The Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley
Part 3 out of 3
"Mrs. Miller," smilingly prompted the little
"Yes, ah, yes,--Mrs. Miller. Lovely morning,
Mrs. Miller," said John, edging past her and backing
toward his room.
But as Mrs. Miller was laughing outright, for
some mysterious reason, and gave no affirmation
in response to his proposition as to the quality of
the weather, John, utterly abashed and nonplused,
darted into his room and closed the door, "Deucedly
extraordinary woman!" he thought; "wonder
what's her idea!"
He remained locked in his room till the dinner-
hour; and, when he promptly emerged for that occasion,
there was a very noticeable improvement in
his personal appearance, in point of dress, at least,
though there still lingered about his smoothly-
shaven features a certain haggard, care-worn,
anxious look that would not out.
Next his own at the table he found a chair tilted
forward, as though in reservation for some honored
guest. What did it mean? Oh, he remembered
now. Told the boy to tell his mother he would have
a friend to dine with him. Bert--and, blast the fellow!--
was, doubtless, dining then with a far preferable
companion--his wife--in a palace-car on the
P., C. & St. L., a hundred miles away. The thought
was maddening. Of course, now, the landlady
would have material for a new assault. And how
could he avert it? A despairing film blurred his
sight for the moment--then the eyes flashed daringly.
"I will meet it like a man!" he said, mentally--
"yea, like a State's Attorney,--I will invite
it! Let her do her worst!"
He called a servant, giving some message in an
"Yes, sir," said the agreeable servant, "I'll go
right away, sir," and left the room.
Five minutes elapsed, and then a voice at his
shoulder startled him:
"Did you send for me, Mr. McKinney? What
is it I can do?"
"You are very kind, Mrs.--Mrs.--"
"Mrs. Miller," said the lady, with a smile that he
"Now, please spare me even the mildest of
rebukes. I deserve your censure, but I can't stand it
--I can't positively!" and there was a pleading
look in John's lifted eyes that changed the little
woman's smile to an expression of real solicitude.
"I have sent for you," continued John, "to ask of
you three great favors. Please be seated while I
enumerate them. First--I want you to forgive and
forget that ill-natured, uncalled-for grumbling of
mine this morning when you awakened me."
"Why, certainly," said the landlady, again smiling,
though quite seriously.
"I thank you," said John with dignity. "And,
second," he continued--"I want your assurance that
my extreme confusion and awkwardness on the occasion
of our meeting later were rightly interpreted."
"Certainly--certainly," said the landlady with the
"I am grateful--utterly," said John, with newer
dignity. "And then," he went on,--"after informing
you that it is impossible for the best friend I
have in the world to be with me at this hour, as
intended, I want you to do me the very great honor
of dining with me. Will you?"
"Why, certainly," said the charming little
landlady--"and a thousand thanks besides! But tell me
something of your friend," she continued, as they
were being served. "What is he like--and what is
his name--and where is he?"
"Well," said John warily,--"he's like all young
fellows of his age. He's quite young, you know--
not over thirty, I should say--a mere boy, in fact,
"--Unmarried, of course," said the chatty little
"Oh, yes!" said John, in a matter-of-course tone
--but he caught himself abruptly--then stared intently
at his napkin--glanced evasively at the side-
face of his questioner, and said,--"Oh, yes! Yes,
indeed! He's unmarried.--Old bachelor like myself,
you know. Ha! Ha!"
"So he's not like the young man here that
distinguished himself last night?" said the little woman
The fork in John's hand, half-lifted to his lips,
faltered and fell back toward his plate.
"Why, what's that?" said John in a strange
voice; "I hadn't heard anything about it--I mean
I haven't heard anything about any young man.
What was it?"
"Haven't heard anything about the elopement?"
exclaimed the little woman in astonishment.--
"Why it's been the talk of the town all morning.
Elopement in high life--son of a grain-dealer, name
of Hines, or Himes, or something, and a preacher's
daughter--Josie somebody--didn't catch her last
name. Wonder if you don't know the parties--
Why, Mr. McKinney, are you ill?"
"Oh, no--not at all!" said John: "Don't mention
it. Ha--ha! Just eating too rapidly, that's all.
Go on with--you were saying that Bert and Josie
had really eloped."
"What 'Bert'?" asked the little woman quickly.
"Why, did I say Bert?" said John, with a guilty
look. "I meant Haines, of course, you know--
Haines and Josie.--And did they really elope?"
"That's the report," answered the little woman,
as though deliberating some important evidence;
"and they say, too, that the plot of the runaway
was quite ingenious. It seems the young lovers
were assisted in their flight by some old fellow--
friend of the young man's--Why, Mr. McKinney,
you ARE ill, surely?"
John's face was as ashen.
"No--no!" he gasped painfully: "Go on--go
on! Tell me more about the--the--the old fellow
--the old reprobate! And is he still at large?"
"Yes," said the little woman, anxiously regarding
the strange demeanor of her companion. "They
say, though, that the law can do nothing with him,
and that this fact only intensifies the agony of the
broken-hearted parents--for it seems they have, till
now, regarded him both as a gentleman and family
friend in whom"--
"I really am ill," moaned John, waveringly rising
to his feet; "but I beg you not to be alarmed. Tell
your little boy to come to my room, where I will
retire at once, if you'll excuse me, and send for
my physician. It is simply a nervous attack. I am
often troubled so; and only perfect quiet and
seclusion restores me. You have done me a great
honor, Mrs."--("Mrs. Miller," sighed the
sympathetic little woman)--"Mrs. Miller,--and I thank
you more than I have words to express." He bowed
limply, turned through a side door opening on a
stair, and tottered to his room.
