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"Ellis Parker Butler Emerges from the West" from Boston Evening Transcript

by Ellis Parker Butler
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  • Boston Evening Transcript (May 1, 1926)   "Ellis Parker Butler Emerges from the West"   By Louise Hubert Guyol. A biographical study. "Out of Muscatine Eastward Came the American Humorist as He Valiantly Climbed the Ladder of Fame." Includes a photo of the author by Robert H. Davis. Also reprinted in the Muscatine Journal.  [HARPER]

from Boston Evening Transcript
Ellis Parker Butler Emerges from the West
by Ellis Parker Butler

My favorite story is about the author who, on invitation, read aloud from one of his books to the patients of an insane asylum. They were gathered in a large hall and were quiet and attentive until one woman, clutching her hair, fled from the room screaming: "Ah, this is too much. Much too much."

"I suppose," the author later asked the physician in charge, "that she is your most violent patient?" "On the contrary," the psychiatrist replied, "she was the only sane person in the audience. A caller--."

Ellis Parker Butler

Ellis Parker Butler told this tale the first time I saw him (at a banquet of the Authors League of New York) to accompany a drawing made, a moment before, on a blackboard by Tony Sarg or Neysa McMain, I have forgotten which. But Mr. Butler was the raconteur. I saw him again the next day, in the offices of the League of which I believe he was then the president, and he was deeply engrossed in plans for the fund from which the League send swift and generous relief to authors when in need. And the next time I saw the creator of the inimitable Philo Gubb, Correspondence School deteckative was the other day at his home in Flushing, Long Island, when he told me a bit of a story about his own adventures in authordom.

When he was about eleven years old and living in Muscatine, Iowa, where he was born, he sold his first story, "Shorty and Frank's Adventure" to The Dawn of Day and was paid in postcards. "United States Government postal cards," he said, a package about an inch and a half thick. Imagine how rich a boy felt with that many postcards.

Postage was an important item in those days, as young Ellis was at the collecting age and had a large correspondence through the exchange columns of Harper's Young People and the Dawn of Day. "I kept my stamps," he said, "in a blank envelope. "One day a cyclone passed through Muscatine and I wrote it up, paraphrasing 'The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls,' and sent the story off. Later I could not find the envelope with my stamps and realized I had mailed the cyclone story in it. I have often thought how surprised the editor must have been at receiving so much return postage especially when there was no address or name for the return of the manuscript. I never signed anything. I was too bashful then. And am yet," he added vigorously. "And that was a severe loss. There were at least fourteen two-cent stamps in that envelope."


Even before this, the bashful boy had been writing verses and, when no one was around, pushing them, unsigned, under the doors of The News, a local paper. They appeared regularly and later, when he was in high school, he was contributing, always anonymously, to the same paper, a series of letters patterned after the Addison and Steele Spectator correspondence. These appeared in The News as regularly as they were slipped under the editorial door. Then one day a rival paper in Muscatine announced in blatant type the forthcoming publication, in their pages, of a serial novel. Butler wrote a parody advertisement, and sent it to The News in his usual, anonymous way. It appeared the next day as a quarter of a page advertisement, "and so," said Mr. Butler, "I decided to write a novel to fit." He did, and Van horn, the editor of the News began its publication immediately, although he did not know who was writing it or when the next installment, if any, would come. That went on until the Gazette of Cedar Rapids began to take note of the story and sent someone to Muscatine to find out who the author -- they were calling him "Iowa's Literary Promise" -- might be. Butler was discovered. He was then clerking in a crockery store. Van Horn offered him the city editorship of the News and he accepted for the following Monday morning. But his father offered him a position in the wholesale tobacco business, which, he said was a much better job than being an author. "An author in those days in a mid-Western town had no standing. In fact, a man had better be doing nothing than writing for his living." Ellis Parker Butler went into the wholesale tobacco business to please his father.

