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"Ellis Parker Butler: Popular Humorist at the Turn of the Century" from Western Illinois Regional Studies

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from Western Illinois Regional Studies
Ellis Parker Butler: Popular Humorist at the Turn of the Century

While he is not widely known today, Ellis Parker Butler was a prolific and successful humorist in the first decades of this century, publishing hundreds of stories in magazines and numerous books. (1) Changing with the times, Butler's writing is a good barometer of popular taste -- at least with respect to the broad middle class, emerging with the rapid expansion of the American economy after the turn of the century. His stories originally appeared in such magazines as Yellow Book, National, Midland Monthly, American and, later, The Saturday Evening Post.

Born December 5, 1869, in Muscatine, Iowa, on the Mississippi River, Butler wrote fiction which reflected his midwestern origins. Despite the fact that he completed only one year of high school, he was encouraged to write by teachers in Muscatine, where he grew up. Butler left Iowa in 1897, and two years later established the Decorative Furnisher magazine in New York. At the same time, he began publishing stories in popular magazines, which had entered a period of significant growth in mass readership through the inexpensive formats popularized by McClure's. Writing for this expanding market, he produced at least thirty-five books, for the most part collections of short stories and juvenile fiction, between 1900 and his death in 1937.

Ellis Parker Butler published in 1982

Butler can be placed within the literary tradition of nineteenth-century regional humorists, of which Mark Twain is the most prominent example. Consciously citing Twain as one of his models, Butler also noted the influence of Bob Burdette (Robert Jones Burdette), a vastly popular humorist and fellow resident of Iowa who wrote for the nearby Burlington Hawk-Eye from 1847 -- 1880 and went on to a career as lecturer and preacher. In Twain and Burdette, Butler found models who used the small town both as the object of humorous jibes and as the locus from which to satirize the sophistication of the modern urban scene. Each of these humorists used standard devices of nineteenth-century regional humor: rhyming prose paragraphs, satire, ridicule of cultural myths, the epigram, local color, and humorous analogy. (2) Butler is distinctive in that he came later, and found himself in a society in which rural and small-town life was even more significantly devalued.

So popular was Butler during his lifetime, and so greatly have his books fallen from favor today, that one might expect to find in his career some indication of a shift in the popular reading taste between 1910, when Butler was at the height of his career, and 1940, when most of his works were out of print. Such a shift, away from rural and traditional materials and toward urban sophistication, did occur, and it had an impact on Butler's favorite subject matter, the small town and rural America. His early stories appeared from 1895-1915, mirroring the tastes of the small, midwestern town of Muscatine, Iowa, which he had recently left for New York. These stories deal predominantly with rural or small-town subjects and express attitudes that are traditional and even folkloric. (3) As did other writers of this period, including Ring Lardner and Bob Burdette, Butler created humor from a bumpkin's awkward and ill-handled dealings with sophisticated urbanites. However, since his sympathies are clearly with the rural hero, Butler causes his main characters to succeed even in urban environments, demonstrating to many readers that their rural perspectives and attitudes may still be superior to the new tide of urbanization.

Butler is perhaps best remembered for his story of 1906, "Pigs is Pigs." Last reprinted in a Dover edition in 1966 and still in print, the story relates station attendant Mike Flannery's humorous struggle to communicate through letters with the Interurban Railway headquarters while guinea pigs multiply in his office. The story's outcome turns on whether guinea pigs are to be classified and thus charged as "pigs" or "domestic animals."

"Do as you loike, then!" shouted Flannery, "pay for thim an' take thim, or don't pay for thim and leave thim be. Rules is rules, Misther Morehouse, an' Mike Flannery's not goin' to be called down fer breakin' of thim."