During the three weeks' illness through which he
passed, John had every attention--much more, indeed,
than he had consciousness to appreciate. For
the most part his mind wandered, and he talked of
curious things, and laughed hysterically, and serenaded
mermaids that dwelt in grassy seas of dew,
and were bald-headed like himself. He played
upon a fourteen-jointed flute of solid gold, with
diamond holes, and keys carved out of thawless ice.
His old father came at first to take him home; but
he could not be moved, the doctor said.
Two weeks of John's illness had worn away,
when a very serious-looking young man, in a traveling
duster, and a high hat, came up the stairs to
see him. A handsome young lady was clinging to
his arm. It was Bert and Josie. She had guessed
the very date of their forgiveness. John awoke
even clearer in mind than usual that afternoon. He
recognized his old chum at a glance, and Josie--
now Bert's wife. Yes, he comprehended that. He
was holding a hand of each when another figure
entered. His thin white fingers loosened their clasp,
and he held a hand toward the newcomer. "Here,"
he said, "is my best friend in the world--Bert, you
and Josie will love her, I know; for this is Mrs.--
Mrs."--"Mrs. Miller," said the radiant little woman.
--"Yes,--Mrs. Miller," said John, very proudly.
The little town, as I recall it, was of just enough
dignity and dearth of the same to be an ordinary
county seat in Indiana--"The Grand Old
Hoosier State," as it was used to being howlingly
referred to by the forensic stump orator from the
old stand in the court-house yard--a political
campaign being the wildest delight that Zekesbury
might ever hope to call its own.
Through years the fitful happenings of the town
and its vicinity went on the same--the same! Annually
about one circus ventured in, and vanished,
and was gone, even as a passing trumpet-blast; the
usual rainy season swelled the "Crick," the driftage
choking at "the covered bridge," and backing water
till the old road looked amphibious; and crowds
of curious townfolk struggled down to look upon
the watery wonder, and lean awestruck above it,
and spit in it, and turn mutely home again.
The usual formula of incidents peculiar to an
uneventful town and its vicinity: The countryman
from "Jessup's Crossing," with the corn-stalk coffin-
measure, loped into town, his steaming little gray-
and-red-flecked "roadster" gurgitating, as it were, with that
mysterious utterance that ever has
commanded and ever must evoke the wonder and
bewilderment of every boy; the small-pox rumor
became prevalent betimes, and the subtle aroma of
the asafetida-bag permeated the graded schools
"from turret to foundation-stone"; the still
recurring expose of the poor-house management; the
farm-hand, with the scythe across his shoulder,
struck dead by lightning; the long-drawn quarrel
between the rival editors culminating in one of them
assaulting the other with a "sidestick," and the other
kicking the one down-stairs and thenceward ad
libitum; the tramp, suppositiously stealing a ride,
found dead on the railroad; the grand jury returning
a sensational indictment against a bar-tender
non est; the Temperance outbreak; the "Revival;"
the Church Festival; and the "Free Lectures on
Phrenology, and Marvels of Mesmerism," at the
town hall. It was during the time of the last-mentioned
sensation, and directly through this scientific
investigation, that I came upon two of the
town's most remarkable characters. And however
meager my outline of them may prove, my material
for the sketch is most accurate in every detail, and
no deviation from the cold facts of the case shall
influence any line of my report.
For some years prior to this odd experience
I had been connected with a daily paper at the
state capital; and latterly a prolonged session of
the legislature, where I specially reported, having
told threateningly upon my health, I took both the
advantage of a brief vacation, and the invitation of a
young bachelor senator, to get out of the city for
a while, and bask my respiratory organs in the
revivifying rural air of Zekesbury--the home of my
"It'll pay you to get out here," he said cordially,
meeting me at the little station, "and I'm glad you've
come, for you'll find no end of odd characters to
amuse you." And under the very pleasant sponsorship
of my senatorial friend, I was placed at
once on genial terms with half the citizens of the
little town--from the shirt-sleeved nabob of the
county office to the droll wag of the favorite loafing-
place--the rules and by-laws of which resort, by
the way, being rudely charcoaled on the wall above
the cutter's bench, and somewhat artistically
culminating in an original dialect legend which ran
F'r instunce, now, when SOME folks gits
To relyin' on theyr wits,
Ten to one they git too smart
And SPILE it all, right at the start!
Feller wants to jest go slow
And do his THINKIN' first, you know,
'F I CAST'T THINK UP SOMEPIN' GOOD,
I SET STILL AND CHAW MY COOD!
And it was at this inviting rendezvous, two or
three evenings following my arrival, that the general
crowd, acting upon the random proposition of
one of the boys, rose as a man and wended its
hilarious way to the town hall.
"Phrenology," said the little, old, bald-headed
lecturer and mesmerist, thumbing the egg-shaped head
of a young man I remembered to have met that afternoon
in some law office; "phrenology," repeated
the Professor--"or rather the TERM phrenology--is
derived from two Greek words signifying MIND
and DISCOURSE; hence we find embodied in phrenology-
proper, the science of intellectual measurement,
together with the capacity of intelligent communication
of the varying mental forces and their flexibilities,
etc., etc. The study, then, of phrenology is,
to simplify it wholly--is, I say, the general
contemplation of the workings of the mind as made
manifest through the certain corresponding depressions
and protuberances of the human skull when, of
course, in a healthy state of action and development,
as we find the conditions exemplified in the subject
Here the "subject" vaguely smiled.
"You recognize that mug, don't you?" whispered
my friend. "It's that coruscating young ass, you
know, Hedrick--in Cummings' office--trying to
study law and literature at the same time, and
tampering with 'The Monster that Annually,' don't
you know?--where we found the two young students
scuffling round the office, and smelling of
peppermint?--Hedrick, you know, and Sweeney.