He had, however, been brought up by an aunt who had made him familiar from babyhood with the best of literature. He did not go to school until he was ready for the seventh grade, but he was then by reason of his home education, far in advance of the boys in school. He had learned to read from Shakespeare, Scott, Wadsworth, Lamb, Coleridge, and through his reverence for the best in literature held the firm belief that if a man could write a thing that was good enough to be printed, he had done the biggest thing in the world, far bigger and more important than merely being a President of the United States. And so he wrote, even while he worked in the wholesale tobacco business, as he had written when a little boy whose main business was collecting postage stamps; as a high school boy, when he devoted all of his time to the study of poetry, especially the sonnet, and while clerking in grocery and crockery stores. He sold all he wrote, and much of it in New England, which gratified him, as his family had -- but we will let him tell that story himself, as he told it to me in answer to request that he check me up on some of the data I had secured about his ancestors.

"Yes, nine is correct," he wrote, "there may have been more, but if so I don't think they have been traced yet. Five of them signed the 'Mayflower Compact.' William Brewster, John Alden, William Mullins, Richard Warren and Edward Doty. The other four were Priscilla Mullins, Mary Brewster, Love Brewster, and Alice Mullins. Hundreds of my ancestors were in the Revolutionary Armies, including John Butler and Patrick Butler, and dozens, including Patrick Butler, were in the colonial wars, but I am the only one to be vice president of the Flushing National Bank.

It is one of Ellis Parker Butler's arts that he can combine being a business man with authorship too, although he may not consider this an art. "I am a member of everything but the Mothers' Club of Public School No. 20, and everything takes time from my legitimate work," he says in "Goat Feathers," that gay but none the less inspiring little essay recently published in book form as part of a set. "How It Feels to Be Fifty," "Ghosts What Ain't" and "Many Happy Returns of the Day" being among the others. "I ought to be making as much money as Robert W. Chambers," he continues in this little booklet, "and winning prizes of honor like Ernest Poole, and I'm not. I ought to be better known as a humorist than George Ade and Mark Twain rolled into one, and I'm not ... I might be a millionaire or the President of the United States or the leading American Author bound in Red Russia leather. I might have been a Set of Books like Sir Walter Scott or Dickens or Balzac ... but I am always too ready and eager to break away and go gathering goat feathers," which the author explains are the little "distractions that take one away from the real business of life." Then he lists the various activities in which he has taken part, and counts them as goat feathers because they have interfered with his business as an author.

But business for a beginner in authorship is good, Mr. Butler thinks. That is, until an author can make his living by his writing alone, it is better for him to learn it in business than in a newspaper office or a publishing house. "My advice to young writers," he said to me, "is to get an outside job if possible, something that keeps you in the open air. It gives you expertise, brings you into contact with people and situations, and it keeps you so far from a desk that when night comes you want to get to it, not away from it, as is usually the case when you have worked all day in an office and have only the evenings to give to writing. A taxicab driver's position is about the best sort of work I think. Tom Masson, when he was editor of Life, gave me this same advice. I was in New York without work ..."

We shall go back a bit, however, to Ellis Parker Butler, working in the tobacco business, or maybe he was with a grocery firm then, but always he was writing, and always finding new markets for his material, and one day the editor of Truth, published in New York, offered his a position on that paper. It took him about a month to close up his connections in his home town and when he reached New York he went to the office address given on Truth's letter head and found therein much velvet furniture, many gay lithographs and one small boy.

"I would like to see Mr. MacArthur," said the young Mr. Butler.

"Mr. Who?" demanded the boy.

"Mr. MacArthur."

"Who's he?"

"He's the editor."

"No, he ain't."

"I have an appointment with Mr. MacArthur," Butler insisted.

"There ain't nobody here by that name," the boy insisted, but Butler was firm and the boy finally disappeared into an inner room. After a moment he returned. "He ain't been here since --" he held up two fingers, "not since two other editors." The then editor had no vacancies, so there was young Butler in New York without a job. He did some free lance writing, and then got work on a trade paper. It was during these days that he met Mr. Masson, who suggested the "outside job," with its experience of life while one learned to write. He did various things, until one day he saw an advertisement in the New York Herald for an associate editor who "must be a college man." Mr. Butler answered the advertisement and found Mr. Nut, editor of a tailors' trade journal, a big, handsome man, and who said, "You know we must have a college man?"

"O Yes," Mr. Butler agreed to that.

"You are a college man?"


"What college?"

"Iowa College."

"Where's that?"

"Iowa City, Grennell, Iowa."

