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"Ellis Parker Butler" from Our American Humorists

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  • Our American Humorists (1922) "Ellis Parker Butler"   By Thomas Lansing Masson. Masson was one of three editors who urged Butler to move to NYC. Masson was literary and managing editor of "Life" starting in 1893. Chapter 6. p 73-90. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.  [HARPER]

from Our American Humorists
Ellis Parker Butler
and Thomas L. Masson

Chapter 6

It was a great many years ago that Ellis Parker Butler came into my office one day from Kansas City. It must have been a quarter of a century ago. He was a pleasant-looking young man at the time: he is still pleasant-looking, in spite of all the humorous things he has written since: but doubtless he is wiser. For one thing he has lived in Flushing, New York, and continuous life in a place like Flushing, which enables a man to escape from New York with great rapidity, is more or less of a cultural process. In my time I have known several creative workers who lived in Flushing, and they appeared to be no worse for it.

Mr. Butler, however, did not go to Flushing by my recommendation. He went somewhere else. He told me that he had come on to New York to make his fortune, that he wanted to become a writer, and that he expected to become a married man in due time, the sooner the better. My advice to him was to get on a Broadway car, go north until he saw green, and then inquire at the nearest drug store for a suitable boarding 'Our American Humorists' by Thomas Lansing Masson. 1922. house. But I had forgotten about Central Park, so Butler, seeing green, got off there and wandered around for a while among the swans and policemen until, having by this time lost all confidence in my intelligence, he struck north for himself, got his bearings, became an editor, wrote "Pigs Is Pigs," acquired twins, lived in Paris, and became famous.

Butler went to Paris after he wrote "Pigs Is Pigs." He thought a residence in Paris, as a supplement to Kansas City and Flushing, would enlarge his fount of inspiration. Alas! he told me he was not able to write a thing during his stay there, and was glad to get back to his native land. He has given various explanations of how he wrote "Pigs Is Pigs," but perhaps the best one is that his grandfather was a pork-packer. He writes:

I brushed through the first year of high school at Muscatine well enough but just after I dipped into the second year I quit to go to work, because my father had hard sledding as a low-paid bookkeeper with eight children. We were a mighty poorly financed family. My grandfather, Sage O. Butler, had been a pork packer, Mobile, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Muscatine -- following the hogs -- and the big slump in provisions just after the Civil War caught him overloaded and tended, and he failed.

For a number of years, as a boy, I lived with my grandmother and aunt at Muscatine. My aunt was spinster and one of the most genuinely cultured women I have known -- a lover of good literature and good music. Chopin and Beethoven were her favorites, and the "Lake Poets," and Charles Lamb and Matthew Arnold, and the finer old Americans -- Lowell, Longfellow and Emerson. She felt that good literature was something almost as holy as religion, and she made me feel that a great poet or a great writer of prose was not second to any hero.

It was this delicate and cultured aunt who taught me to read and to know my numbers. I learned to read with Sir Walter Scott's "Tales of a Grandfather" as a primer, and Shakespeare's plays as a "First Reader," and the printed word gained then has always held for me color and mystery and "alarums" and glittering panoplies and clash of arms. I remember lying on my belly on the dull red parlor carpet reading "Hamlet" while my aunt practiced a Chopin nocturne -- and Chopin still means good music to me, and Shakespeare means good, healthy, vigorous English.

It was inevitable that I should write poetry first. I remember a serious parody of "Blow, Bugles, Blow" that I wrote on the theme of a cyclone that hit Muscatine. It was published in a local paper about the time I began losing my milk teeth, and I wrote many more "poems."

Recently I met Dean Jewell of the University of Arkansas and he told me something of the psychology of humorists. I had always said I became a humorist because my father was a great lover of humor. I remember I gave him, once or twice, the Christmas numbers of the humorous weeklies as my Christmas gift, and he knew and liked Peck's Sun, the Burlington Hawkeye, the Toledo Blade and the other weekly humor papers of a type now dead, ending with Texas Siftings. I had always imagined that this close association with humor publications and my father's great admiration for Bill Nye, Bob Burdette and Mark Twain was the influence that turned me to humor, but Dean Jewell says this is not so. He says the psychology of the humorist is that he is timid and thin-skinned; he has had a love of writing put into him and has written something serious and some one he loves or admires has laughed at it, and in protection of his egotistic and quivering sensibilities he turns to humor as to something that will be laughed at without causing him pain. Or words to that effect.

