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George Washington Harris

George Washington Harris, seminal southwestern humorist, was a Democrat and a Presbyterian, in that order. He was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in Knoxville. Although involved in many aspects of East Tennessee frontier development ranging from surveying to river and rail transportation, his major achievement was the creation of Sut Lovingood, a stereotypical "panther streak" mountaineer. Beginning in 1854 as occasional newspaper pieces, Harris's stories of Sut's exploits were picked up by other publications, soon giving him a national reputation.

A strong supporter of the Confederacy, Harris was ruined by the war. Trying to recoup some of his losses, he collected twenty-four of the Sut stories and issued them in book form as Sut Lovingood: Yarns (1867) through New York publisher Dick and Fitzgerald. Praised at the time by young Mark Twain, through the years the volume has continued to have a selective reading public willing to decipher the provincial dialect and able to appreciate the often coarse imagery and rough humor. William Faulkner, Irvin S. Cobb, Stark Young, and Flannery O'Connor were among the notable fans of this volume. A detractor, Edmund Wilson, was less than appreciative, describing it in a May 7, 1955, issue of The New Yorker as "the most repellent book of any real literary merit in American literature."

From the original plates, Yarns remained in print until 1960, by which time the exploration of American frontier culture had secured a place for Harris, Sut, and the folk humor of the Old Southwest in the historical outline of American humor.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010