"But, you everlastingly stupid idiot!" shouted Mr. Morehouse, madly shaking a flimsy printed book beneath the agent's nose, "can't you read it here -- in your own plain printed rates? 'Pets, domestic, Franklin to Westcote, if properly boxed, twenty-five cents each.'" He threw the book on the counter in disgust. "What more do you want? Aren't they pets? Aren't they domestic? Aren't they properly boxed? What?" (4)

As Flannery patiently attempts to ascertain the correct rate for them, the guinea pigs uncooperatively multiply until they occupy every corner of his small office. The conclusion of this "stretcher" is the announcement from the Interurban headquarters that "guinea pigs is pets" and are charged accordingly by the lower rate. The delight which so many readers found in Butler's famous story "Pigs is Pigs" certainly stems, at least in part, from a nostalgia for the passing simplicity of small-town life, combined with a vague uneasiness about increasing urbanization. Mike Flannery is a brilliant comic creation because he epitomizes the transition between rural and urban America through his comic struggle with literacy, bureaucracy, and mechanization in his position as Westcote agent for the Interurban Express Company.

In this and other stories Mike Flannery appears as the illiterate Irishman of folklore, falling into difficulty whenever he must communicate through writing in his position as express office agent. For example, Flannery attempts to communicate the increase in the number of guinea pigs and their expenses in maintenance:

Pigs is Pigs

"Audit Dept." he wrote, when he had finished the count, "you are way off there may be was one hundred and sixty dago pigs once, but wake up don't be a back number. I've got even eight hundred, now shall I collect for eight hundred or what, how about sixty-four dollars I paid out for cabbages." (pp, 46-46)

He is physically as well as verbally clumsy, yet Flannery displays an admirable quality of rebelliousness -- particularly in "The Three Hundred," in Pups and Pies (1927), when confronted by unnecessary regulations such as the General Orders by which he receives a Simplified Spelling List of 300 words. Flannery tries to obey the order to employ the simplified spelling, and as in other instances, it is his literal interpretation of the order which leads to misunderstandings. Butler's satire of progressive thinking is implicit in a number of his stories. In this case the confusion and bad feeling which are caused by the distribution of a Simplified Spelling List leads us to conclude that Butler favors convention over "progressive" usage. The comic structure of the story is that of a clever plan which turns out to cause more problems than it solves.

Reflecting his Iowa upbringing, Butler's stories projected the attitudes and, at times, the prejudices of the small town and rural America of his day, for the appeal of his humor is based on satire of urban and modern perspectives. While in novels such as Philo Gubb, Correspondence School Detective (1918) Butler turned his hand to detective fiction, it is significant that he maintains his practice of employing protagonists with rural backgrounds. Philo Gubb is not in any sense a believable detective, as he aspires to be; rather, he is a character who is designed by his creator to satirize the conventions of detective fiction as a sophisticated genre with urban roots. Butler's detective speaks a rural idiom, arrives in the city from Slocum, Ohio, and most importantly manages to outwit various urban criminals not because of his skill as a detective but because of his deceptive innocence and naivete. As with most of his fiction. Butler's detective novel is deeply rooted in the mind of the rural traditionalist. His novel demonstrates the triumph of the rural innocent over the urban culture with which he is threatened.

Similarly, Butler satirizes the impracticality of over-specialization among the intellectual elite. Philo Gubb at one point encounters Waldo Emerson Snooks, who relates his story to Philo:

Upon graduation from Harvard, he had sought employment, offering to furnish entertainment by the evening, reading an essay entitled, "The Comparative Mentality of Ibsen and Emerson, with Sidelights on the Effect of Turnip Diet at Brook Farm," but the agency was unable to procure him any engagements. They happened, however, to receive a request from Mr. Dorgan, manager of the sideshow, asking for a Tasmanian Wild Man, and Mr. Snooks had taken that job. To his own surprise, he made an excellent Wild Man. (5)

Once again, the question of literacy or facility with language arises as a major theme of Butler's work. A written will devolves into a practical joke as Haddon O'Hara writes one on two sides of a sheet of paper, leaving his estate to two different heirs. Although it is impossible to determine which side was written first, through the work of Gubb, the estate is awarded to the deserving niece by way of a third will tacked to the top of a doghouse. Gubb discovers the will after bumping his head on the inside of the doghouse while searching for the lost dog. Another appearance of verbal technicality involves the refusal to pay a debt. Mr. Herr Schreckenheim, a famous tattoo artist, finds himself unable to collect from two clients whom he has provided with eagles on the chest -- because of the technicality that the eagles are not provided with claws. As is typical of Butler's humor, an elaborate explanation is provided as to why the eagles lack claws. In the second case the client was forced to give up the claws in a skin graft operation.