Sweeney, the slim chap, with the pallid face, and
frog-eyes, and clammy hands! You remember I
told you 'there was a pair of 'em'? Well, they're
up to something here to-night. Hedrick, there on
the stage in front; and Sweeney--don't you see?--
with the gang on the rear seats."
"Phrenology--again," continued the lecturer, "is,
we may say, a species of mental geography, as it
were; which--by a study of the skull--leads also
to a study of the brain within, even as geology
naturally follows the initial contemplation of the
earth's surface. The brain, thurfur, or intellectual
retort, as we may say, natively exerts a molding
influence on the skull contour; thurfur is the expert
in phrenology most readily enabled to accurately
locate the multitudinous intellectual forces, and
most exactingly estimate, as well, the sequent
character of each subject submitted to his scrutiny. As,
in the example before us--a young man, doubtless
well known in your midst, though, I may say, an
entire stranger to myself--I venture to disclose
some characteristic trends and tendencies, as
indicated by this phrenological depression and
development of the skull proper, as later we will show,
through the mesmeric condition, the accuracy of our
Throughout the latter part of this speech my
friend nudged me spasmodically, whispering something
which was jostled out of intelligent utterance
by some inward spasm of laughter.
"In this head," said the Professor, straddling
his malleable fingers across the young man's bumpy
brow--"In this head we find Ideality large--abnormally
large, in fact; thurby indicating--taken in
conjunction with a like development of the perceptive
qualities--language following, as well, in the
prominent eye--thurby indicating, I say, our
subject as especially endowed with a love for the
beautiful--the sublime--the elevating--the refined and
delicate--the lofty and superb--in nature, and in all
the sublimated attributes of the human heart and
beatific soul. In fact, we find this young man
possessed of such natural gifts as would befit him for
the exalted career of the sculptor, the actor, the
artist, or the poet--any ideal calling; in fact, any
calling but a practical, matter-of-fact vocation;
though in poetry he would seem to best succeed."
"Well," said my friend seriously, "he's FEELING
for the boy!" Then laughingly: "Hedrick HAS written
some rhymes for the county papers, and Sweeney
once introduced him, at an Old Settlers' Meeting,
as 'The Best Poet in Center Township,' and never
cracked a smile! Always after each other that way,
but the best friends in the world. SWEENEY'S strong
suit is elocution. He has a native ability that way
by no means ordinary, but even that gift he abuses
and distorts simply to produce grotesque, and oftentimes,
ridiculous effects. For instance, nothing
more delights him than to 'loathfully' consent to
answer a request, at The Mite Society, some evening,
for 'an appropriate selection,' and then, with
an elaborate introduction of the same, and an
exalted tribute to the refined genius of the author,
proceed with a most gruesome rendition of 'Alonzo
The Brave and The Fair Imogene,' in a way to
coagulate the blood and curl the hair of his fair
listeners with abject terror. Pale as a corpse, you
know, and with that cadaverous face, lit with those
malignant-looking eyes, his slender figure, and his
long thin legs and arms and hands, and his whole
diabolical talent and adroitness brought into play--
why, I want to say to you, it's enough to scare 'em
to death! Never a smile from him, though, till he
and Hedrick are safe out into the night again--
then, of course, they hug each other and howl
over it like Modocs! But pardon; I'm interrupting
the lecture. Listen."
"A lack of continuity, however," continued the
Professor, "and an undue love of approbation,
would, measurably, at least, tend to retard the
young man's progress toward the consummation of
any loftier ambition, I fear; yet as we have intimated,
if the subject were appropriately educated
to the need's demand, he could doubtless produce
a high order of both prose and poetry--especially
the latter--though he could very illy bear being
laughed at for his pains."
"He's dead wrong there," said my friend;
"Hedrick enjoys being laughed at; he's used to it--gets
fat on it!"
"Is fond of his friends," continued the Professor,
"and the heartier they are the better; might even
be convivially inclined--if so tempted--but prudent
--in a degree," loiteringly concluded the speaker,
as though unable to find the exact bump with which
to bolster up the last named attribute.
The subject blushed vividly--my friend's right
eyelid dropped, and there was a noticeable, though
elusive sensation throughout the audience.
"BUT!" said the Professor explosively, "selecting
a directly opposite subject, in conjunction with the
study of the one before us [turning to the group at
the rear of the stage and beckoning], we may find
a newer interest in the practical comparison of these
subjects side by side." And the Professor pushed
a very pale young man into position.
"Sweeney!" whispered my friend delightedly;
"now look out!"
"In THIS subject," said the Professor, "we find
the practical business head. Square--though small
--a trifle light at the base, in fact; but well balanced
at the important points at least; thoughtful
eye, though not denoting language--unless, perhaps,
mere business forms and direct statements."
"Fooled again!" whispered my friend; "and I'm
afraid the old man will fail to nest out the fact
also that Sweeney is the cold-bloodedest guyer on
the face of the earth, and with more diabolical
resources than a prosecuting attorney; the Professor
ought to know this, too, by this time--for these
same two chaps have been visiting the old man in
his room at the hotel,--that's what I was trying to
tell you a while ago. The old chap thinks he's
'playing' the boys, is my idea; but it's the other way,
or I lose my guess."