This seems true in my own case, and is no doubt true in most cases. Dickens, the gutter-snipe, must have feared the criticism of the snobby educated, and he turned to the laugh. Most of our own famous humorists come from small towns where the writer of serious verse or prose is considered a poor freak.

I know that even my dear aunt's gentle and kindly criticisms of my raw, youthful poems often sent me shamedly to tears of hurt self-esteem, but I do not recall that I tried to write humor while I lived with her first. She did not consider humor worthy, unless it was the refined humor of Lamb or dear Oliver Wendell Holmes, and a boy in short pants can't do that sort. If he can he ought to be shot as a little prig.

It was when I went home to my parents that I wrote my first great laughing success, a poem about our colored servant's hair "switch" which blew out of her bedroom window and became tangled in the top of a blossoming cherry tree. The family liked that poem, and I had to make several copies of it.

When I started to school, well up in the classes because of the home tutoring I had had, I began a career as a humorist that gave me great pleasure, although it was not widespread. There was a custom of giving, as a punishment for slight infractions of the school discipline, the task of writing an "essay" of five hundred or a thousand words. I loved this and I was disgustingly proud to stand before the school and read an essay on "Trees"' or "Prohibition" that made the teacher and the scholars giggle and even laugh aloud.

I think it was inevitable that I should be a writer of some sort because my aunt had given me such an admiration of literature. There was a time, when I was six years old, when I longed to become a blacksmith, because, I think, I loved the odor of hot iron against a horse's hoofs, as I do still, and somewhat later I wanted to become a doctor, but this was because that profession seemed to make a college education necessary, and what I wanted was the college education. I know I would have made a disgusting doctor. I would have been very popular and would have become wealthy while the graveyards filled with my patients. I would have had a most profitable bedside manner but I would have given, too often, arsenic for quinine. In my heart, I think, I never believed I would be anything but a writer. To write and have what I wrote printed always seemed the noblest success I could obtain, because my heroes were the writers of books, and not preachers or soldiers or statesmen or millionaires or social successes. I would rather be George Ade than Rockefeller, and Napoleon has never seemed to me worth one of Bunner's short stories. I would rather see Booth Tarkington from across a wide street than spend a month with President Harding, as a guest of honor. My first view of the old Century building on Union Square thrilled me ten thousand times as strongly as my first view of Niagara Falls.

I spent ten or eleven years, after leaving high school, in "jobs" in a spice mill, an oatmeal mill, a china store and a wholesale grocery, doing clerical work, being a floor salesman, selling groceries and one thing and another, but my real life was after hours when I could take a pen and get at my writing. I sold quite a few serious poems, but Hood's "Rhymester," which I happened to hear of as a textbook, put me in love with vers de societe and the exact forms of verse tinged with wit, and I did a lot of that and sold it to Life, Puck, Judge and Truth. It was inevitable that in selling to these I should see a further market for my "stuff" in the form of prose-humor -- paragraphs and longer skits, and I found the market a good one and managed to sell the Century Magazine some things -- a glory indeed. I worked until twelve or one each night, after my regular work, and presently I was earning more by what I wrote than by my "job" in the wholesale grocery, and when I had an opportunity I visited New York and asked R. U. Johnson of the Century, Tom Masson of Life, and the editor of Truth whether it would be wise to come to New York and be the thing I wanted most to be, a literary man. They all advised me to come to New York and I did, and I have been grateful to all three for the advice.

It seems to me inevitable that a man depending on his pen for his income and not wishing his family to dwell in poverty must write much that he would not write had he an income otherwise available, but I am fairly well satisfied with what I have done thus far, and it is difficult to decide what I like best of the things I have written. "Pigs Is Pigs," with its instant success and continued popularity, is probably the "best" thing I have done or it would not have attracted such wide and continued attention. It is not a "work" however, and an author is apt to be proudest of the thing he has done more intentionally. I love "Pigs Is Pigs" and can laugh at its humor myself, even after having read it a thousand and one times, but it was an accident and not the result of a studied effort. We are prouder of the things we plan carefully and then labor over. I think "The Jack Knife Man" is the best thing I have done, judged in this way, but probably "Pigs Is Pigs," "Mrs. Dugan's Discovery," "Billy Brad and the Big, Big Lie" and other things that were merely dashed off without premeditation are the best test of whether I am a humorist or not. Being unstudied, they show I have humor in me that will come out if I let it. Things like my "Goat Feathers," "Swatty" and "In Pawn" are greater sources of pride to me because I set myself a task and accomplished it fairly well in each case.