While Philo Gubb is hardly Butler's finest work, and in fact demonstrates the anecdotal structure of his attempts at novel-length material, the book does convey with some precision the author's typical attitudes toward urban culture. Gubb's encounters with the transient population of a sideshow, representatives of the rootless, verbally facile mass culture of urban America, demonstrate Butler's satiric point of view. One senses a fundamental traditionalism behind the gentle satire of the sideshow residents. At one point Philo Gubb falls in love at first sight with Syrilla Medderbrook, who is working at the time in a freak show as the Fat Lady. While Philo loves her as she is -- a half-ton in weight -- Syrilla embarks on a diet in order to get out of a five-year contract with the show. Syrilla's weight loss begins gradually, but soon she is losing at an alarming rate. Finally Syrilla's weight drops to five pounds less than nothing. Yet Gubb later finds out that Syrilla's weight loss plan is a deception, and that she has married the Living Skeleton in the freak show. Mr. Medderbrook has been selling his daughter to Gubb at 25 cents per pound of lost weight, until she was to leave the show and join Gubb.

Although the values of rural and small-town America clearly stand at the center of Butler's satiric vision, his writing also projects an ambivalent view of the bumpkin-hero. Philo Gubb's career as a detective illustrates this ambivalence, for while he is the bungling detective who is easily misled by urbanites, he is also lucky enough, and perhaps shrewd enough, to outwit the sophisticated tricksters he encounters. In several instances his very bungling ignorance is enough to throw criminals off their guard. Gubb's naivete is also honesty; his verbal ineptness is physical shrewdness. Butler's defensiveness toward rural values results from the certainty that society was becoming more urbanized. But while he may satirize some features of urban life, he never seriously questions the underlying belief in material progress and pragmatism which one connects with industrialization.

Another point that distinguishes Butler as a rural humorist is the persistent satire of organizations -- particularly those groups which are representative of modern culture. In The Incubator Baby (1906) Mrs. Fielding takes the problem of her infant daughter's constant crying to the local Mother's club, which in return appoints a committee of four to "direct the growth of Marjorie in mind, body, and soul." (6) Three prominent members of local society are elected to the committee, while Mrs. Fielding, the child's mother, "was added at the last moment ... because the other members of the Mother's club said they had enough to do to look after their own babies" (p. 46).

Butler frequently adopts the rural humorist's nonchalance toward rigid organization of time. Again in The Incubator Baby, Mrs. Fielding and her committee adopt a detailed schedule for Marjorie's growth and activities. The schedule calls for Marjorie to creep in her ninth month. Believing that the infant is behind schedule, Chiswick, the child's nurse, encourages the child to begin crawling; but when Marjorie begins creeping immediately, six weeks ahead of schedule, Chiswick is forced to retard the child's progress by tying her to the bed with antiseptic bandages -- and Chiswick's action earns her a resolution of thanks from the committee! Such absurd consequences are the rural humorist's method of satirizing the modern overemphasis on exact schedules, especially when such schedules begin to enforce a mechanical conformity upon what the traditionalist views as an entirely private sphere of activities.

The Incubator Baby remains today among the more readable of Butler's stories, although, as with many of his works, it is somewhat dated. For instance, Butler underscored his belief in the traditional role of women by introducing a sympathetic character named Miss Vickers, who serves as private secretary for Marjorie. Miss Vickers is the only woman around the infant who understands the natural emotional needs of children. Butler describes Miss Vickers' rejection of women's emancipation: "She scoffed at the Higher Life for Women; she ate candy and avoided as much as possible her physical good. She refused to be emancipated. She had an idea it meant something in the way of doing without lacing and wearing shoes a size too large for one" (p. 58). The rural humorist's skepticism toward change is further voiced by the old-fashioned physician treating Marjorie. Not only does he tear up the list of rules and the schedule which the women's committee has prescribed, but he also orders a "course of good, old-style grandmothering" (p. 110).