"Now, under the mesmeric influence--if the two
subjects will consent to its administration," said
the Professor, after some further tedious preamble,
"we may at once determine the fact of my assertions,
as will be proved by their action while in
this peculiar state." Here some apparent
remonstrance was met with from both subjects, though
amicably overcome by the Professor first manipulating
the stolid brow and pallid front of the imperturbable
Sweeney--after which the same mysterious
ordeal was loathfully submitted to by Hedrick--
though a noticeably longer time was consumed in
securing his final loss of self-control. At last, however,
this curious phenomenon was presented, and there
before us stood the two swaying figures, the heads
dropped back, the lifted hands, with thumb and
finger-tips pressed lightly together, the eyelids
languid and half closed, and the features, in
appearance, wan and humid.
"Now, sir!" said the Professor, leading the limp
Sweeney forward, and addressing him in a quick
sharp tone of voice.--"Now, sir, you are a great
contractor--own large factories, and with untold
business interests. Just look out there! [pointing
out across the expectant audience] look there, and
see the countless minions toiling servilely at your
dread mandates. And yet--ha! ha! See! see!--
They recognize the avaricious greed that would thus
grind them in the very dust; they see, alas! they see
themselves, half-clothed--half-fed, that you may
glut your coffers. Half-starved, they listen to the
wail of wife and babe, and with eyes upraised in
prayer, they see YOU rolling by in gilded coach, and
swathed in silk attire. But--ha! again! Look--
look! they are rising in revolt against you! Speak
to them before too late! Appeal to them--quell
them with the promise of the just advance of wages
The limp figure of Sweeney took on something
of a stately and majestic air. With a graceful and
commanding gesture of the hand, he advanced a
step or two; then, after a pause of some seconds
duration, in which the lifted face grew pale, as it
seemed, and the eyes a denser black, he said:
I looked away
O'er happy lands, where sunshine lay
In golden blots,
Inlaid with spots
Of shade and wild forget-me-nots."
The voice was low, but clear, and even musical.
The Professor started at the strange utterance,
looked extremely confused, and, as the boisterous
crowd cried "Hear, hear!" he motioned the subject
to continue, with some gasping comment interjected,
which, if audible, would have run thus:
"My God! It's an inspirational poem!"
"My head was fair
With flaxen hair--"
resumed the subject.
"Yoop-ee!" yelled an irreverent auditor.
"Silence! silence!" commanded the excited Professor
in a hoarse whisper; then, turning enthusiastically
to the subject--"Go on, young man! Go
on!--'Thy head was fair with flaxen hair----' "
"My head was fair
With flaxen hair,
And fragrant breezes, faint and rare,
And, warm with drouth
From out the south,
Blew all my curls across my mouth."
The speaker's voice, exquisitely modulated, yet
resonant as the twang of a harp, now seemed of itself
to draw and hold each listener; while a certain
extravagance of gesticulation--a fantastic movement
of both form and feature--seemed very near
akin to fascination. And so flowed on the curious
"And, cool and sweet,
My naked feet
Found dewy pathways through the wheat;
And out again
Where, down the lane,
The dust was dimpled with the rain."
In the pause following there was a breathlessness
almost painful. The poem went on:
I heard the lay
Of summer birds, when I, as they
With breast and wing,
With life and love, could only sing.
"My head was leant
Where, with it, blent
A maiden's, o'er her instrument:
While all the night,
From vale to height,
Was filled with echoes of delight.
"And all our dreams
Were lit with gleams
Of that lost land of reedy streams,
Along whose brim
Pan's lilies, laughing up at him."
And still the inspired singer held rapt sway.
"It is wonderful!" I whispered, under breath.
"Of course it is!" answered my friend. "But
listen; there is more:"
"But yesterday! . . . .
O blooms of May,
And summer roses-where away?
O stars above;
And lips of love,
And all the honeyed sweets thereof!--
"O lad and lass,
And orchard pass,
And briered lane, and daisied grass!
O gleam and gloom,
And woodland bloom
And breezy breaths of all perfume!--
"No more for me
Or mine shall be
Thy raptures--save in memory,--
No more--no more--
Till through the Door
Of Glory gleam the days of yore."
This was the evident conclusion of the remarkable
utterance, and the Professor was impetuously
fluttering his hands about the subject's upward-
staring eyes, stroking his temples, and snapping his
fingers in his face.
"Well," said Sweeney, as he stood suddenly
awakened, and grinning in an idiotic way, "how did
the old thing work?" And it was in the consequent
hilarity and loud and long applause, perhaps,
that the Professor was relieved from the explanation
of this rather astounding phenomenon of the
idealistic workings of a purely practical brain--or, as
my impious friend scoffed the incongruity later,
in a particularly withering allusion, as the "blank-
blanked fallacy, don't you know, of staying the
hunger of a howling mob by feeding 'em on spring
The tumult of the audience did not cease even
with the retirement of Sweeney, and cries of "Hedrick!
Hedrick!" only subsided with the Professor's
high-keyed announcement that the subject was even
then endeavoring to make himself heard, but
could not until utter quiet was restored, adding
the further appeal that the young man had already
been a long time under the mesmeric spell, and
ought not be so detained for an unnecessary period.
"See," he concluded, with an assuring wave of the
hand toward the subject, "see; he is about to address
you. Now, quiet!--utter quiet, if you please!"
"Great heavens!" exclaimed my friend stiflingly;
"just look at the boy! Get on to that position for a
poet! Even Sweeney has fled from the sight of
And truly, too, it was a grotesque pose the young
man had assumed; not wholly ridiculous either,
since the dwarfed position he had settled into
seemed more a genuine physical condition than an
affected one. The head, back-tilted, and sunk between
the shoulders, looked abnormally large, while
the features of the face appeared peculiarly child-
like--especially the eyes--wakeful and wide apart,
and very bright, yet very mild and very artless; and
the drawn and cramped outline of the legs and feet,
and of the arms and hands, even to the shrunken,
slender-looking fingers, all combined to convey most
strikingly to the pained senses the fragile frame
and pixy figure of some pitiably afflicted child,
unconscious altogether of the pathos of its own deformity.