I have had twenty books published, but some of the things I like best have not been put in book form yet, mainly because they are short and disconnected and because I have not bothered to gather them together and urge their publication.

Without meaning to be egotistic I think the humorist does more good in the world than any other writer with the exception of the true poet and the vital essayist. A great poet is the world's greatest treasure, and a great essayist is a true prose poet, but the humorist, however cheap and trashy, does something important that no other writer does -- he gives the reader a laugh.

What Butler says in this charming letter about the psychology of humorists stirs me profoundly. It explains a great deal about humorists that I never before understood and confirms my own experience with these denatured human beings.

Indeed, it requires a great stock of brains to overcome being a humorist, and one's sense of humor needs to be kept in constant retirement. In this country Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the one universal genius America can boast of, made his sense of humor serve him in all of his capacities, and I fancy that Dean Jewell's remark would scarcely apply to him. But it is largely true of our present-day humorists.

As for a sense of humor, how many people do you know who have one? Scarcely anybody, you say promptly. Are you sure you have one yourself? Oh yes, of course. You wouldn't deny that. If anyone should accuse you of not having a sense of humor would you laugh at him? You would be secretly sore. This charge might rankle in your mind for days. What is a sense of humor anyway? Are you clear in your mind about it?

There is nothing that the average man is more sensitive about than this same sense of humor. You have it -- only it is quite possible that you have never learned how to use it. How do you know that you haven't been secretly and subconsciously afraid to use it? Maybe in a rash moment you have tried it on someone and the result has been so disastrous that it cured you. The practical joker is not in good standing. If you turn the laugh on the other man the immediate result may be highly effective, but you have made an enemy. And we learn by hard experience that we cannot afford to make too many superfluous enemies.

And yet a sense of humor, if it is rightly applied, is one of the most powerful assets in the world. It not only keeps a man sweet and clean, but so far as one's opportunities are concerned, it acts upon them like a magnifying glass -- brings them out, makes them larger and clearer. It all depends on how you get it and how you use it. An instance of the danger in its application is shown in the reply made by one of the officers of the Illinois Central Railroad to Abraham Lincoln when he was practicing law. He had won an important case for this railroad. He presented a bill for $2,000.

"Why," said the officer, "this is as much as a first-class lawyer would have charged."

"Lincoln," writes Miss Tarbell, "withdrew the bill, left the office and, at the first opportunity, submitted the matter to his friends. Five thousand dollars, they all agreed, was a moderate fee ... Lincoln then sued the railroad for that amount and won his case."

In the fifth volume of the life of Benjamin Disraeli occurs a letter to Lady Bradford, of whom the foremost man of his time -- seventy years old and prime minister -- was violently enamored. Owing to his unconcealed ardor and Lady Bradford's divergent point of view, a slight estrangement had risen between them.

"Unfortunately for me," he goes on to say, "my imagination did not desert me with my youth. I have always felt this a great misfortune. It would have involved me in calamities, had not nature bestowed on me in a large degree another quality -- the sense of the ridiculous . . . And I cannot resist certainly the conviction that much of my conduct to you, during this year, has been absurd."

This is not, of course, to be taken as a confession, coming, as it did, from one of the most remarkable men of his age -- if not of all ages, but rather as a naive explanation. As I have said, it is quite usual for most men to claim that they have a sense of the ridiculous -- more commonly termed a sense of humor, and it is usual for them to believe this in all sincerity. But the rest of us are inclined to doubt it. We smile to ourselves urbanely and say "Poor fellow, he thinks he has it, but of course he hasn't; otherwise he would not take himself so seriously."

But the rest of us are wrong. Practically everybody has a sense of humor, however much this fact may be disputed. But if we exercised it right and left, where would we land? Both Benjamin Disraeli and Abraham Lincoln were exceptional men. Like Franklin, they were so big in other respects that they could display a sense of humor without disaster. Lincoln read Artemus Ward to his cabinet at a critical moment in the world's history. If a smaller man had done this, he might not have survived it. Satire and invective are one thing. Humor is another. Lincoln's perspective was so large that he could afford to be reckless about his humor. Then again -- except where he needed to bring home a lesson -- his humor was kindly; it usually served to illustrate some point he was making.

Mark Twain, as I have stated elsewhere, published his "Joan of Arc" anonymously because, his chief reputation being as a humorist, he believed that the public would not take his serious work seriously. He was right.

S. S. Cox ("Sunset" Cox) declared that his display of humorous proclivities undoubtedly hurt his legislative career. A public man always has to guard against getting a reputation for being a humorist.