"Mothering" is also the subject of "Interlude," one of several interesting stories in The Behind Legs of the 'orse and Other Stories (1927). It is an analysis of a youth's dependence on maternal presence in the home. When Anna Miller becomes ill, her husband and son must prepare dinner for themselves. Their ignorance and clumsiness in the kitchen are designed to attest to the central role of woman in the home. After fixing a tray of food for the bedridden mother, the young Ben prepares for bed by praying for her. In the morning Anna is up before the men, fixing breakfast. The story is trivial in the events it narrates, but it goes deeply into the consciousness of the boy Ben and his feelings of dependence toward his mother.

The psychology of youth is treated far less effectively in "The Demigod," in which a boy named Donald believes himself to be a young god. At first he believes he is Orpheus and tests his musical powers with the Jew's-harp. Failing to move various objects, he believes he is some other kind of god. He tries to halt the rising of the flooded river. Then slowly the sense of being a god passes away, as he fails spelling tests and is outdistanced by other boys in athletics. He feels less than human. When Aunt Mary and Cousin Dorothy visit. Donald finds that he likes Dorothy, but his shyness gives her the impression that he is mean and doesn't like her. To prove that he does, he kisses her. With the kiss, he feels at last like a true demigod.

Another story in which literary forms are exposed to light satire is "Romance," in which Butler begins with a comparison between romance as it is -- where there is always a tense battle between rivals --and courtship as it takes place in Postville, Iowa, where Susie Berkow lives. As a rural humorist, Butler seems consciously to reject the popular culture, or at least the literary, models for romance. Still, the everyday courtships in Postville are dripping with romance. Thus, Billy Bell is engaged to Susie Berkow, and he goes through stages of being melancholy and jealous. The months of their courtship are turbulent because Billy is living the romance which will be forever stifled after marriage. The night before their marriage, as Billy worries about whether he can afford the honeymoon and set up housekeeping, romance leaves his mind for good.

In "The Behind Legs of the 'orse," Butler undercuts modernist pretensions to a purely aesthetic view of art. The story is designed as a dialogue on the role of art between the narrator -- a button manufacturer named Henry Rodman -- and Pierre Rochambeau, whose "art" consists of playing "the behind legs of the horse." The unappreciative Rodman fails to find any art in Pierre's act: "The fore-end of the horse was as funny as a box of monkeys, but I could not see that the hind legs did anything but follow the front end of the horse around, as they had to ... ." (7) Pierre asks Henry's wife Bessie to elope with him to France, where they can together act the horse. She refuses, and in a film of his act Pierre realizes that he is not a great artist. He apologizes to Rodman, after learning that Bessie is his wife. He then returns to France with the intent of studying the horse another ten or twenty years. The criticism implicit in Butler's story is grounded in the populist belief that an artist is judged, ultimately, by his effectiveness in direct communication to a mass audience. Pierre's failure is a ludicrous loss of perspective in seeing himself as others do, for he assumes that there are those in the world who appreciate the fine touches of realism he lavishes on the behind legs of the horse. The irony is that, not only do others laugh at his pretentions, but he has never been able to see his own portrayal as the behind legs. It is appropriate that the cinema should reveal his failure, just as it reveals the effectiveness of George's broad humor in playing the fore end. (The narrator comments that the film will do poorly in New York but well outside the city, presumably because its burlesque humor will appeal to less sophisticated audiences.)

The ethic of pragmatism in Butler's writing creates peculiar types, extremes of humanity molded by the ethic of time in which they were born. In "Silent Joe of Fire Island Beach" we see a Galahad in the service of facts: "He was a fact-miser. For nearly twenty years he had been gathering facts, getting hold of what seemed to be a fact and then asking a thousand questions about it and testing the answers for truth, discarding what seemed untrue or doubtful, asking more questions ... until he had what he believed was pure gold." (8) Silent Joe is but one of numerous "fact-misers" in Butler's fiction, and what makes them humorous is their lack of perspective regarding the distinction between human truth and factual truth. Believing as they do that subjective feelings are unimportant, such men are tested in the comedy by those very feelings to which they are most vulnerable. A second comic feature is the inability of men like Silent Joe to place their facts in any larger context: to Joe a fact is indisputable and requires no qualification.

