Friday, December 6, 2019

Drama in "Pokerville", Known to Us as Wetumpka

Although born in London in 1810, Joseph M. Field came to America at a very young age and remained here until his death in 1856. In 1827 he began an acting career in Boston, but three years later left the city looking for better opportunities. By 1833 he was in the Old Southwest touring with Sol Smith, the co-manager of a theatrical company that worked large cities such as New Orleans and Mobile and many small towns along the routes. Both men published accounts of life on the theater circuit in the U.S. and especially in the Southeast and Alabama. 

Smith published his book Theatrical Management in the South and West for Thirty Years in 1868, the year before his death. I plan a blog post in the future on Smith and his career. In this post let's look at Field's The Drama in Pokerville, published in 1847.

Field's book falls into a genre of literature known as Old Southwestern humor that was popular in the antebellum period before the Civil War. The Old Southwest consisting of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas was America's Wild West at the time. The sketches and tales embracing this humor featured regional dialects and portraits of the many con men, gamblers, confidence artists and other criminals as well as their victims inhabiting the cities, towns and roads of these states. Also skewered are the pompous airs and prejudices of residents. 

The authors portrayed many denizens of the region as exotic, exaggerated types often lazy or crooked whether white, black or Native American.Two of the best known works in the genre originated in Alabama: Joseph G. Baldwin (1815-64), The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi: A Series of Sketches (1853) and Johnson Jones Hooper (1815-62), Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers; Together with "Taking the Census" and Other Alabama Sketches (1845).

Thus Field unlike Smith turned his experiences into humorous fiction. The Pokerville "drama" takes up almost half the book. In his essay on Fields in the Encyclopedia of Alabama Charles S. Watson summarizes the Alabama connections. "Pokerville probably is based on Wetumpka, Alabama, where Field had performed in a two-week theatrical run in a billiard room. Two stories about Sol Smith's company are specifically located in Alabama. "'Old Sol' in a Delicate Situation" takes place in the Mobile Theatre, and "A Night in a Swamp" describes Sol Smith's company en route from Georgia to Montgomery as they pass through the Creek Nation in Alabama. In The Drama in Pokerville, Field ridicules the pomposity of local social leaders and censures small-town prejudice against the theatre."

The brief excerpt below gives a taste of Fields' biting, sarcastic humor--and ridicule. A poster is printed advertising "The Great Small Affair" drama and attracts much interest since there is a "great desire" to have a theater in Pokerville. The town already had several brick stores, was situated at the "head of navigation" and located "somewhere, on the 'Big'--something" and thus bound to prosper. The nearby larger town of "Coonsborough" [Montgomery?] already had a theater. But there was a "heap" of taste in Pokerville, and the manager of the theatrical troupe could make "a corde of money" there. Fields' tongue is firmly in cheek during these and other observations.

He observes that Pokerville had no theater as yet, but did have three taverns, thirty-three bar rooms, a billiard room and a ten-pin alley. At least priorities were in order. I suppose the time had come for a little culture!

As you can see from the table of contents included below, Fields devotes a lot of attention to the doings in Pokerville surrounding "The Great Small Affair". You can find the book and enjoy more of his Alabama portrait here

Fields died in Mobile on January 28, 1856. He was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Daughter Kate Fields, the only child of Joseph and his wife Eliza, became a journalist and lecturer. She is also buried in Mount Auburn along with both parents.

An illustration from Pokerville

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