from A Book of Iowa Authors By Iowa Authors
Ellis Parker Butler
by Ellis Parker Butler
By Frank Luther Mott
I have been having a regular picnic the last few weeks, reading the work of Ellis Parker Butler. Not only I, but all my family, including the children and grandpa and grandma, have been enjoying the Butler books hugely. So I feel indebted to the editor of this series of articles on Iowa litterateurs for suggesting that I should write this paper, as well as to Mr. Butler for writing his books for our delectation. Of course, I had read "Pigs Is Pigs," "The Great American Pie Company," and some other stories here and there; but not until I began to prepare for the writing of this article did I realize what a shelfful of books Ellis Parker Butler had contributed to regale the American reading public withal.
Let us consider first the short stories, for it is in the field of the short story that Mr. Butler has achieved his fame. And the first one to be noticed is "Pigs Is Pigs."
Twenty-odd years ago Mr. Butler was writing a series of stories about the experiences of one Mike Flannery, express agent, for the American Magazine. One of these experiences related to a pair of guinea-pigs upon which the consignee claimed he should be required to pay only the rate applicable to pets; while Flannery, alleging that all pigs is pigs, adhered to the rate designed for the shipment of the common domestic pig. A difference of ten cents was involved; and so the matter had to be taken up first with the claims department of the company, which referred it to the tariff department, which referred it to the general manager; and finally it reached the president of the company. In the meantime the guinea-pigs, as is the habit of their kind, multiplied and replenished the earth. They multiplied very rapidly. My mathematics fail me when I try to check up on Mr. Butler in this matter; but he is a director of the Flushing National Bank, and I have learned to rely on the arithmetic of bank officials. Besides, they have adding machines. You have all read this story, and you know that the adding of these guinea-pigs was nothing less than phenomenal, and that before the dispute was settled Mike Flannery was considerably overrun by guinea-pigs.
"Pigs Is Pigs" made Ellis Parker Butler famous. The Golden Book, in reprinting the story a couple of years ago, said that something like a million copies of it had been sold in book form. Editions of it seemed to have caught the adding and multiplying contagion from the pigs themselves. And ever since that time Mr. Butler has been one of America's foremost humorists.
Other Mike Flannery stories followed, such as that of "The Cat That Came Back," and so on; but, though all were eagerly read, none tickled the popular fancy as had the guinea-pig story. A year or two later, however, Mr. Butler published "The Great American Pie Company," which seems to me about as good a story as "Pigs Is Pigs." It details the get-rich-quick dream of two penniless old men whose wives are rivals in the business of baking home-made pies. Their flier in high finance is worthy of Mark Twain; Mark would have been delighted with that story.
Other humorous short stories cannot be discussed in detail here. There have been many of them, and a number have been republished in attractive little books of fifty pages or so.
Of late years Mr. Butler has shown more tendency to adventure in fields other than that of the story which attracts mainly because of its humor. "The Behind Legs of the 'Orse" is amusing, but, for one reader at least, its serious theme is much more important than its humor. Likewise "Hincmar the Peacemaker," in the same volume, has some pleasant irony, but its chief value is in the fact that it is one of the best fishing stories any Waltonian could wish. I like it better than Mr. Butler's "The Reformation of Uncle Billy," which Grover Cleveland thought the best fishing story he had ever read.
Boys and their experiences are a favorite theme with Mr. Butler. "Swatty" and "Jibby Jones" are his two books devoted to the adventures of his boy heroes. Swatty; A Story of Real Boys details a series of episodes in the lives of Swatty, Bony, Georgie, and Me. Some of them are calf-love tales of the Penrod stamp; some of them are rather melodramatic adventure stories; and the best of them tell of phases of life on the Mississippi river. Comparisons with Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are inevitable. Jibby Jones is the better of the two books; in fact, it is a very fine boys' book. It tells of the adventures of Jibby, Skippy, Wampus, and George along the river. This time George is Me. These adventures are interesting and amusing. They are tied together by a slight plot, but better than that, by the river and by Jibby. For Jibby, whose real name is Oliver Parmenter Jones, is a good character.
