humor became more contentious. The sketches of Northerner Mortimer Neal Thomson and Southerner George Washington Harris illustrated the complete transformation as humorists began using humor as a weapon in the growing strife.