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By the 1840s American literature tradition had become fascinated with the frontier. The rural folk humor of the “Devil’s Fork” letters that a young Charles Fenton Mercer Noland (1810-1858) of central Arkansas began writing in 1837 was something the country wanted. His pieces were published regularly in New York’s Spirit of the Times, and he quickly achieved a reputation as one of the southwest’s best humorists. His tall tales told in dialect reflected the peculiar characteristics of the people of a backwoods region.
Noland’s semiautobiographical “Letters” were built around the experiences of Pete Whetstone, who, along with his neighbors, devoted himself to hunting, fishing, and an outdoors lifestyle. Through his first-person narration readers were able to experience an ideal southwest frontier existence. Here was a land of natural beauty, with clear rivers, forested mountains, and abundant game, a place where a person could live a free and rustic lifestyle.
Here too were horse races and bear fights, politics and balls. Unfortunately for Noland, an early death cut short a promising career. Had he lived longer and written more, he could have become one of America’s great nineteenth-century humorists. Midcentury America was certainly looking for one.