"Now, mark the cuss, Horatio!" gasped my
At first the speaker's voice came very low, and
somewhat piping, too, and broken--an eery sort of
voice it was, of brittle and erratic timbre and undulant
inflection. Yet it was beautiful. It had the
ring of childhood in it, though the ring was not pure
golden, and at times fell echoless. The SPIRIT of its
utterance was always clear and pure and crisp and
cheery as the twitter of a bird, and yet forever ran
an undercadence through it like a low-pleading
prayer. Half garrulously, and like a shallow brook
might brawl across a shelvy bottom, the rhythmic
little changeling thus began:--
"I'm thist a little crippled boy, an' never goin' to grow
An' git a great big man at all!--'cause Aunty told me so.
When I was thist a baby onc't I falled out of the bed
An' got 'The Curv'ture of the Spine'--'at's what the Doctor
I never had no Mother nen--fer my Pa runned away
An' dassn't come back here no more--'cause he was drunk one day
An' stobbed a man in thish-ere town, an' couldn't pay his fine!
An' nen my Ma she died--an' I got 'Curv'ture of the Spine'!"
A few titterings from the younger people in the
audience marked the opening stanza, while a certain
restlessness, and a changing to more attentive positions
seemed the general tendency. The old Professor,
in the meantime, had sunk into one of the
empty chairs. The speaker went on with more gaiety:--
"I'm nine years old! An' you can't guess how much I weigh, I
Last birthday I weighed thirty-three!--An' I weigh thirty yet!
I'm awful little fer my size--I'm purt' nigh littler 'an
Some babies is!--an' neighbers all calls me 'The Little Man'!
An' Doc one time he laughed an' said: 'I 'spect, first think
You'll have a little spike-tail coat an' travel with a show!'
An' nen I laughed-till I looked round an' Aunty was a-cryin'--
Sometimes she acts like that, 'cause I got 'Curv'ture of the
Just in front of me a great broad-shouldered
countryman, with a rainy smell in his cumbrous
overcoat, cleared his throat vehemently, looked
startled at the sound, and again settled forward, his
weedy chin resting on the knuckles of his hands as
they tightly clutched the seat before him. And it
was like being taken into a childish confidence as the
quaint speech continued:--
"I set--while Aunty's washin'--on my little long-leg stool,
An' watch the little boys an' girls a-skippin' by to school;
An' I peck on the winder, an' holler out an' say:
'Who wants to fight The Little Man at dares you all to-day?'
An' nen the boys climbs on the fence, an' little girls peeks
An' they all says: 'Cause you're so big, you think we're 'feard
An' nen they yell, an' shake their fist at me, like I shake
They're thist in fun, you know, 'cause I got 'Curv'ture of the
"Well," whispered my friend, with rather odd
irrelevance, I thought, "of course you see through
the scheme of the fellows by this time, don't you?"
"I see nothing," said I, most earnestly, "but a
poor little wisp of a child that makes me love him
so I dare not think of his dying soon, as he surely
must! There; listen!" And the plaintive gaiety
of the homely poem ran on:--
"At evening, when the ironin' 's done, an' Aunty's fixed the
An' filled an' lit the lamp, an' trimmed the wick an' turned it
An' fetched the wood all in fer night, an' locked the kitchen
An' stuffed the ole crack where the wind blows in up through the
She sets the kittle on the coals, an' biles an' makes the tea,
An' fries the liver an' the mush, an' cooks a egg fer me,
An' sometimes--when I cough so hard--her elderberry wine
Don't go so bad fer little boys with 'Curv'ture of the Spine'!"
"Look!" whispered my friend, touching me with
his elbow. "Look at the Professor!"
"Look at everybody!" said I. And the artless
little voice went on again half quaveringly:--
"But Aunty's all so childish-like on my account, you see
I'm 'most afeard she'll be took down--an' 'at's what bothers
'Cause ef my good ole Aunty ever would git sick an' die,
I don't know what she'd do in Heaven--till _I_ come, by an' by:--
Fer she's so ust to all my ways, an' ever'thing, you know,
An' no one there like me, to nurse an' worry over so!--
'Cause all the little childerns there's so straight an' strong
They's nary angel 'bout the place with 'Curv'ture of the
The old Professor's face was in his handkerchief;
so was my friend's in his; and so was mine in mine,
as even now my pen drops and I reach for it again.
I half regret joining the mad party that had gathered
an hour later in the old law office where these
two graceless characters held almost nightly revel,
the instigators and conniving hosts of a reputed
banquet whose MENU'S range confined itself to herrings,
or "blind robins," dried beef, and cheese, with
crackers, gingerbread, and sometimes pie; the whole
washed down with anything but
"----Wines that heaven knows when
Had sucked the fire of some forgotten sun,
And kept it through a hundred years of gloom
Still glowing in a heart of ruby."