Two excellent stores from the collection The Behind Legs of the 'orse and Other Stories (1927) involve elements of storytelling from the oral tradition, "The Crisis" contains the folklore motif of "the impossibility of winning an argument with one's wife." Old Sam Wilkins has built a raft and decided to "ma roon" his wife and the rest of the world by casting off and living on the two-acre pond which he built on his farm many years before. His old friend Nicholas Wilhelm learns that Sam is convinced that there has been "nothin' but trouble and sin and meanness" since the world started. The real motive for his behavior is the lecturing he got from his wife after tracking mud into the house. With the arrival of dinnertime he smells cornbread cooking and invites Nicholas to dinner.

In "The Reformation of Uncle Billy," several older men, in the wake of a fervid revival service, vow to reform Uncle Billy of his habit of telling fish stories, a practice which they realize is Billy's chief joy in life. The complication is how to reform Billy without alienating him by telling him he is lying, or without killing him off (by depriving him of telling stretchers) before he is reformed. Deacon Abner brings to Billy's attention the special favors he has done him in the past, and in return he asks Billy to own up that he has caught not a four-pound bass but no fish at all that day. Reluctantly, Billy agrees. Billy feels saddened that his friends believe him a liar and are trying to reform him. He makes his way to the grocery where he places his sack on the scales and weighs out a four-pound, two-ounce bass.

Another of Butler's finest works, Kilo (1907), demonstrates his ability at describing the small-town milieu in fullness of detail. The pragmatic realism of the nineteenth-century regional humorist carries into Butler's work as he sets the novel in Clarence, a dwindling town in central Iowa ten miles from the railroad line in Kilo. After introducing Mrs. Tarbro-Smith, a New York society woman who has come to gather material for a local color novel, Butler shrewdly points out that the residents of Clarence are neither quaint material nor are they appreciative of Mrs. Tarbro-Smith's efforts. The town's one great reader, Butler points out, is Mrs. Stein, who reads advertising circulars and the Bible.

The utter lack of aesthetic considerations in new commercial America is the subject of Butler's first comment on the town of Kilo. As Eliph Hewlitt drives into town for the first time, he considers, "He liked it. It was a real American town, and it looked like a good business town, because there could be no possible reason for people building a town on that particular situation unless it was for business." (9) Butler continues by saying that there was no river, the town was entirely flat, and it was "as unbeautiful in location as it was in architecture." The reader may smile at the mild satire, but one should keep in mind that like his bungling hero Hewlitt, Butler himself liked Kilo and the values it represents: American pragmatism, productivity, and common sense. We may smile at the lack of sophistication and unaesthetic features, but we are not led to laugh at the underlying philosophy. Butler's talent lies in his ability to create light satire, and his facility at conveying the small-town viewpoint with warmth and appreciation.

Eliph Hewlitt is a humors comic character, since his actions are predictable according to his humor of following the advice of Jarby's Encyclopedia of Knowledge -- the book which he has sold for many years. Thus, his courtship of Sally Briggs must follow, in proper order, the section on "Courtship -- How to Win the Affections." The ending of the novel evolves from the single humor of its protagonist. Eliph sets out to rescue Miss Sally from having her name dragged into the press by T. J. Jones, who is ready to print the story of her defrauding Skinner the butcher by selling lung testers instead of fire extinguishers. By using Jarby's Encyclopedia Eliph shows Skinner how to convert the testers to fire extinguishers. He further warns editor Jones about libel law, and convinces him not to print the story about Mayor Stitz's accepting a bribe (on the ground that this would be contrary to Jarby's advice concerning courtship -- in this case Jones' courtship of Miss Susan). Thus, by sticking to his humor -- his single-minded faith in Jarby's Encyclopedia, and in the larger sense, in the pragmatic belief that a compendium of facts will provide immediate answers to all human problems -- Eliph does rescue Miss Sally and marry her.

