George Washington Harris, an American humorist who influenced later writers such as Mark Twain.
Credit: Image courtesy of American memory
George Washington Harris was an "authentic comic genius" (Wilson and Ferris) whose work influenced later writers such as Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Harris and other southwest humorists who wrote in the 1830s through the 1860s, though considered low-brow at the time, are now recognized as foundational contributors to the humorist literary tradition. In this lesson, students read a Sut Lovingood story by George Washington Harris and examine the story's structure. After considering how this structure "frames" the trickster Sut Lovingood, students produce a character sketch of Harris' comic protagonist and a sample of his humorous dialect. As part of a curriculum unit on American Humor, students may also compare Harris' story with one by Mark Twain.
At the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
The writers known as Southwest Humorists were an important influence on several American writers, including Mark Twain. These were educated storytellers who specialized in tall-tales from the backwoods of Arkansas, Tennessee, western Georgia—the area known as the Old Southwest. For background on these writers, visit the student exhibit, Mark Twain & Southwestern Humor at the EDSITEment-reviewed Mark Twain in His Times website.
Additional background information, including biographical information, is available in the Curriculum Unit Overview, including Harris' biography and background on American literary humor. Even if teaching this lesson plan as a single lesson, the material listed in the Overview contains valuable contextual material.
Begin by asking students to consider cultural differences in the United States. Depending on the location of the classroom, students might be quick to point out the drawl of a Southern accent or the broad "a" of a Boston accent. Writing in the vernacular to highlight these differences increased dramatically during the 19th-century, both engendering and mocking stereotypes expected from diverse states. Additional information about regionalism in literature is available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Documents of the American South.
Remind students that the United States in 1830 or 1860 looked radically different from the country they know today. Ask them to name states that they think are part of the U.S. by 1830 and list them on the board. Then have students visit (or project on a screen) the following maps, which show the borders of the United States during different times:
This interactive map of the United States, via EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History, shows the outlines of states as they are added. To see this in action, drag the bar at the bottom through the timeline. Important moments in history are noted and annotated on the map.
Static maps via EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History:
Additional maps available at the EDSITEment-reviewed National Parks Service: A Link to the Past
Have students compare these maps to the states listed on the board. What states were or were not part of the United States in 1830 and 1860 that surprised students?
To introduce your students to this tradition of American humor, have them read one of the Sut Lovingood stories by George Washington Harris, such as "Mrs. Yardley's Quilting Party." Students will likely find the dialect of Sut Lovingood difficult, and in places baffling. To address this difficulty, have students read parts of the story aloud, exaggerating the drawl and twang conveyed by Harris' spelling. If students have already completed Lesson One of this curriculum unit, ask students to compare this use of dialect with that found in Twain's "Jumping Frog" story. Otherwise, adjust the following questions to focus specifically on Harris' story.
Focus next on the structure of Harris' story. Students might dramatize the structure of this story by enacting the story as a skit. They will notice that Harris frames his story by making it a tale told to his narrator, yet the storyteller in this case is the protagonist of the tale as well; thus, the exchange between Sut and the narrator frames the overall tale. Divide students into groups and have each student play a role in the story. Ask them to map out the levels of narration and then discuss in their group the following questions:
Humorists generally have a target; they make jokes at someone's expense. Ask students: Who is the target in the "Mrs. Yardley's Quilting Party" story?
Have students complete this exercise by comparing Sut to other "Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fools" that they may be more familiar with. What humorous characters in fiction, film, or television compare to Sut Lovingood?
Critics generally agree that the most lasting achievement of the Sut Lovingood stories is the characterization of Sut Lovingood himself. His vitality and spirit have been praised by Mark Twain and William Faulkner alike. Have students share in this enjoyment of an American original by writing character sketches of Sut Lovingood, describing his appearance and personality, and giving a sample of his distinctive speech. As inspiration, share with students the original illustrations of Sut Lovingood available at the Documenting the American South website.
Ask students to either write a brief essay (or depending on time, discuss in class) articulating the significance and importance of one of the following in literary humor:
This assessment piece can be applied to the full curriculum unit at the end of the third lesson.
There are many other Sut Lovingood short stories available online at the following EDSITEment-reviewed resources:
1-2 class periods