But the affair was memorable. The old Professor
was himself lured into it and loudest in his praise
of Hedrick's realistic art; and I yet recall him at the
orgie's height, excitedly repulsing the continued
slurs and insinuations of the clammy-handed
Sweeney, who, still contending against the old man's
fulsome praise of his more fortunate rival, at last
openly declared that Hedrick was NOT a poet, NOT a
genius, and in no way worthy to be classed in the
same breath with HIMSELF--"the gifted but unfortunate
SWEENEY, sir--the unacknowledged author,
sir 'y gad, sir!--of the two poems that held you
A CALLER FROM BOONE
BENJ. F. JOHNSON VISITS THE EDITOR
It was a dim and chill and loveless afternoon in
the late fall of eighty-three when I first saw
the genial subject of this hasty sketch. From time
to time the daily paper on which I worked had been
receiving, among the general literary driftage of
amateur essayists, poets and sketch-writers, some
conceits in verse that struck the editorial head as
decidedly novel; and, as they were evidently the
production of an unlettered man, and an OLD man,
and a farmer at that, they were usually spared the
waste-basket, and preserved--not for publication,
but to pass from hand to hand among the members
of the staff as simply quaint and mirth-provoking
specimens of the verdancy of both the venerable
author and the Muse inspiring him. Letters as
quaint as were the poems invariably accompanied
them, and the oddity of these, in fact, had first called
attention to the verses. I well remember the general
merriment of the office when the first of the old
man's letters was read aloud, and I recall, too, some
of his comments on his own verse, verbatim. In
one place he said: "I make no doubt you will find some purty SAD
spots in my poetry, considerin'; but
I hope you will bear in mind that I am a great
sufferer with rheumatizum, and have been, off and
on, sence the cold New Years. In the main, however,"
he continued, "I allus aim to write in a cheerful,
comfortin' sperit, so's ef the stuff hangs fire,
and don't do no good, it hain't a-goin' to do no
harm,--and them's my honest views on poetry."
In another letter, evidently suspecting his poem
had not appeared in print because of its dejected
tone, he said: "The poetry I herewith send was
wrote off on the finest Autumn day I ever laid eyes
on! I never felt better in my life. The morning air
was as invigoratin' as bitters with tanzy in it, and the
folks at breakfast said they never saw such a' appetite
on mortal man before. Then I lit out for the
barn, and after feedin', I come back and tuck my
pen and ink out on the porch, and jest cut loose. I
writ and writ till my fingers was that cramped I
couldn't hardly let go of the penholder. And the
poem I send you is the upshot of it all. Ef you don't
find it cheerful enough fer your columns, I'll have
to knock under, that's all!" And that poem, as I recall
it, certainly was cheerful enough for publication,
only the "copy" was almost undecipherable, and the
ink, too, so pale and vague, it was thought best to
reserve the verses, for the time, at least, and later on
revise, copy, punctuate, and then print it sometime,
as much for the joke of it as anything. But it
was still delayed, neglected, and in a week's time
almost entirely forgotten. And so it was upon this
chill and somber afternoon I speak of that an event
occurred which most pleasantly reminded me of
both the poem with the "sad spots" in it, and the
"cheerful" one, "writ out on the porch" that glorious
autumn day, that poured its glory through the
old man's letter to us.
Outside and in the sanctum the gloom was too
oppressive to permit an elevated tendency of either
thought or spirit. I could do nothing but sit listless
and inert. Paper and pencil were before me, but
I could not write--I could not even think coherently,
and was on the point of rising and rushing out into
the streets for a wild walk, when there came a
hesitating knock at the door.
"Come in!" I snarled, grabbing up my pencil and
assuming a frightfully industrious air: "Come in!"
I almost savagely repeated, "Come in! And shut the
door behind you!" and I dropped my lids, bent my
gaze fixedly upon the blank pages before me and
began scrawling some disconnected nothings with
no head or tail or anything.
"Sir; howdy," said a low and pleasant voice. And
at once, in spite of my perverse resolve, I looked up.
I someway felt rebuked.
The speaker was very slowly, noiselessly closing
the door. I could hardly face him when he turned
around. An old man, of sixty-five, at least, but with
a face and an eye of the most cheery and wholesome
expression I had ever seen in either youth or age.
Over his broad bronzed forehead and white hair
he wore a low-crowned, wide-brimmed black felt
hat, somewhat rusted now, and with the band
grease-crusted, and the binding frayed at intervals,
and sagging from the threads that held it on. An
old-styled frock coat of black, dull brown in streaks,
and quite shiny about the collar and lapels. A waistcoat
of no describable material or pattern, and a
clean white shirt and collar of one piece, with a black
string-tie and double bow, which would have been
entirely concealed beneath the long white beard
but for its having worked around to one side
of the neck. The front outline of the face was
cleanly shaven, and the beard, growing simply from
the under chin and throat, lent the old pioneer the
rather singular appearance of having hair all over
him with this luxurious growth pulled out above
his collar for mere sample.
I arose and asked the old man to sit down, handing
him a chair decorously.
"No--no," he said--"I'm much obleeged. I hain't
come in to bother you no more'n I can he'p. All
I wanted was to know ef you got my poetry all right.
You know I take yer paper," he went on, in an
explanatory way, "and seein' you printed poetry in it
once-in-a-while, I sent you some of mine--neighbors
kindo' advised me to," he added apologetically, "and
so I sent you some--two or three times I sent you
some, but I hain't never seed hide-ner-hair of it in
your paper, and as I wus in town to-day, anyhow,
I jest thought I'd kindo' drap in and git it back, ef
you ain't goin' to print it--'cause I allus save up
most the things I write, aimin' sometime to git 'em
all struck off in pamphlet-form, to kindo' distribit
round 'mongst the neighbors, don't you know."
Already I had begun to suspect my visitor's identity,
and was mechanically opening the drawer of
our poetical department.
"How was your poetry signed?" I asked.
"Signed by my own name," he answered proudly,
--"signed by my own name,--Johnson--Benjamin
F. Johnson, of Boone County--this state."
"And is this one of them, Mr. Johnson?" I asked,
unfolding a clumsily-folded manuscript, and closely
scrutinizing the verse.
"How does she read?" said the old man eagerly,
and searching in the meantime for his spectacles.
"How does she read?--Then I can tell you!"
