Blount is a fine guide to Southern humor

November 21, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Since we read anthologies primarily because of the contributors, it's easy to overlook the editor. Much of an editor's efforts are behind the scenes anyway: deciding which story to use, say, or persuading a writer to contribute.

But in a good anthology, the editor's role is crucial. Not only do editors give a compilation its shape, they also help explain it. I've read many short story compilations that were lacking because the editor didn't bother to contribute much more than a short foreword -- no attempt to explain how a work was chosen or to put the works in context.

"Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor" succeeds wonderfully, though, and it's not just that Mr. Blount chose a great group of writers. Rather, he is an enthusiastic and loving editor whose care for this project is evident. He's obviously given a lot of thought to this anthology. Subsequently, it's far-ranging and insightful -- and, of course, often very funny.

Mr. Blount's own style is rather dry, so he tries hard not to speechify when he explains a few things about Southern humor. Still, he's an engaging and intelligent guide. Here's one explanation for the preponderance of humorists from the South:

"Being humorous in the South is like being motorized in Los Angeles or argumentative in New York -- humorous is not generally a whole calling in and of itself, it's just something that you're in trouble if you aren't."

He acknowledges there are certain characteristics of Southern humor: "dirt, chickens, defeat, family, religion, prejudice, collard greens, politics, and diddie wa diddie."

He notes that Southern humor has its roots in two groups: African-Americans and what he calls "wild, oral, whiskey-loving, unfastidious, tribal, horse-racing, government-hating, Wasp-scorned Irish and Welsh and pre-Presbyterian Scots." Their common link is that the English language "is a comically physical thing for earthy people who bypassed the Enlightenment to wrap their mouths around."

As for the selections themselves, they represent Mr. Blount's penchant for the whimsical, the bizarre and occasionally the grotesque. He observes that "of the 114 writers in this collection, fewer than 20 of them would be described as humorists," and I think he's pretty proud of this perverseness. How else to describe the inclusion of such non-literary folks as jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and folk/country singer Lyle Lovett?

Armstrong has a couple of pieces included, and one, "Making the Honky-tonks with Mama," is a warm and gently humorous account of the night when he, as a young man, and his mother hit some of the toughest night spots in New Orleans. It's not an obvious choice, but it works beautifully.

Indeed, this anthology is full of selections from or about musicians, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmie Rodgers, Little Richard, B.B. King, Hank Williams, Kinky Friedman and Bessie Smith. Mr. Blount understands well how important music has been to Southern culture. Mr. Lovett's contribution is a song called "If I Had a Boat." One verse goes:

And if I were Roy Rogers,

I'd sho' enough be single --

I couldn't bring myself

to marryin' no Dale.

It'd just be me and Trigger,

Go a-ridin' through the movies,

and we'd buy a boat and on the sea we'd sail

Of course, Mr. Blount also rounds up the usual suspects of Southern humor, including Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, Flannery O'Connor, Harry Crews and Dan Jenkins. Among literary figures, he includes William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty.

But there are some surprises, including Edgar Allan Poe and Richard Wright, who usually are considered dead-serious writers. And he includes a couple of noted non-Southerners, such as Dave Barry and H. L. Mencken.

Mr. Barry's contribution, "False Alarm," about a suspected burglary in his home, is hardly Southern, though. Its inclusion is explained, I suspect, by his friendship with Mr. Blount -- and by the fact that it is funny.

As for Mencken, Mr. Blount observes that "old evil Teutonic Baltimorean Mencken vilified the South, but he vilified it with a feeling." The Mencken piece he chose is a classic -- "The Hills of Zion," in which Mencken describes his encounter with some evangelical Christians in Tennessee. It reads as well today as it did in 1925.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title:"Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor"

Editor: Roy Blount

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 668 pages, $27.50

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