Feb/Mar 2010

Beer Buddies

Jokes, pokes, and blokes: Jolly fellows had fun the old-fashioned, bare-knuckled way

Caleb Crain


A teamster in Pennsylvania awakes to find his wagon atop a barn. A sign reading CAKES AND BEER FOR SALE HERE appears over a minister's door in Virginia. Men are led from one New York saloon to another by the promise of letters from friends in California, though no such letters exist.

Most people want to be able to laugh along with jokes. Historians, however, are tasked with understanding them, a challenge Richard Stott takes up in Jolly Fellows: Male Milieus in Nineteenth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press, $55). The pranks listed above are just a few of those pulled by a certain type of American man—rowdy, boastful, hard drinking, and fond of games, brawls, and tricks—who could dependably be found in village taverns and on city streets. The men often referred to themselves as jolly fellows, and Stott turns the term into something like a clinical profile. Also known as sporting men, they were, in Stott's opinion, the unacknowledged forefathers of the original, fairly sadistic Mickey Mouse, stoic movie gamblers such as Humphrey Bogart's in Casablanca, and "drunk shaming" videos posted to the Internet. They might also plausibly be considered the antecedents of Tony Soprano, with his persistent wish to see the people around him enjoying themselves; the Grand Guignol bone crushing of professional wrestling; and the high-living "player" persona of gangsta rap.

Moral ambiguity clouds the reputation of the jolly fellow, and the nature of his pranks grows darker the further into Stott's book one reads. When a drinker in Tennessee comes to, he discovers his face was painted black while he was unconscious. In a town on the Mississippi River, men stretch a rope across a street and run with it, tripping bystanders. Tobacco is surreptitiously added to soup in Kentucky, causing a tavern full of men to vomit violently. In such cases, it's still possible to see the joke, though the humor is probably coarser than most readers of nineteenth-century cultural history are accustomed to, unless on weekends they happen to be fans of Jackass. Scholarly disavowal becomes a refrain: "The most difficult question to answer is why men took enjoyment in such comportment," Stott writes of his subjects' penchant for alcoholism and brawling. To gloss an anecdote about a dog blown up with gunpowder, he quotes a colleague's comment that "one is hard put to explain exactly why the nineteenth-century reader found it humorous." A drunken lawyer's feet are doused with kerosene and set afire in Texas. In Kansas, bisulfite of carbon is rubbed on a tame bear, which howls and writhes. A Maryland tavernkeeper drowns a friend's dog "for a piece of sport."

More than a century insulates the reader from these cruelties. Nonetheless, they aren't really my cup of tea, and I probably wouldn't take much interest in jolly fellows were it not for, first, a scholarly recognition that it isn't possible to understand nineteenth-century American culture, high or low, without them, and, second, the complication that jolly fellows were the loudest and most visible exponents in their era of affection between men, a subject that interests me. Jolly fellows kissed, hugged, and ate off one another's plates, when they weren't knocking one another's blocks off. Stott reports that one California miner kept a journal about "the man I love better than all other men." Doc Holliday's "whole heart and soul were wrapped up in Wyatt Earp," according to a handsome sporting man who knew both.

Many of the men holding hands in antique daguerreotypes and tintypes are jolly fellows, and while some of those from late in the century look decidedly homosexual to a modern eye, it is much harder to qualify the affection represented in earlier ones. Maybe they were enjoying an effusive style of camaraderie that capitalism later made scarce, or maybe they were the sort who would tie someone like me to a barbed-wire fence and pistol-whip me for the fun of it. Or both; one thinks, anachronistically and no doubt inappropriately, of bear hugs in fraternity houses. For all their professions of mutual love, jolly fellows often consorted with prostitutes, and toward the end of the century, sporting man sometimes functioned as a synonym for pimp.

America did not invent the jolly lifestyle. Stott traces it back to the raucous behavior of Britons and Europeans in taverns and on market days. Veterans at loose ends after the Revolutionary War seem to have given the American version a running start by carousing in taverns and in groceries, which then served alcoholic beverages. Most drinkers were socially undistinguished, but in villages, the tavern crowd usually included a few members of the elite, among them politicians and lawyers. In cities, by contrast, those who drank in public were usually young and low in status. Everywhere, they fought. In New England, contests were decided by collar-and-elbow wrestling, which had rules, but in the South and the West, brawls were more dangerous. In North Carolina, they gouged eyes; in Tennessee, they bit ears. Southerners, brittle about their honor, often carried weapons. Stott reports that Natchez, Mississippi, saw fights with "chairs, iron bars, umbrellas, shovels, hatchets, sword canes, whips, bowie knives, dirks, and pistols." Even those who took no part condoned jolly fellows. Stott speculates that the occasional attacks on blacks, Jews, American Indians, and other outsiders may have served to maintain social boundaries that could not be explicitly acknowledged or formally enforced. Playing practical jokes is thought to have been the original intent of the six men who formed the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee in 1866.

Jolly fellows found themselves besieged when the nineteenth century's famous reform movements began to attack drinking, brawling, gambling, and whoring. Reform arose in the Northeast but quickly spread south and west, transforming society wholesale: The average American drank an estimated 7.1 gallons of alcohol in 1830, but only 1.8 in 1845. The alteration is sometimes credited to the religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening. But Stott quotes a Mississippi boatman's belief that "religion is generally located in the upper story" and suspects that the deeper cause was industrial capitalism, which shifted America's ethos from sympathetic interdependence to prudent individualism. Manners became finer, diets became more sophisticated, homespun fabrics gave way to factory-made ones. Men in suits were unlikely to soil them by brawling. An early sociologist, studying the change as it hit an Indiana village in the 1860s, noted that guilt, gossip, and legal coercion joined forces. Before, "the typical man was a fighter"; afterward, he was "a champion of denial." Once credit agencies started to record men's drinking habits, jolly fellowship was doomed.

It took refuge for a long time in New York City. During the gold rush, it had a renaissance in California, a part of the country regretted by one Maine pastor as "a great slaughterhouse of character and souls." And its last stand seems to have come in the 1870s and '80s, when the pursuit of lumber, oil, and precious minerals and the trade in cattle put agglomerations of young men in close quarters. The "peculiarly male romance" of the Wild West, Stott writes, accounts for that region's continuing appeal and mystique. A passage west represented liberty and risk; the homicide rate there was ten times that in New York. But in the end, the gray dust of respectability settled on the West, too. The tameness of Leadville, Colorado, surprised a visiting reporter in 1888. Was he really in Leadville? "Leadville!" an old-timer answered. "No, stranger, this ain't Leadville. It's only some infernal Sunday-School town that ain't named yet."

The jolly fellow's final retreat was into the world of fiction. He was preserved in humorous sketches about such characters as Sut Lovingood, whose racism and cruelty to animals were if anything more gruesome than those of his nonfiction models, and in blackface minstrelsy. The erotic ambiguity that puzzles me seems to have been preserved in popular culture, too, to judge by the turn-of-the-century vaudeville routine of Law Fields and Joe Weber. Fields always beat up Weber—the bloodier the battering, the more audiences roared—and in one sketch quoted by Stott, Weber asks why. "Why?" Fields answers. "Why? Because I like you! . . . When I look at you—I have such a feeling that—oh, I can't express myself! Such a—oo—oo—oo—oo!" And Fields proceeds to choke him.

Caleb Crain is the author of American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (Yale University Press, 2001).

greta.wendelin

February 5, 2010
9:44 am

Clockwork Orange, anyone?

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4:20 am

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