"All right," said Mr. Editor, who Butler learned afterwards had formerly been a street car conductor and he hired the young associate, who as a matter of fact had gone to work in Muscatine before he had even finished high school. Butler made good as associate editor of the Tailors' Review and Mr. Nut published another trade paper, "The Sartorial Art Journal," a much finer monthly. But Ellis Parker had to work on the Review only, and was not allowed, for certain complicated business reasons, to get too many subscriptions even for this, nor go to the best tailors for such subscriptions. "I went once into a basement tailor shop in Philadelphia," he told me, "and the minute I mentioned the Tailors' Review, the tailor threw his flatiron at me. I don't know why. I didn't stop to ask him."

From editing the tailoring journal he went next to a wall paper journal, and there met a young man with whom he started the publication of a magazine on interior decorating.

I thought that perhaps the wall paper experience had given Mr. Butler the germ of his Philo Gubb stories. I cannot remember what he answered to this suggestion, but I do remember how years ago we used to search the magazines for Philo and read aloud of his doings as paper hanger and amateur "deteckative," donning disguise number thirteen of the Rising Sun Detective Agency's Correspondence School of Detecting, and tip-toeing about the town. He always fathomed the mystery, even if not in the way one expected. The way that Philo goes about his work, the seriousness with which he takes his duties, and the language that he uses amuses me today, reading alone here, as in the days when we read the stories aloud at home. Read "The Chicken":

"Philo Gubb with three rolls of wallpaper under his arm and a pail of mixed paste in one hand, walked along Cherry street, near the brickyard." His thoughts of his lady Syrilla, the fat lady of the circus, are interrupted by a Mrs. Smith.

"Oh, Mr. Gubb," she panted, "You got to excuse me for speaking to you when I don't know you. Mrs. Miffin says you're a detective."

"Deteckating is my aim and my profession," said Mr. Gubb, and the lady in distress tells him about the chicken that was stolen.

"What was the chicken worth?" asked Philo.

"Forty cents," said Mrs. Smith, " ... it ain't much."

"No, you're right, it ain't," said Philo. "Was it a rooster or a hen?"

"It was a hen."

"Well," said Mr. Gubb, "if you was to offer a reward of a hundred dollars for the capture of the thief--"

"Oh, my land!" exclaimed Mrs. Smith, "it would be cheaper for me to pay somebody five dollars to come and steal the rest of the chickens. It seems to me that you ought to make the thief pay. I ain't the one that did the crime, am I? It's only right that a thief should pay for the time and trouble he puts you to, ain't it?"

"I never looked at it that way," said Mr. Gubb, thoughtfully, "but it stands to reason."

Late that evening Philo Gubb, having finished the paper-hanging job, puts a false beard and a pistol in his pocket and stalks forth. He captures the man who has murdered the Chicken, and gets five hundred dollars to boot, and he never knows, nor does anyone except the reader, that the man he catches had killed a crook of Chicago, known as The Chicken, and not the fowl of the town. The Anonymous Wiggle is another good story in the same collection, and best of all, perhaps is the story of Henry, reincarnated as a pig by one Alibaba Singh.

Even if Mr. Butler did get Philo Gubb from somewhere other than his journal on wall papering, he must owe much of his professional knowledge that he puts into Philo's life to that experience. Personally, we think oftener of him as the creator of this character, and of Thomas, that poor cat who was frightened by eight of his own chromatic ghosts, than as the author of "Pigs Is Pigs," and yet, it was those prolific little animals who tossed their creator into fame.

Ellis Parker Butler wrote the story, "Pigs Is Pigs," for Ellery Sedgwick, then editor of Leslie's Magazine, or the American Magazine as it was later called. To Mr. Butler's immense surprise it brought in so much in royalties that he was able to give up editing the trade paper and take his wife and daughter abroad. He spent his time mostly among artists there, as he had done in New York. Ernest L. Blumenschein was one of his closest friends, and in his living-room is a portrait, by Marion Froelich of his daughter Elsie, who will soon be graduated from Smith. She has a doll in her arms, and Mr. Butler said, he and his wife spent most of their time in the galleries abroad, but that, of course, little Elsie was not much interested in following them around. So she would seat herself on a bench before some particularly delightful portrait, and then dress her doll's hair according to the style of the painting. He spoke of the red chalk drawings of Rembrandt and Durer "as the artist works up his picture he gets something other than a likeness, but in these quick, virile strokes he gets the same effect of stark reality that one can put into a short story, but loses in a novel."

