George Washington Harris, Sut Lovingood, and Abe Lincoln: The Second in a Series of Looks at Civil War Humor

George Washing Harris–better known as But Lovingood

Any Confederate-leaning humorist who had the nerve to title a book Sut Lovingood Travels with Old Abe Lincoln is undoubtedly a person to be reckoned with. George Washington Harris, the real author of Sut Lovingood’s yarns, was a strong, secessionist-supporting Democrat. As the Civil War approached, Harris moved to Nashville, TN, and increased his production of political satires supporting the South. In 1861 he published three Sut Lovingood tales attacking President Lincoln. These have now been collected into the book mentioned above, which pretends to follow Lincoln on his inaugural journey to Washington.

Sut Lovingood first appeared as a narrator in Harris’s work in 1854 and was used increasingly to express the opinions of a stereotypical farmer of rural Southern Appalachia. Sut considers himself a “nat’ral-born fool” spawned to raise “pertickler hell.” Author Harris describes Sut as a “queer looking, long legged, short bodied, small headed, white haired, hog eyed, funny sort of genius.” Apparently, Sut “…haint got nara a soul,–nuffin but a whiskey proof gizzard,” is “too durn’d a fool tu cum even onder millertary lor, ” has legs just shorter than a grandaddy spider but can still beat that spider, “… jis’ es bad es a skeer’d dorg kin beat a crippled mud turkil.” Additionally, Sut can “… chamber more cork-screw, kill-devil whiskey, and stay on aind, than enything, ‘sceptin only a broad bottum’d chun.” And “las’ly,” he “kin git intu more durn’d misfortnit skeery scrapes, than enybody, an’ then run outen them faster, by golly, nor enybody.”

Sut “drops in” on a meeting

Sut’s dialect is an exaggerated version of the South’s midland dialect, commonly called “Appalachian English.” Sut relates his stories orally, as he can neither read nor write. The sketches in Sut Lovingood Travels with Old Abe Lincoln show Lincoln as more of a spirited clothes horse, created to serve as the butt of Sut’s jokes, than a person. Like other writers of the period, Harris misspells words for comic effect but does not depend on these visual bits and pieces for his humor. Instead, he creates apt, concrete comparisons which refer to plain objects familiar to readers. Author Harris is at his best when he describes Lincoln’s legs. They go “at each aidge sorter like the prongs goes intu a pitch fork.”

I have a personal favorite to share. It is in the first paragraph of “Sut Lovingood: Travels With Old Abe as his Confidential Friend and Advisor.” Sut refers to Abraham Lincoln as “ole Windin Blades,” referencing the Common Middle English expression used to designate a pair of long blades used to wind yarn. It also mentions one of my favorite places–the Willard Hotel. And yes, in case readers are wondering, Sut Lovingood single-handedly foils the Baltimore Plot to assassinate Lincoln.

When I told you, George, that I wer agwine tu travel with olde Abe Link-Horn, you thought I wer a lyin; but now ye see I’m here, ain’t I? I jis struck across country and ketch’d up with him at Harrisburg, (durn sich a place, I say) an I hev stuck clost to the old Windin Blades till I got him safe intu this heer tavrin, they calls hit “Willard’s,” an I’m durn ef the old hoss ove the house ain’t a jedge ove liker. Ive tasted hit I has, an Ill tell ye anuther thing, ole Windin Blades am sleepin in the same rume what I dreamed ove in one thousand eight hundrd and fifty-six… (19)

George Washington Harris is another of a widespread group of comedy writer in the mold of Stephen Colbert. Most of them published under pseudonyms. Harris uses the persona of Sut Lovingood to make fun of Yankees and their mannerisms, to defend slavery and secession, and to lampoon President Lincoln. What helps him stand out among the best of this group of writers is his ability to “tell a good yarn.” His language choices are sometimes racy, and his attitude about sex is often liberal, but Harris’s work is always full of fun, life, and irrepressible imagination. Is it any wonder that southern writers such as William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Flannery O’Conner claim him as an influence?

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George Washington Harris, Sut Lovingood Travels with Old Abe Lincoln. The Black Cat Press, Chicago, 1987.

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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