He had a nose which stuck out like the jib of a sailboat, and he was proud of it; and besides he was a mighty smart boy. Nor would it be right to neglect Rover, the fifth member of the group. Aside from a penchant for perfuming himself with dead fish. Rover was all that a boy could wish for in a dog. I think that the ending of Jibby Jones is overdone, but that does not prevent its being an excellent book.
Not only boys but domestic life in general interests Mr. Butler. Babies have furnished him some fine material. Confessions of a Daddy and The Incubator Baby were among the earlier books. The former shows the progress of a man from child-hating to fond papahood; and the latter is an excellent satire upon scientific care of babies, written mostly from the point of view of the baby. The thoughts of the baby in the incubator are particularly well done. But the best domestic story by Mr. Butler that I have read, and one of the best of its kind that I know of anywhere, is "Interlude," printed first in the Woman's Home Companion, in 1927, and reprinted in The Behind Legs of the 'Orse. Ben, who has been playing baseball with the other boys, comes home to find his mother ill. He and his father, a little frightened, get their own dinner, and take a tray up to Mother. In the morning she is well again. That is all there is to the plot, but the little story is filled with fine human understanding of the boy heart. It is a gem.
As to novels, I doubt if Mr. Butler has written any. Jibby Jones and Swatty are rather series of episodes. Dominie Dean comes nearer to being a novel. It portrays the life of a minister in Muscatine, Iowa, from the days before the war for thirty or forty years. It, too, is a series of episodes, but it is tied together by the character of the Reverend David Dean. There is little of the humor which Mr. Butler's readers come to expect, to be found in Dominie Dean, but it is nevertheless one of his best works. The first half of it, especially, contains some genuinely moving incidents, and the portrait of the dominie is memorable and significant.
If Dominic Dean is not a novel, certainly Philo Gubb is not. Of course Philo Gubb is pure farce and extravaganza. Philo is a correspondence school "deteckative," and he has a series of unbelievable adventures with criminals and others. Through them all runs his love affair with Syrilla, the fat woman of a circus, who loves him with all her nine hundred pounds and over. I should not recommend this to be read through at a sitting, but, taken in reasonable doses, it affords some chuckles and guffaws in nearly every episode.
In the last ten years Mr. Butler has written a number of more or less autobiographical sketches. He takes some fact out of his own experience and enlarges upon it and embroiders it, and gives it a general application, so that it has a meaning for all of us. Perhaps the best of these essays is "Goat-Feathers." Goat-Feathers, he explains, "are the feathers a man picks and sticks all over his hide to make himself look like the village goat. ... Goat-feathers are the distractions, side-lines and deflections that take a man's attention from his own business and keep him from getting ahead. They are the Greatest Thing in the World -- to make a man look like a goat!" Then comes a list of our author's "outside activities," of which I quote only the first part:
"When I wake in the morning as President of the Authors' League Fund I can give some attention to my work as Publicity Manager of the Liberty Loan Committee while preparing to devote an hour or two to the Secretaryship of the Armenian Relief and the Treasurership of the Volunteer Committee for the Fatherless Children of France, before I consider my duties as Vice President of the Flushing Savings and Loan and as Vice President, Director and Member of the Discount Committee of the Flushing National Bank. As a Councillor and Member of the Executive Committee of the Authors' League, and one of the Membership Committee of the City Club, Governor of the Tuscarora Club and Publicity Manager for the Flushing Red Cross, Flushing Red Cross Drive and Queensborough Red Cross Drive, I can put in a few hours of goat-feather gathering. ... I am firmly convinced that there is now in existence an Association to Prevent Butler Doing a Full Day's Work." And a little later he gets down to real soul-searching when he says: "No man in the world had a better chance to make himself the Great American Humorist than I had when I wrote 'Pigs Is Pigs.' I had a good solid foundation of fairly good humorous work under it, and the little story had a wonderful success. The thing for me to have done then was to stick to humor, regardless of anything." But, instead, he went gathering goat-feathers, writing this and that, and today we have the variety of his work which I have just been noticing. Whether he is right in his belief in regard to "what might have been," I have my doubts. As I look at the work of other humorists, I find in it much of variety. But that gathering goat-feathers by indulging oneself in side-lines is absurd and harmful, is something that most of us tell ourselves -- less picturesquely -- whenever we have lucid moments of self-examination. Alas, I am picking a goat-feather in writing this article!
