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George Washington Harris, 1814-1869
Sut Lovingood. Yarns Spun by a "Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool." Warped and Wove for Public Wear
New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, c1867.

Summary

George Washington Harris was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, on March 20, 1814 to Margaret and George W. Harris. Having moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, when he was five with his older half brother, Samuel Bell, and Bell's wife Elizabeth, Harris spent most of his life in the South. Following a brief formal education, Harris became a twelve-year-old apprentice in Bell's metalworking shop. With the first steamboat's 1826 arrival in Knoxville, an enamored Harris built a working model of the ship. His fascination with steamboats led him at age nineteen to captain the Knoxville, later renamed the Indian Chief. In 1835, Harris married Mary Emeline Nance; four years later, he left the steamboat to pursue life as a farmer on 375 acres located in the Smoky Mountain foothills. Harris was soon unable to pay his note on the Blount County farm, and he was forced to give up the land. He returned to Knoxville in February 1843 and established a metalworking shop.

In 1845 Harris, having contributed earlier unsigned pieces to Knoxville's Argus and Commercial Herald, began publishing in William Trotter Porter's magazine Spirit of the Times under the pseudonym "Mr. Free." In a series of letters to the editor, he incorporates stories about hunting, drinking, horseracing, and fishing in the Tennessee mountains. Self-consciously genteel and contemptuous of the backwoods folk culture, Harris had not yet mastered the humorous tone and vernacular voice of the Old Southwest humor genre that would later characterize his Sut Lovingood stories. While overseeing a large copper mine surveying project in southeastern Tennessee in 1854, Harris met at least two unforgettable locals, Sut Miller and Patrick Nash, who inspired characters in his first Lovingood story, "Sut Lovingood's Daddy, Acting Horse." Returning to Knoxville within the year, Harris became involved in politics. A conservative supporter of Tennessee secession and an avid Democrat, he campaigned with speeches and political essays against emancipation and women's suffrage.

Over the next dozen years, Harris continued to struggle financially while holding various jobs, including sawmill manager, postmaster, conductor and freight agent of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. He frequently moved his family throughout the South, fearing the invasion of Union troops. Harris also penned numerous Lovingood sketches. In 1867, Dick & Fitzgerald published his Sut Lovingood. Yarns Spun by a "Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool," a collection of twenty-four Lovingood tales, all but eight never before published. Harris spent the last two years of his life writing politically overt Sut Lovingood stories for southern newspapers. He died in 1869 of apoplexy, having fallen ill while traveling by train from Lynchburg, Virginia. Harris planned for a second collection of Lovingood stories entitled "High Times and Hard Times", but the manuscript, which he had shown to a Lynchburg printer, has never been recovered.

Sut Lovingood. Yarns Spun by a "Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool" follows the adventures of the prankster Sut as he stirs up trouble in backwoods Tennessee. These sketches highlight the dialect and customs of the people living in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. Frequently bawdy, riotously funny, and occasionally violent, the stories comment on humankind's essential baseness while emphasizing the ignorance of city folk who misguidedly fashion themselves as superior to rural Tennesseans in intellect, manner, and morals.

Many of the stories also depict Sut challenging authority of some kind. In "Trapping a Sheriff," for instance, Sut cleverly weasels his way out of re-paying a ten dollar note. In sending the unsuspecting sheriff to retrieve the note from Margaret Mastin, Sut's ingenious scheme makes it appear that the sheriff is having an affair with Margaret. When her husband (and Sut's accomplice) walks in on the sheriff and his wife, hilarity ensues—the sheriff is lit on fire, attacked by cats, and pursued through the town protesting loudly. Yet political authority is not the only victim of Harris's wit. He even delights in ridiculing the impoverished mountain people, particularly when they contribute to their own debasement. In "Sut Lovingood's Daddy, Acting Horse," for example, Sut's father devises a plan to plough the fields after their only horse starves. Pap actually drags the plow for Sut, an arrangement that works until Sut runs his father through a hornet's nest. Shedding his harness and clothes, Pap jumps from the bluff into the creek and safely evades the hornets. However, he cannot escape his son's mockery. Fearing Pap's retaliation, Sut flees to the Tennessee copper mines and never returns.

Indeed, Sut relishes struggling against all forms of power—political, parental, social, and religious. Having rejected traditional social institutions that otherwise might curb the fulfillment of his natural desires, he unabashedly lives to eat well, drink plenty of liquor, and enjoy the pleasures of women. While exposing the flaws of his fellow humans by vulgar and violent means, he appears cognizant of his own imperfections. Sut may claim that he is "nuffin but sum new-fangil'd sort ove beas', a sorter cross atween a crazy ole monkey an' a durn'd wore-out hominy-mill," but he remains for readers as charming and entertaining as he is grotesque.

See also the entry for George Washington Harris from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Humorists, 1800-1950, volume 11, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1982; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Bond Thompson

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