Telling Laughter: Hilarity and Democracy in the Nineteenth-Century United States Open Access

Hughes, Jennifer Ann (2009)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/t435gd68n?locale=en
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Abstract

Laughter is often viewed as a form of self-evident body language, its significance being universal across time and culture. This study examines, however, instances of merriment that carry different meanings within different cultural moments. Exploring the ways in which laughter in post-Jacksonian America was bound intimately with cultural conceptions of happiness, morality, and both mental and physical health, I argue that its depiction - whether in the marketplace, in the discourse of reform, or, indeed, in aesthetics - comprises a rich but largely unexamined shifting political discourse about social identity and democratic rights. Telling Laughter contends that humor of this era was the site of complicated debate between striving for an expanded democracy and maintaining the status quo. This investigation of the strained logic of differentiation between the laughter of full citizens and that of marginalized or non-citizens sheds light upon the ways the laughing bodies were interpreted during a time in which the more "constant" state of a body - its sex and race - determined its civil rights. Depictions of hysterical women and "happy darkeys" evince the willful misreading of sexed and raced bodies in the throes of hilarity. Telling Laughter foregrounds context by gathering and comparing visual and textual rhetorical maneuvers on the topic of hilarity in order to show the confluence of commercial markets, reform movements, and the desires of their publics. With examinations of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Henry Clay Lewis's "The Curious Widow," Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods, and more brief treatments of authors including Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Stowe, I evince that culturally-historicized readings of laughing bodies bring into relief the interactivity of these authors and the popular press in engaging with the political issue of the extension of democratic rights. Finally, Telling Laughter highlights literary and popular instances in which marginalized subjects utilize laughter to shatter stereotypes and be heard.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents Introduction: Stories of Laughter………………………………………………..……..1 Chapter 1: Selling Laughter on the Antebellum Marketplace….….….21 Chapter 2: Resuscitating Reformers………………………………………………...69 Chapter 3: Melville's Laughing Evangel…………….………….…………………104 Chapter 4: The Impelling Laughter of Henry Clay Lewis's Curious Widow and Pierre Janet's Irène …………..………………..………………..140 Conclusion……………………………………….............………………………………….174 Bibliography…………………………………………............……………………………..195

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