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.
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
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.
"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.
"George Washington Harris." Dictionary of Literary Biography:
American Humorists, 1800-1950. Vol. 11. Ed. Stanley Trachtenberg. Detroit:
Gale Research, 1982. 180-189.
Sut Lovingood. Yarns
Spun by a "Nat'al Born Durn'd Fool,"
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
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,
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):
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,
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
McClary, Ben Harris. "George and Sut: A Working Bibliography." The Lovingood Papers. 5-9.