"It reads," said I, studiously conning the old
man's bold but bad chirography, and tilting my chair
back indolently,--"it reads like this--the first verse
does,"--and I very gravely read:--
"Oh! the old swimmin'-hole!"--
"Stop! Stop!" said the old man excitedly--"Stop
right there! That's my poetry, but that's not the
way to read it by a long shot! Give it to me!" and
he almost snatched it from my hand. "Poetry like
this ain't no poetry at all, 'less you read it NATCHURL
and IN JEST THE SAME SPERIT 'AT IT'S WRIT IN, don't you
understand. It's a' old man a-talkin', rickollect, and
a-feelin' kindo' sad, and yit kindo' sorto' good, too,
and I opine he wouldn't got that off with a face on
him like a' undertaker, and a voice as solemn as a cow-bell after
dark! He'd say it more like this."--
And the old man adjusted his spectacles and read:--
"THE OLD SWIMMIN'-HOLE"
"Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! whare the crick so still and deep
Looked like a baby-river that was laying half asleep,
And the gurgle of the worter round the drift jest below
Sounded like the laugh of something we onc't ust to know
Before we could remember anything but the eyes
Of the angels lookin' out as we left Paradise;
But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle,
And it's hard to part ferever with the old swimmin'-hole."
I clapped my hands in genuine applause. "Read
on!" I said,--"Read on! Read all of it!"
The old man's face was radiant as he continued:--
"Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! In the happy days of yore,
When I ust to lean above it on the old sickamore,
Oh! it showed me a face in its warm sunny tide
That gazed back at me so gay and glorified,
It made me love myself, as I leaped to caress
My shadder smilin' up at me with sich tenderness.
But them days is past and gone, and old Time's tuck his toll
From the old man come back to the old swimmin'-hole.
"Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! In the long, lazy days
When the humdrum of school made so many "run-a-ways,"
How pleasant was the jurney down the old dusty lane,
Whare the tracks of our bare feet was all printed so plane
You could tell by the dent of the heel and the sole
They was lots o' fun on hands at the old swimmin'-hole.
But the lost joys is past! Let your tears in sorrow roll
Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin'-hole.
"Thare the bullrushes growed, and the cattails so tall,
And the sunshine and shadder fell over it all;
And it mottled the worter with amber and gold
Till the glad lilies rocked in the ripples that rolled;
And the snake-feeder's four gauzy wings fluttered by
Like the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky,
Or a wownded apple-blossom in the breeze's controle
As it cut acrost some orchurd to'rds the old swimmin'-hole.
"Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin'-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be--
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin'-hole."
My applause was long and loud. The old man's
interpretation of the poem was a positive revelation,
though I was glad enough to conceal from him my
moistened eyes by looking through the scraps for
other specimens of his verse.
"Here," said I enthusiastically, "is another one,
signed 'Benj. F. Johnson,' read me this," and I
handed him the poem.
The old man smiled and took the manuscript.
"This-here one's on 'The Hoss,' " he said, simply
clearing his throat. "They ain't so much fancy-
work about this as the other'n, but they's jest as
much FACT, you can bet--'cause, they're no animal
a-livin' 'at I love better 'an
"The hoss he is a splendud beast;
He is man's friend, as heaven desined,
And, search the world from west to east,
No honester you'll ever find!
"Some calls the hoss 'a pore dumb brute,'
And yit, like Him who died fer you,
I say, as I theyr charge refute,
'Fergive; they know not what they do!'
"No wiser animal makes tracks
Upon these earthly shores, and hence
Arose the axium, true as facts,
Extoled by all, as 'Good hoss-sense!'
"The hoss is strong, and knows his stren'th,--
You hitch him up a time er two
And lash him, and he'll go his len'th
And kick the dashboard out fer you!
"But, treat him allus good and kind,
And never strike him with a stick,
Ner aggervate him, and you'll find
He'll never do a hostile trick.
"A hoss whose master tends him right
And worters him with daily care,
Will do your biddin' with delight,
And act as docile as YOU air.
"He'll paw and prance to hear your praise,
Because he's learnt to love you well;
And, though you can't tell what he says
He'll nicker all he wants to tell.
"He knows you when you slam the gate
At early dawn, upon your way
Unto the barn, and snorts elate,
To git his corn, er oats, er hay.
"He knows you, as the orphant knows
The folks that loves her like theyr own,
And raises her and "finds" her clothes,
And "schools" her tel a womern-grown!
"I claim no hoss will harm a man,
Ner kick, ner run away, cavort,
Stump-suck, er balk, er 'catamaran,'
Ef you'll jest treat him as you ort.
"But when I see the beast abused,
And clubbed around as I've saw some,
I want to see his owner noosed,
And jest yanked up like Absolum!
"Of course they's differunce in stock,--
A hoss that has a little yeer,
And slender build, and shaller hock,
Can beat his shadder, mighty near!
"Whilse one that's thick in neck and chist
And big in leg and full in flank,
That tries to race, I still insist
He'll have to take the second rank.
"And I have jest laid back and laughed,
And rolled and wallered in the grass
At fairs, to see some heavy-draft
Lead out at FIRST, yit come in LAST!
"Each hoss has his appinted place,--
The heavy hoss should plow the soil;--
The blooded racer, he must race,
And win big wages fer his toil.
"I never bet--ner never wrought
Upon my feller man to bet--
And yit, at times, I've often thought
Of my convictions with regret.
"I bless the hoss from hoof to head--
From head to hoof, and tale to mane!--
I bless the hoss, as I have said,
From head to hoof, and back again!
"I love my God the first of all,
Then Him that perished on the cross,
And next, my wife,--and then I fall
Down on my knees and love the hoss."