It has been said and more than once, that Theodore Roosevelt had no sense of humor. It has been said, however, only by a few critical people to whom humor in any man would not be considered a damage -- on the contrary. These people were wrong. Theodore Roosevelt did not have the same kind of sense of humor that Lincoln had. It was not so unrestrained, so inevitable, as one might say. But, of course, he had it. It was an essential part of his large background. An evidence of this keen appreciation of humor is shown in his account of an interview he had with John L. Sullivan. Sullivan visited him once at the White House, to enlist his help about a certain nephew who hadn't turned out as Sullivan hoped.

"That boy," he explained to Mr. Roosevelt, "I just cannot understand. He was my sister's favorite son, and I always took a special interest in him myself. I did my best to bring him up in the way he ought to go. But there was nothing to be done with him. His tastes were naturally low. He took to music."

The real reason why so few people develop and display their sense of humor is not because it isn't there, but because it isn't there in proportion to the rest of their qualities, and they think they cannot afford to develop it. They are afraid of it. It's so powerful a thing that it goes off in their hands and causes trouble. They don't like to fool with it. It is a thing to be kept under lock and key, in a secret receptacle, like Romance.

I knew a hard-headed bank president who once a year regularly read "Little Women" and laughed and cried to himself in his library over it. But the news of this delightful event in his life was not chronicled on his office bulletin board.

A sense of humor is not only dangerous, but useless in itself unless it is mixed with the man in the right proportions. Especially is this true of men with reputations for solidarity. By itself, it inspires no sort of confidence. You are not likely to trust another man with your money, your vote or your thoughts if, upon first meeting him, he laughs in your face, or "wheezes" you. In most people it is largely a case of defensive suppression.

It is my experience that judges and clergymen both have a sense of humor better developed than in other professions. But they are careful not to display too much of it outwardly. If they did, it might hurt them. Most men in settled positions of dignity and stability use it sparingly in public. That is one reason why a great man is not always understood and appreciated in his own home town. People see him with his mask off, laughing and joking and doing commonplace things in a human way. The career of many a young man has been set back or badly damaged because, at the outset, he did not know how to control his sense of humor. One of the greatest powers in the world, it must be handled correctly. Remember the story of the western cowboy, who had been delegated to break the news to the widow of a man that they had just hanged for stealing a horse, only to discover afterwards that he was innocent. He called and said: "Ma'am, we strung up your husband by mistake, and he's dead. But you certainly have got the laugh on us."

Where men are struggling for a living, they shut off any development of a sense of humor, important as it may be to the more cultivated, because they know intuitively that to be serious is to convey the idea of reliability. Occasionally some one among them has it spontaneously and irresistibly. He is tolerated by his fellows for his "good" qualities, that are sufficiently in evidence. They say of him, "He is a good workman, but queer." They do not quite understand him, although they may enjoy his company.

All this being so, why do I say that a sense of humor is such a big asset? Let us look at the matter for a moment in a large way. Lincoln Steffens, who as a correspondent and keen observer of social and industrial conditions in many parts of the world, whose books "The Shame of the Cities" and "The Struggle for Self-Government" are a part of our literary and social history, and who has frequently been called upon to act as peacemaker between capital and labor, once told me that if humor were applied to world conditions, war would stop. "Apart from its tragedy," said Mr. Steffens, "war is ridiculous -- so utterly nonsensical that if men as a whole could be made to see it in this light, they would be ashamed to indulge in it."

Most of us lose our perspective at critical moments. We take ourselves too seriously. If you doubt this, look back upon some scene in your own past that, at the moment, seemed utterly hopeless and tragic. Now that it is all over and you can look at it calmly and impersonally, does it not strike you that your attitude was ridiculous? If your sense of humor could have come into play at this moment, the whole situation might have been relieved, and how much you might have been saved! This is what Disraeli meant when he wrote of himself. His love for Lady Bradford had made him take himself too seriously. But his sense of the ridiculous kept him from going too far. Benjamin Franklin's sense of humor, which permeated his whole life, was mingled in right proportions to the rest of him, and saved him from much that otherwise would have led him astray. It gave him the power of holding two opposite things in his mind at once -- the power of contrast -- which is always evidence of a developed sense of humor. Thus, before the Constitution was adopted and its fate was suspended by a hair, he was able to write that while he did not agree with all of it, he would sign it because, taken as a whole, it was best.