The values of optimism and business pragmatism at the turn of the century -- the Horatio Alger mentality -- are humorously presented in Perkins of Portland (1906) and in other stories. Perkins, an ad man from Chicago, concocts catchy phrases which sound good on paper, but which present difficulty in translating into business success. After devising a slogan for a plaster, Perkins finds that he must devise a plaster to meet his customers' demands. Using flypaper with holes cut into it as a plaster, he builds up a trade, and then sells out. This cycle is repeated with other products, until in the last scene we see Perkins aboard his yacht.

Perkins illustrates the relationship of Chicago to the surrounding rural areas. Chicago is the marketing and distribution point, but it is a city which is still conscious of and molded by the tastes of rural people. Sherwood Anderson finds much the same relationship later in the century, but by the 1920's, in Anderson's view, Chicago is less a center of opportunity and more an oppressive industrialized machine, drawing rural and immigrant peoples into its grasp.

From Chicago Perkins the entrepreneur decides to market a mystery novel entitled The Adventure of the Crimson Cord. In his haste to advertise it, he forgets to acquire the text of the novel. Without reading Rosa Belle Vincent's submitted manuscript, he buys it for a thousand dollars (the work is selected from a stack of manuscripts because it arrived bound in red twine). The manuscript turns out to be a trashy novel previously published as Lady Audley's Secretary. After discovering the plagiarism, Perkins acquires another manuscript -- this time from a naive, and presumably more honest, author, a recent high school graduate from Dillville, Indiana.

Perkins of Portland strings together a series of anecdotes in which the advertising promoter overcomes the obstacles which arise, in large measure, from his own huckster mentality. In the "Adventures of the Fifth Street Church" Perkins markets a subdivision in "Cloverdale" for which he provides on paper for a church on every street corner along Fifth Street. As the actual demand for lots skyrockets, Perkins concedes one church lot after another, until he finally arrives at a decision to "reunite" all the churches into one faith.

Such satire contains the potential for a serious critique of American business ethics, but Butler makes it clear that the primary purpose of his writing is not social criticism but light entertainment. The artistic failure of Perkins of Portland derives from the fact that the book establishes no serious theme, while the cleverness of Perkins' entrepreneurial schemes seems less amusing today than it must have in Butler's day. His contemporaries might have appreciated "The Adventure in Automobiles," in which the narrator describes the novel experience of climbing under a broken-down automobile as the "idiotic sensation of going to bed in public with my clothes on." On the underside of the automobile he encounters one of Perkins' "brilliant" advertising ideas -- the injunction: "Don't Swear. Drink Glenguzzle." Even when Perkins turns his attention to manipulating the drama for advertising purposes, Butler's attitude remains uncritical end, one suspects, admiring. In the "Adventures of Princess of Pilliwink" Perkins sells ad space in a theatre production but finds his cast striking after they are forced to consume thirteen different breakfast cereals in one scene. Perkins overcomes this crisis by having the audience taste the foods at a reception for the cast after each performance.

None of the stories in Perkins of Portland is distinguished by the authentic vitality of the rural storyteller which characterizes "Pigs is Pigs," The Incubator Baby, and such stories as "Bread" and "Interlude." Perhaps the removal of the story from the rural milieu accounts for this lack of success (Perkins is not from Portland; he operates from Chicago, although he reveals nothing of his background and communicates no sense of social heritage).

Although an awareness of the hucksterism and complacency of one level of American business is certainly implicit in Butter's writing, his humor works more to defuse potential criticism than to satirize business ethics. In "The Great American Pie Company" Mrs. Deacon and her competitor, Mrs. Doolittle, start pie businesses in the town of Gloning. The two husbands, Ephraim and Phineas, who act as deliverymen for their wives' products, meet and decide to settle a dispute over the Doolittles' practice of underselling the Deacons in the pie business. Deacon sells good pies for ten cents apiece, while Doolittle sells poor pies for eight cents, and neither wants to change her practice. Finally, Phineas suggests they form a stock company and divide profits on both operations. Then Phineas discloses a plan to raise prices gradually and eventually monopolize the pie business in Gloning. The plan grows into a giant vertically integrated corporation which will own all the bakeries, flour mills, and fruit farms; the corporation must also corner the cotton-belt and the timber-belt to assure cotton and timber for its sacks and barrels. The railroads must be bought up to assure low freight rates, and foreign competition will be prevented by manipulation of the import tariff. But then it occurs to the men that the labor unions might put them out of business and they might even be imprisoned by the masses, not to mention the difficulty of getting their wives to approve the plan. Only at the conclusion of the story is it revealed that neither man has a cent to his name.

