16 October 2011

Amesbury, Massachusetts: Proud of John Greenleaf Whittier, and...Al Capp

On more than one occasion, this blog has mentioned what Lee Smith has said about the perpetuation of the cruel myth that the inhabitants of the Appalachians are stupid. To recap, her words were:

'Appalachia is to the South what the South is to the rest of the country. That is: lesser than, backward, marginal. Other. Look at the stereotypes: "Hee Haw," "Deliverance," "Dogpatch" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." A bunch of hillbillies sitting on a rickety old porch drinking moonshine and living on welfare, right?'

Obviously it isn't right, although Amesbury, Massachusetts is proud of its associations with Al Capp, the creator of 'Dogpatch', a place probably in Kentucky which is home to stupid hillbillies.  In fact, Amesbury is so delighted with its Al Capp links that last year it erected a huge mural in honor of Capp, and a few months ago named an amphitheater after him:

Isn't there a conflict between celebrating two very different people associated with Amesbury? Now what would John Greenleaf Whittier, a man noted for his love of humanity, have thought of his adopted town praising a person best known for making fun of a minority group? Would he have just laughed it off? I think not.

Should I laugh it off, put it down to politically incorrect times, tell myself I have no sense of humor and admit Al Capp, in spite of everything, was a bloody good cartoonist? Dunno.


mike fontanelli said...

Al Capp was perhaps the most widely-read satirist of the 20th century. Li'l Abner numbered among its readers and fans more than a few literary giants, including Steinbeck, John Updike and H.L Mencken. Forgive me, but you sound exactly like the kind of condescending snob Capp used to poke fun at in his strip! Cheers, Doctor.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Oh, there's nothing to forgive, Mike, as you make a valid point. Perhaps a little too strongly, as my final paragraph leaves me in a little doubt about my take on this issue, but yes, I'm sure Al Capp would have hated me, and 'condescending snob' would probably sum up some people's impressions of me.

But Steinbeck, Updike and Mencken? Can you name any Southern authors who admire(d) him?

mike fontanelli said...

Hi again, Dr. Shaw. I know that one southern author, Margaret Mitchell, was decidedly not amused. She took Capp to court over his parody of GWTW, (or at least she threatened to.)

Of course, Capp poked fun at "yankees," too. If anything, he was even harsher. The Yokums, who were always portrayed as virtuous, triumphed over their villainous city slicker adversaries every time.

If you're assuming only hillbillies were singled out for caricature, then you're not very familiar with the strip. All the characters were broad burlesque "types."

I never heard the strip was less popular in the South. (That's absurd, frankly. I'm from New York, myself. That would be like my being offended by The Honeymooners or All in the Family - my two favorite TV shows!)

I emailed your blog to my pal Joe in Atlanta, Georgia. He reveres Capp's work, and may be able to shed more light on your question re: southern authors. Cheers.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Hi, Mike, and thanks for this response. I think Margaret Mitchell could have survived a little parody, and that really must have been a sad lack of humor on her part.

You're certainly right in assuming that I don't have a knowledge of a great deal of Capp's work, but my blog is essentially (although by no means exclusively) interested in defending minorities and very often championing little known writers, even if to some extent they deserve to be unknown.

Lee Smith is a writer who deserves to be much better known, and I admire her writing and applaud her defense of the underdog - in this case the outsider's outsider: Appalachia, which is in the South but at the same time steeped in a rich culture that is largely alien even to the South.

In many ways I'm an outsider myself, not at all an ivory tower academic, which I suppose is the main reason why I'm so interested in outsiders, and so keen to jump to their defense.

If your pal Joe wants to contribute to the discussion, he's most welcome to do so, whatever his opinions on the question are.

Thanks again, and cheers back.

surferjoe1 said...

Joe from Atlanta here, and I'd love to be able to shed some light on what people like Walker Percy, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, J.K. Toole, and Flannery O'Connor thought of the satiric genius from Massachusetts. Seems like they were once all friends of friends of friends, or at least acquaintances of friends of friends (except for Toole)- no more than anyone who knew a college English lit professor or two in the deep South can say- but they're all beyond asking now.

Capp would certainly have been an inescapable presence in their day. Whether you were Truman Capote or Fred Mertz, you probably read him or saw him on TV or heard him on the radio at some point every week. I would guess that most of those listed here (except for Mitchell) greatly enjoyed his work as they all were intelligent artists with good senses of humor and an eye for human excesses- like Capp.

As for ol' Peggy, she left most of the bluster to her husband. And as to the oppressing of us minority types, my veins are busting with Kentucky and Tennessee blood- the kind that rode with Forrest and his Critter Company, on my Mom's side- all Georgians on my Dad's- and I couldn't be more proud to have had my people come under the brilliant brushes of Walt Crawford Kelly, Jr. and Alfred Gerald Caplin.

Dr Tony Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Tony Shaw said...

I'm a little late in responding to your welcome post, Joe. There are, of course, a large number of Southern writers in the southern Appalachians, although if they've made any comments or not on Al Capp is unknown to me.

I've found this reference to an article, though, which will of course be tucked away in a few universities:

Arnold, Edwin T. 1997. “Abner Unpinned: Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, 1940-1955" [syndicated comic strip]. Appalachian Journal 24 (Summer): 420-436.