In response to:
Lyrics in the Swamp from the April 25, 2002 issue
To the Editors:
In his duly eloquent tribute to Walt Kelly’s Pogo [“Lyrics in the Swamp,” NYR, April 25], Brad Leithauser says Kelly’s version of the Okefenokee Swamp “had far less in common with Florida and Georgia than with Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.” No doubt. But to say, as Leithauser also does, that the great comic strip’s dialogue “owed a debt to Artemus Ward’s tales of Uncle Remus” is to de-Southernize Pogo, and Uncle Remus, too much. Artemus Ward, from Maine, wrote a flat Down-Eastish dialect that relied heavily on pointless (“sed” for “said”) or drastic (“goak” for “joke”) cacography and lacked Kelly’s lyricism. Although Ward was droll in his own right, and remained popular among British readers at least as late as the 1930s (which would account for Christina Stead’s reference to him, cited by Leithauser), his phunny-phellow style was effaced in America by the vastly defter vernacular touch of Mark Twain. The Uncle Remus stories, which Twain highly admired and which may indeed have influenced Kelly, were written by Joel Chandler Harris of Georgia, in a musical, phonetically sophisticated dialect that Harris owed to African-Georgians.
Speaking of music, the instrument with which Pogo paddles his boat and serenades Miss Ma’m’selle Hepzibah, which Leithauser remarkably calls a banjo, is possibly a guitar but most likely a ukulele—looks larger, of course, in the hands of a possum.
Roy Blount Jr.
Mill River, Massachusetts
Brad Leithauser replies:
I’m grateful to Mr. Blount for pointing out my confusion of Artemus Ward and Joel Chandler Harris.
The churl in me is tempted to point out that it would be hard to “de-Southernize” Walt Kelly. This was a man, after all, whose life-vertices were Bridgeport, Connecticut, New York City, and Hollywood.
But as a fan of Mr. Blount’s fine ear and comic flair, I probably should respectfully defer to his analysis of Pogo’s language—which I certainly do about the sort of musical instrument a singing possum would be likely to take on a boat ride with a beautiful skunk.
June 27, 2002