Butler published in various formats for popular fiction. His Betzville Tales, never published in book form, was serialized in small-town newspapers during 1910. One of the most incredible of these tales is the story which appeared on January 17, 1910, a grotesque story with analogues in oral tradition (the mistreatment of a corpse). The tale begins with the death of Orone McDooble's uncle, Hiram, after an automobile passed across him. Before dying, Hiram has Orone promise never to sit in an automobile, promising to turn over in his grave if Orone does. Shortly afterward, Orone finds Hiram mysteriously turned to stone. Shrewdly, Orone purchases a broken-down automobile to sit in while Hiram ("turning over in his grave") operates his mill and other farm machinery. Ultimately, however, Orone's greed leads him to place too much strain on his stone uncle, and it becomes necessary to call in a mason to mend him. Soon public indignation threatens to run Orone out of the county, but Hiram's corpse, temporarily unattached to the mill, begins to revolve and disappears out of sight.

Another of the Betzville Tales is equally fantastic. A mixture of grotesque humor and rural common sense, "Clorilla Minch and her Lovers" (February 25, 1910) describes a woman who is becoming an old maid due to her "ice cold feet." A series of suitors appear, each with his own solution to the problem of her abnormally cold feet.

Butler achieves his best writing when dealing with the struggling immigrant or country bumpkin and in detailing his conflicts with urban society. In "Fleas Will be Fleas" we see Mike Flannery outsmarting the Professor of Fleas, a sophisticated Frenchman who attempts to charge Flannery for "flea-slaughter" of his hundred "educated fleas" (the professor is a failed sideshow artist turned con-man). Flannery outwits the professor by threatening to have him arrested for importing "valuable" fleas without a tariff on them. Another tale from Pups and Pies (1927) turns on the problem of literacy and education for the immigrant. After a New York architect recommends two gondolas for the new city park, Mike Toole is appointed by Mayor Dugan of Jeffersonville to purchase the "dongolas." Rather than admit that he doesn't know what a "dongola" is Toole announces it is a species of goat: "'Donnegoras was what we called them in th' ould country -- donnegoras from Donnegal.'" (10) The bulk of the story deals with Toole's attempts to teach the goats to swim. Finally, the goats are drowned after Toole soaks them overnight by staking them in the lake. This folly, along with criticism of the "unnecessary park" from the reform party, leads to the ejection of the mayor and his cronies from office.

Butler continued to write and publish stories involving rural settings until the year of his death, yet a significant shift in mood is evident as one reads the work before and after 1915. The earlier stories are more folkloric in tone, embodying the rural hero in activities which display his shrewd common sense and his forthright sense of values. After 1915 the bulk of his stories, while still descriptive of rural life, are nostalgic in tone, implying the loss of rural culture as a significant alternative to urbanization. The point of view also shifts in Butler's later stories from the attitude of the rural hero observing urban life to the urban community's reaction to the rural outcast. While Butler wrote good fiction during both periods, the exuberance and outlandish humor of his earlier work stands out in such stories as "Pigs is Pigs" (1905), "The Reformation of Uncle Billy" (1899), "Fleas Will Be Fleas" (1907), and "That Pup of Murchison's" (1906). Also evident after 1915 is the transition Butler made to a more self-conscious literary style, by writing humorous pieces such as "Poor Old Ellis Parker Is 50 This Month" (American, 1919) and "What Would the Boys We Were Think of Us Now" (Saturday Evening Post, 1922). In these his bent for the humorous essay replaces his early stance as rural storyteller.

