GEORGE WASHINGTON HARRIS

1814 - 1869

 

A Southern sympathizer, steamboat captain, and silversmith, George Washington Harris is best known for the colorful character he created in 1854, Sut Lovingood. Through various sketches written for periodicals across the country, Sut became the humorous backwoods mountaineer who took readers through the backwards world of mountain life. A whiskey drinking, women chasing jokester, Sut describes himself as a "nat'ral born durn'd fool", also the title for the only book Harris managed to publish in his lifetime: Sut Lovingood. Yarns Spun by a "Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool." Harris's work was popular with the general public during his time, but his comic use of the vernacular influenced not only his contemporaries, but also later writers such as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Penn Warren, Stark Young, and Stephen Longstreet. Several selections from the book were included in Mark Twain's Library of Humor (1888). Though he is now a fairly obscure literary figure, except among afew scholars and writers, Harris is considered to be both an accomplished Southwestern humorist and a local colorist.

George Washington Harris was born in Allghany City, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1814 to Margaret and George W. Harris. Exactly what happened to his parents is uncertain, but at age five, after completing an apprenticeship in an arms factory, his older half brother, Samuel Bell, took Harris with him to Knoxville. In Knoxville, Bell set up a metalworking shop, taking Harris as his apprentice. It was here that Harris received perhaps 18 months of formal schooling.

The first steamboat to come up the Tennessee River to Knoxville in 1826 captured the twelve year old Harris' imagination. Working in his brother's shop, he successfully built a working model of the strange craft. Harris's fascination with steamboats led him to become captain of the Knoxville at age 19 after trying out several other professions. In 1835 he married Mary Emeline Nance. In 1838 Harris participated in the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians by transporting them, on the Knoxville, to trans-Mississippi country.

In an attempt to adopt the life of a gentleman farmer, Harris left the steamboat in 1839, and bought 375 acres of land in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, east of Maryville, Tennessee. An 1840 census shows that his household included his wife, three children, two adult slaves, a slave child and one white servant girl. Harris bought the farm on credit, but was unable to make enough of a return farming to pay his note. He lost the farm in 1843 and returned to Knoxville where he started his own metalworking shop.

Harris began his writing career after returning to Knoxville by publishing several conventional sketches about hunting, fishing, and horse racing in William Trotter Porter's Spirit of the Times. These were written as letters to the editor and signed with the pseudonym Mr. Free. Using the narrative voice of a superior gentleman, eyeing the backwards ways of the woodsman with contempt, these sketches are Harris's fledgling attempts at writing, and they reveal little of the humor for which he was later to be known. His most significant contribution to the Spirit of the Times was a sketch titled "The Knob Dance" in which he introduces a character named Dick Harlan to tell the tale in a vernacular voice. It was this comic use of the vernacular which Harris would later perfect in his Sut Lovingood yarns.

After a short return to steamboats as captain of the Alida, Harris became the overseer of the 1854 survey of copper mines in Ducktown, Tennessee. It was here that he met Sut Miller, who would become the model for Sut Lovingood, as well as Pat Nash, the proprietor of a notorious saloon in Ducktown. Though short, Harris's time in Ducktown proved fruitful. It was here he wrote his first Lovingood story, "Sut Lovingood's Daddy, Acting Horse," first printed in Spirit of the Times. This comical story begins with a gentleman observer's description of a crowd gathered in front of Nash's saloon. Sut Lovingood entertains the crowd with a tail of hitching his father to a plow in place of a horse and driving him through the field. Sut's tale is presented in the vernacular, and Harris' mastery of humor shines through as Sut tells how his father gets caught in a nest of hornets, throws off the harness and charges naked off a bluff into the creek below. Sut's presentation of both himself and his Pap is comical and self-deprecating.

Still plagued by financial difficulties, Harris returned to Knoxville in 1854. He became actively involved in politics, writing propaganda for the Nashville Union & American, serving as alderman for Knoxville's Fourth Ward, and attending the secessionist Southern Commercial Convention in Savannah, Georgia. Harris was a staunch supporter of the South and argued heatedly against the women's suffrage movement and the idea of freedom for slaves. These strong political views were expressed both in articles written for various Southern magazines as well as some of his Lovingood stories where Sut speaks out against liberal political leaders such as Lincoln and Grant. These stories remove Sut from his normal backwoods setting placing him in unnatural circumstances in order to make strong political statements which don't fit his character.

In the spring of 1867 Harris managed to get his book Sut Lovingood. Yarns Spun by a "Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool" published by Dick & Fitzgerald of New York. The single most significant event of his career, the book contains 24 of the Lovingood tales. All but eight of the sketches were never before published and even those eight were heavily revised. The book was well received in Knoxville, but perhaps because of his reputation as a strong Southern sympathizer, it was not heavily reviewed elsewhere. A young Mark Twain reviewed the book for the Alta Calicornia, praising it for its use of dialects.

The bulk of Harris' published work over the next two years was written for Southern magazines and highly political in nature. In December of 1869 he brought the manuscript for a new volume of Lovingood tales titled High Times and Hard Times to Lynchburg, Virginia in hopes of finding a publisher. During his return from Lynchburg he was taken violently ill. The train conductors believed him to be drunk, and asked if he wanted to leave the train at Knoxville. He answered yes and was taken to a doctor where he recovered long enough to whisper the word "poisoned" before he died near midnight on December 11 1869. The attending physician and modern biographers blame his death on apoplexy, not poisoning. Harris' manuscript has never been recovered.

Works Considered

Bain, Robert. "George Washington Harris." Dictionary of Literary Biography: Antebellum Writers in New York and the South. Vol. 3. Ed. Joel Myerson. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979. 138-143.

Rickels, Milton. "George Washington Harris." Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Humorists, 1800-1950. Vol. 11. Ed. Stanley Trachtenberg. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. 180-189.

Selected Primary Works

Sut Lovingood. Yarns Spun by a "Nat'al Born Durn'd Fool," 1867
Sut Lovingood Travels with Old Abe Lincoln, 1937
Sut Lovingood, 1954
The Lovingood Papers, 1962-1965
High Times and Hard Times, 1967
Sut Lovingood's Yarns, 1966

Selected Secondary Works

Blair, Walter. Native American Humor. New York: American Book, 1937, 96-101.

Cox, James M. "Humor of the Old Southwest." The Comic Imagination in American Literature. Ed. Louis D. Rubin, Jr. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1973.101-112.

Day, Donald. "The Humorous Works of George Washington Harris." American Literature 14 (January 1943): 391-406.

---. "The Life of George Washington Harris." Tennessee Historical Quarterly 6 (1947): 3-38.

---. "The Political Satires of George Washington Harris." Tennessee Historical Quarterly 4 (December 1945):320-338.

Dorson, Richard M.. "The Identification of Folklore in American Literature." Journal of American Folklore 70 (January-March 1957): 1-8.

Hill, Blair, and Hill, Hamlin. America's Humor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, 213-221.

Inge, M. Thomas. The Frontier Humorists. Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1975. 118-169; 315-317.

---. "The Satiric Artistry of George Washington Harris." Satire Newsletter 4 (Spring 1967): 63-72.

McClary, Ben Harris. "George and Sut: A Working Bibliography." The Lovingood Papers. 5-9.