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Civil War humor
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Civil War humor

Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Publication Date: 2010
Category: General
Grades: Highly recommended
Number of Pages: 181
Appropriate for: Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers
Choice rating: 
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Scholar eBook Scholar eBook ISBN: 9781604737486  
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About this title

A thorough account of the extraordinary breadth of comedic output during America's Civil War.

In Civil War Humor, author Cameron C. Nickels examines the various forms of comedic popular artifacts produced in America from 1861 to 1865 and looks at how wartime humor was created, disseminated, and received by both sides of the conflict. Broadsides, newspaper journalism, sheet music covers, lithographs, political cartoons, light verse, printed envelopes, comic valentines, humor magazines, and penny dreadfuls--from and for the Union and the Confederacy--are analyzed at length.

Nickels argues that the war coincided with the rise of inexpensive mass printing in the United States and thus subsequently with the rise of the country's widely distributed popular culture. As such, the war was as much a "paper war"--involving the use of publications to disseminate propaganda and ideas about the Union's and the Confederacy's positions--as one taking place on battlefields. For both sides humor deflated pretensions, coped with the sobering realities of war, and established political stances and strategies of critiquing them. Civil War Humor explores how the combatants portrayed Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, life on the home front, battles, and African Americans.

Civil War Humor reproduces over sixty illustrations and texts created during the war and provides close readings of these materials. At the same time, it places this corpus of comedy in the context of wartime history, economies, and tactics. This comprehensive overview examines humor's role in shaping and reflecting the cultural imagination of the nation during its most tumultuous period.

About author
Cameron C Nickels

Cameron C. Nickels, Staunton, Virginia, is professor emeritus of English at James Madison University and is the author of New England Humor: From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.


Nickels, Cameron C. Civil War humor. University Press of Mississippi, 2010. 162p bibl index afp; ISBN 9781604737479. Reviewed in 2011feb CHOICE.

Nickels (James Madison Univ.) looks at humor (1861-65) in four topical areas: the Civil War presidents (Lincoln and Davis), the home front, the war itself, and race. He points out that Confederate humorists--though hampered by cheap paper, scarce ink, and mediocre engravers--found their leaders easy prey for irreverence, even travesty. Cowardice on the home front was an object of disdain; officers were butts of jokes by the lower orders (who suffered from serious deprivations of various sorts); the African American was freely travestied in looks and language. Interestingly, as Nickels convincingly documents, Northern humorists took roughly the same positions, targeting the same subjects and individuals even more egregiously than was typical in the South. The author provides thorough documentation, crowding his pages with potent graphics, plentiful anecdotes, and examples of doggerel verse--all uncovered in his research. Avoiding critical analysis and abstract theorizing, always a problem in discussions of humor, Nickels has amassed a trove of material focused on concrete objects. Readers who want to draw their own conclusions by immersion in primary materials will love this accessible presentation, which is valuable to audiences ranging from academic to casual (including Civil War buffs).

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. -- D. E. Sloane, University of New Haven

Copyright 2013 American Library Association.


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