The passions that sweep men off their feet temporarily and lead to great tragedies might easily be prevented if humor could be brought in to clear the air. Dueling, which was once so common, has gone out because the ridiculousness of it is so apparent. Dueling is war on a small scale. Lincoln's example, in his famous duel with James Shields, had a large influence in making the duel ridiculous. Challenged by Shields, he insisted on having as weapons "broadswords of the largest size, precisely equal" and that between the principals there should be "a plank ten feet long, and from nine to twelve inches broad, to be firmly fixed on edge." A spectator who was present at this famous duel -- which was adjusted without bloodshed, owing, no doubt, to the humorous twist that Lincoln had given to the affair, related the following account:

His face was grave and serious. I never knew him to go so long before without making a joke. But presently he reached over and picked up one of the swords, which he drew from its scabbard. Then he felt along the edge of the weapon with his thumb, as a barber feels of the edge of his razor, raised himself to his full height, stretched out his long arms and clipped off a twig from above his head with the sword. There wasn't another man of us who could have reached anywhere near that twig, and the absurdity of that long reaching fellow fighting with cavalry sabers with Shields, who could walk under his arm, came pretty near making me howl with laughter.

It would easily be possible for me to cite numerous examples taken from history and the private lives of illustrious men, to show not only the wonderful and direct, but the cumulative power of a sense of humor, when brought to bear at the right time. But I must pass on to its practical application to our own lives, as we live them day by day, merely expressing the hope that as individuals come to understand and realize this power, it may, in the course of time, spread to whole races who, with a national consciousness alive to the absurdity of their actions, will pause on the threshold of one more world tragedy.

A large proportion of our divorces might easily be prevented if humor were used as a sanitary measure. Women are apt to be more intense than men. They express themselves with greater freedom, and often say things on the spur of the moment that they do not really mean. In these moments they may, indeed, be reaching out for some gestures of affection. And when husbands, because of a lack of humor, allow themselves to be drawn into the same mood instead of passing over the occasion lightly, then tragedy is likely to result.

Women are entitled to their moods, and at any rate, to treat them too seriously and logically is only to increase the tension. Where a situation in so many cases is artificial, it can easily be neutralized by a little touch of humor. We can afford to be over-serious only about little things: as a rule, big things can be much better handled by treating them as incidental.

What the most of us who haven't cultivated a sense of humor don't realize is that we are all pipelines. We clog ourselves up with our own immediate and material concerns, and defeat the very possibilities that ought to run through us. We never see much farther than the ends of our noses. A sense of humor, therefore, is nothing but a sense of detachment. It enables a man, not only to stand off and look at himself in the right perspective, but to see everything else in the same way.

How to develop it?

First, remember that it doesn't consist in the mere saying of clever things. It isn't being merely witty. Pure wit is often caustic -- and expensive. A French courtier, seating himself between Talleyrand and a lady remarked, "Now I sit between wit and beauty." To which Talleyrand replied, "And without possessing either."

And perhaps you have heard some young person say (it has so often been said to me!) "I always see the funny side of everything."

That is not quite it.

A sense of humor does not always -- at least at first -- consist of the mere ability to seem to be humorous. To develop it requires three things:

First, cultivate your imagination so that you will be able, not only to visualize an object, but to concentrate your mind upon it, in order to see it as if it actually stood before you, and to analyze it in its various parts, and come to value its relationship to other objects. This is the art of perspective.

Second, detach yourself from yourself. Be able to look at yourself as if you were somebody else. Say to yourself, "I am not the only pebble on the beach. I am only one, and a small one at that." When you have held this thought over a certain period, you will be surprised how it will free you from certain things that at the time seemed all important and serious, but which in reality are only incidental.

Third, practice contrast. Learn to hold two objects in your mind simultaneously, and how and why they differ from each other. By and by, when you pass judgment on any man, you will be able to take all of his contrasting qualities at once, and estimate them in their proper proportions.

From this training which, by the way, is in itself a constant revelation and delight, there will gradually come to you an accurate and powerful sense of humor. It will make you more honest, more direct, give you a proper humility and inspire the confidence of others. It will give you the trick of always putting yourself in the other fellow's place. This in itself is a great asset. Real humor is always founded on truth, which others recognize as soon as uttered.

Probably the humor of "Pigs Is Pigs" is so good because it is founded on truth. When I began this chapter, I intended to write exclusively about Butler. Instead of this I have let him tell about himself and have then done most of the talking. But never mind. This is a book about American humorists. In this place it may not have been unwise to have stated what I thought about a sense of humor. I know that Butler won't mind, for, being a married man like myself, he is uncomplaining and tolerant.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:05:24am USA Central
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