In another quasi-personal essay on reaching his fiftieth birthday, Mr. Butler declares: "At fifty I am about ready to begin my life-work as a writer." And in another on home-comings as a national sport, he tells about going back to Muscatine and searching for his birthplace (which, by the way, ought to have a commemorative plate on it) and finding it had been moved to the back of the lot and was being used for an icehouse: the only plate was a roughly scrawled sign "ICE." Such is fame in Muscatine.
Ellis Parker Butler was born in Muscatine in 1869. He was graduated from the Muscatine high school and married a Muscatine girl. Muscatine, by the way, was the home for a short time of Mark Twain, fifteen years before the birth of the later humorist. The scene of the best of the Butler books is laid in the town in which he was born and grew up. Swatty and Jibby Jones and their respective gangs played along the river and in it; and it is the scene, as has been said, of Dominie Dean's labors. And the character of the Dominie, by the way, was founded upon the author's uncle, Lemuel Butler. Muscatine comes into many other stories and books, too: wherever you see "Riverbank," read "Muscatine." Cedar Rapids is the scene of "The Great American Pie Company;" the author says that "Cloning" in the story is the city on the Cedar.
It is plain that Mr. Butler likes Iowa. He criticizes her and laughs at her, but he can't hide his affection for her. Her scolds her: when the State Historical Department asked him to donate a copy of "Pigs Is Pigs" to its library shortly after that masterpiece was published, he sent the book with these lines inscribed on the flyleaf:
"O Iowa, state of my birth,
Accept this book, a quarter's worth.
O state of corn, take it from me,
And ever let thy motto be:
'Three millions yearly for manure,
But not one cent for literature!'"
Nowadays, let it be said, the state pays for its books. A more genial inscription is on the flyleaf of "The Water Goats" in the collection of the State Historical Society at Iowa City:
"O happy, happy Iowa!
While on thy west that dusky maid,
How joyous thou shouldst be,
Upon thy eastern side close clasped
By fair Miss Issippee,
Miss Ouri, clings to thee!
Ah, I, also, were happy with
Two Misses hugging me!"
It is in his essay about home-coming that Mr. Butler tells about how he was fired from a job in an oatmeal mill in the old home town. That may be all apocryphal. At least he ran a grocery store in that city, I understand, and later a wholesale grocery business. It was while engaged in that unliterary occupation that he began doing the amusing sketches which led to the Mike Flannery series and "Pigs Is Pigs."
So Iowa has reason to take pride in Ellis Parker Butler. I am frank to admit that I am sometimes offended by an artifice which becomes artificiality in much of his work. In the stories where this is least apparent he gets the best results. "Dominie Dean" and such shorter tales as "Interlude" are sincere, and they are significant commentary on the phases of life they deal with. But all Mr. Butler's work is readable, clean, and entertaining. I have had a good time with it: may you have the same.
Many of Mr. Butler's admirers do not know that he has produced not only fiction and essays, but poetry and plays as well. Back in the nineties, when Mr. Butler was a Muscatine grocer, and the good old Midland Monthly was the pride of midwestern literary fans, verses signed Ellis Parker Butler used to appear occasionally there. The name was practically unknown and the verses set no prairies on fire; but the successful author of today has no reason to be ashamed of the little poems. Here is one of them:
At such strange witchcraft Cupid plays, --
The very hearts that at high noon
Were cold beneath the sun's hot rays
Grow warm beneath the chilly moon!
The one of his plays with which I am acquainted is a little farce called "Revolt," which pictures a girl's school invaded by the woman's rights movement.