Butler modified his treatment of rural subjects considerably after 1915: the brash, awkward but successful bumpkin is replaced by the shy, sentimentalized rural hero or heroine, and the theme is no longer the superiority of rural mores but the rural character as social outcast. In the book Dorna (1929), for example, a teenage girl and her father are depicted as surviving by odd jobs and living in abandoned cottages on the outskirts of a wealthy resort society. Although the opening chapters of Dorna suggest an upper middle class setting, the central character of the novel emerges as a shy outsider to town life. With her father Rasch Bender, Dorna has arrived in Hillvale, a summer resort community, with her only wish to "'live in a town and live like folks'." Living in a squatter's shack on the edge of town, Dorna steals away to familiarize herself with polite society; "many times, when the Hillvale girls did not suspect it, Dorna Bender was watching them and listening to them talk." (11) Dorna perceives the differences between herself and the town girls in terms of their clothes, their speech and "the things they did." Eventually, both Dorna and her father are incorporated into the town community, whose polite manners and economic stability are now viewed as superior to the cultural isolation and physical discomforts of rural life. The unsophisticated, democratic rural humor of Butler's early stories has been succeeded by a conformity to respectable, middle class seriousness. In one scene Dorna's father is lectured by Mr. Graydon, an editor who works in New York City: "Camping out is camping out, and I used to enjoy it as much as the next man when I had time for it, but this is something else. This is being poverty-stricken. Bender. It's being miserable. It's living as no respectable American should live." (12) Dorna is not highly readable today, but it represents an interesting turnabout in Butler's attitudes, and almost certainly in the attitudes of his fictional audience, which must have outgrown the raw, uncouth, direct humor of his early writing. Of course, there is also an unintended irony to Graydon's speech, which moralistically accuses Bender of not providing adequately for his family, for Dorna was published in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression.

Ellis Parker Butler was in a sense an outsider like Dorna. Coming from the small town of Muscatine, Iowa, relatively uneducated, and with a modest family background, Butler made his way as a writer and editor in New York, climbing from rural obscurity to urban affluence and culture. Butler used his knowledge of rural America, of its traditional attitudes and its insecurity in the face of urbanization and change, as the basis of his own transition to urban status. Looking steadily backwards, Butler continued to adapt his one subject -- small-town and rural America -- to the changing tastes of the popular audience. Today his stories, in Pups and Pies, Betzville Tales, The Incubator Baby, and most of all Pigs Is Pigs, provide a record of popular taste during a period in which it was influenced by the appeal of rural subjects and traditional perspectives.


  1. A convenient listing of Butler's books may be found In Frank Paluke, Iowa Authors (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1968), pp. 19-21. Butler's short stories are listed in F. J, Hannigan, The Standard Index of Short Stories 1900-1914 and in volumes of the Reader's Guide.
  2. Clarence A. Andrews, A Literary History of Iowa (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1972). p. 162.
  3. See my article "Folk Humor in The Stories of Ellis Parker Butler," Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. 45 (1979), 79-84. It seems that Butler's work is an attempt to continue the fertile interchange between folklore and popular culture which Richard Dorson notes as particularly important in the work of the Southwestern Humorists and The folk stories employed by Abraham Lincoln. While Dorson is undoubtedly correct in seeing a rift occurring between folklore and popular culture in the period after the Civil War, Butler was among the last to employ the rich vein of rural folklore in his storytelling. a fact that also explains the nostalgic quality of his appeal to a largely urban readership. See Richard Dorson, American Folklore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 73.
  4. "Pigs is Pigs," in Pigs is Pigs and Other Favorites (1906; Rpt. New York: Dover, 1966), pp. 12-13 Further references in the text are to this edition.
  5. Philo Gubb, Correspondence School Detective (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), p. 25.
  6. The Incubator Baby (New York: Funk and Wagnalls. 1906), p. 46. Further references to the text are to this edition.
  7. "The Behind Legs of the 'orse," in The Behind Legs of the 'orse and Other Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927), p. 20.
  8. "Silent Joe of Fire Island Beach," In The Behind Legs of the 'orse. p. 163.
  9. Kilo (New York: Grosset and Dunlop. 1907), p. 46.
  10. Pups and Pies (New York: Doubleday, 1927). p. 204. This is a volume of Butler's earlier stories, previously uncollected.
  11. Dorna, or The Hillvale Affair (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929), p. 46.
  12. Ibid., p. 144.



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