I told him what Konrad Bercovici had said about the story of Jesus being too great to be told except as a short story. "That's why," quickly agreed Mr. Butler, "Jesus was so striking a character that, as you begin developing a plot around him you get something that is not needed and lose something, as the painters did when they elaborated on their chalk outline." These may not be exactly Mr. Butler's words, but they give my impression of what he meant.

We were interrupted just then by the entrance of General Boxhill Pickens, otherwise, Pick, his son's wire-haired terrier. The young son is Ellis Olmstead, and there are the twins, Jean and Marjorie, besides the big sister Elsie. It was doubtless for the twins that Mr. Butler built the doll house, "two stories, four rooms, kitchen and bath, with hand-carved stairways and electric lighting throughout the walls entirely weather-boarded, put in the carpets, papered the walls, hung lace curtains at the windows and painted the exterior, and all between two paragraphs of a story." We wish, however, that he had not called this work "gathering a goat feather" because we do so love doll houses ourselves and dolls, too, and also can so easily understand Mr. Butler.


"I can sit down to write a story," he says, again in "Goat Feathers", "about a man who fell off a bridge and landed in a kettle of tar on a canal boat and before I have completed a full paragraph, I can have stopped to clean the small o small e and small a of my typewriter with a toothpick [we use a hairpin, obviously] stopped to think about the pearl buttons on a vest I owned in 1894 [our thought goes to the cuff pins we lost in '94 and '95 and '96 and every year thereafter], the Spanish-American war, what the French word for illumination is, and whether I paid my last Liberty Loan installment [our thought flies to the income tax installment]. Before I have finished that first paragraph I may have stopped to fill my fountain pen, gone downtown to attend a meeting ... started to recatalogue my published stories [our favorite goat feather is hunting possible markets for unborn tales], and taken a trip to Chicago [we go to New Hampshire or Newport]. Before I have got to the first period in the first sentence I may have decided that I would not have a man fall off the bridge, but would have a woman fall off it, that I would not have her fall off a bridge, but off the Woolworth building, that I would not have her fall into a kettle of tar but into a wagonload of feather beds, that I would not have her fall at all, that I would not write a humorous story at all, that I would not write at all, and that I would, instead, get an empty cigar box and make a toy wagon for my young son." [We would invite several people to dinner, and begin to slice onions into olive oil.]

I ask any author if Ellis Parker Butler has not herein given us the best possible picture of the way most of us work? And the wonder is that we ever get anything done. But we do, somehow, and so somehow does Mr. Butler.

Nothing, perhaps, is more indicative of his versatility than the books he has written for boys. "Swatty," dedicated to Fred Ernst Schmidt, "Faithful Companion of My Boyhood." "Jibby Jones," dedicated to his own son Ellis Olmstead, who spent a summer on Jibby Jones Island, and "Jibby Jones and the Alligator, The Story of the Young Alligator Hunters of the Upper Mississippi Valley."

The vice president of the Flushing National Bank has written too many books to list even half of them and we shall quote from only one more, "How It Feels to be Fifty," another one of his little essays, published in gift-book size.

"I think we should all take Noah as a model," he says, "and keep a young heart and an eager forward-looking spirit ... Our forty days of glory and greatness and good service may come long after we're fifty ... At fifty I feel myself just reaching my full powers mentally and physically ... and with so many years of work and play ahead of me I never so much as think of my age, or of being any age. I am keen and eager to get right at the next job I have on hand and to make it a better piece of work than I have ever done ... At twenty my life was a feverish adventure, at thirty it was a problem, at forty it was a labor, at fifty a joyful journey just begun."

Blessings on you, Ellis Parker Butler, for that clarion call of cheer for us who walk beside you. And further blessings because you are so fond of tulips!

Just before I left his home, Mr. Butler took me to the window of his study that overlooks the garden behind his home and showed me great spaces of brown earth below which he had planted so many hundred tulip bulbs that I dare not quote the figure for fear you may not believe me.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:17:04am USA Central
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