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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 444 Response

Comedy and Realism in “Josh Henry”

Challenge 444:

Thomas Lee Joseph Smith’s “The Ballad of Josh Henry” is obviously a comic satire. In what way is it realistic? Aside from Josh Henry’s machinations, in what ways is it unrealistic?

A Bewildering Stories Review Editor remarks:

The misspellings were a distraction. If it was a verbal story, I’d be willing to go along with mispronunciation or misuse of words, but a guy who can write letters that long should be able to write better than this. Aside from that, all I can say is poor Josh Henry is cursed to belong to one of those idiots seemingly blessed by fate or God.

Mark Twain once said — or should have, if he didn’t — that God watches over children, drunks and the United States of America. In view of U.S. politics, one can easily grant that the trio of watched-over has a certain ironclad consistency.

Be that as it may, Thomas L. J. Smith’s “Ballad of Josh Henry” illustrates a writer’s dilemma: How can the author hammer home that a character is an idiot without writing like one? The solution is in word choice and grammar. The character doesn’t have to echo Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, but a modest imitation would go a long way.

Tom Smith shows that the character John is an ignoramus by having him write letters filled with chaotic misspellings. That works up to a point, but the point of diminishing returns is reached very quickly. Beyond it, the text simply becomes hard to read.

There’s another problem: take away the misspellings and the reader will see that John actually writes quite fluently. And in the 1860’s — though perhaps not today — anyone schooled enough to know how to write so well would also spell correctly. Thus, John’s written style seems quite unrealistic.

There’s an even bigger problem. There’s no way Josh Henry can leave a note in John’s ammunition pouch. As a slave, Josh Henry is legally forbidden to know how to read and write. If anyone discovered that he could, both he and his master John would be in big trouble.

All told, "The Ballad of Josh Henry” might work best as a short comic film scenario. The genre of the short story in epistolary mode has problems all its own.

Don Webb

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