Again I applauded, handing the old man still
another of his poems, and the last received. "Ah!"
said he, as his gentle eyes bent on the title; "this--
here's the cheerfullest one of 'em all. This is the
one writ, as I wrote you about--on that glorious
October morning two weeks ago--I thought your
paper would print this-un, shore!"
"Oh, it WILL print it," I said eagerly; "and it will
print the other two as well! It will print ANYTHING
that you may do us the honor to offer, and we'll
reward you beside just as you may see fit to designate.--
But go on--go on! Read me the poem."
The old man's eyes were glistening as he responded
with the poem entitled
"WHEN THE FROST IS ON THE PUNKIN"
"When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence
O, it's then's the times a feller is a-feelin' at his best,
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
"They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here--
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock--
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
"The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin' of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries--kindo' lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below--the clover overhead!--
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!
"Then your apples all is getherd, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin' 's over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage,
too! . . .
I don't know how to tell it--but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on ME--
I'd want to 'commodate 'em-all the whole-indurin' flock--
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!"
That was enough! "Surely," thought I, "here is a
diamond in the rough, and a 'gem,' too, 'of purest
ray serene'!" I caught the old man's hand and
wrung it with positive rapture; and it is needless to
go further in explanation of how the readers of our
daily came to an acquaintance through its columns
with the crude, unpolished, yet most gentle genius of
Benj. F. Johnson, of Boone.
THE OLD SOLDIER'S STORY
AS TOLD BEFORE THE NEW ENGLAND SOCIETY IN NEW
Since we have had no stories to-night I will
venture, Mr. President, to tell a story that I
have heretofore heard at nearly all the banquets I
have ever attended. It is a story simply, and you
must bear with it kindly. It is a story as told by
a friend of us all, who is found in all parts of all
countries, who is immoderately fond of a funny
story, and who, unfortunately, attempts to tell a
funny story himself--one that he has been particularly
delighted with. Well, he is not a story-teller,
and especially he is not a funny story-teller. His
funny stories, indeed, are oftentimes touchingly
pathetic. But to such a story as he tells, being a
good-natured man and kindly disposed, we have to
listen, because we do not want to wound his feelings
by telling him that we have heard that story a
great number of times, and that we have heard it
ably told by a great number of people from the time
we were children. But, as I say, we can not hurt his
feelings. We can not stop him. We can not kill him;
and so the story generally proceeds. He selects a very old story
always, and generally tells it in about
I heerd an awful funny thing the other day--ha!
ha! I don't know whether I kin git it off er not,
but, anyhow, I'll tell it to you. Well!--le's see now
how the fool-thing goes. Oh, yes!--W'y, there was
a feller one time--it was during the army and this
feller that I started in to tell you about was in the
war and--ha! ha!--there was a big fight a-goin' on,
and this feller was in the fight, and it was a big battle
and bullets a-flyin' ever' which way, and bomb-
shells a-bu'stin', and cannon-balls a-flyin' 'round
promiskus; and this feller right in the midst of it,
you know, and all excited and het up, and chargin'
away; and the fust thing you know along come a
cannon-ball and shot his head off--ha! ha! ha!
Hold on here a minute!--no, sir; I'm a-gittin' ahead
of my story; no, no; it didn't shoot his HEAD off--
I'm gittin' the cart before the horse there--shot his
LEG off; that was the way; shot his leg off; and
down the poor feller drapped, and, of course, in that
condition was perfectly he'pless, you know, but yit
with presence o' mind enough to know that he was
in a dangerous condition ef somepin' wasn't done fer
him right away. So he seen a comrade a-chargin',
by that he knowed, and he hollers to him and called
him by name--I disremember now what the feller's
name was. . . .
Well, that's got nothin' to do with the story,
anyway; he hollers to him, he did, and says, "Hello,
there," he says to him; "here, I want you to come
here and give me a lift; I got my leg shot off, and
I want you to pack me back to the rear of the battle"
--where the doctors always is, you know, during a
fight--and he says, "I want you to pack me back
there where I can get med-dy-cinal attention er I'm
a dead man, fer I got my leg shot off," he says,
"and I want you to pack me back there so's
the surgeons kin take keer of me." Well--
the feller, as luck would have it, ricko'nized him
and run to him and throwed down his own musket,
so's he could pick him up; and he stooped down and
picked him up and kindo' half-way shouldered him
and half-way helt him betwixt his arms like, and
then he turned and started back with him--ha! ha!
ha! Now, mind, the fight was still a-goin' on--and
right at the hot of the fight, and the feller, all
excited, you know, like he was, and the soldier that
had his leg shot off gittin' kindo' fainty like, and his
head kindo' stuck back over the feller's shoulder
that was carryin' him. And he hadn't got more'n a
couple o' rods with him when another cannon-ball
come along and tuk his head off, shore enough!--
and the curioust thing about it was--ha! ha!--that
the feller was a-packin' him didn't know that he
had been hit ag'in at all, and back he went--still
carryin' the deceased back--ha! ha! ha!--to where
the doctors could take keer of him--as he thought.
Well, his cap'n happened to see him, and he thought
it was a ruther cur'ous p'ceedin's--a soldier carryin'
a dead body out o' the fight--don't you see? And
so he hollers at him, and he says to the soldier, the
cap'n did, he says, "Hullo, there; where you goin'
with that thing?" the cap'n said to the soldier who
was a-carryin' away the feller that had his leg shot
off. Well, his head, too, by that time. So he says,
"Where you going with that thing?" the cap'n said
to the soldier who was a-carryin' away the feller that
had his leg shot off. Well, the soldier he stopped--
kinder halted, you know, like a private soldier will
when his presidin' officer speaks to him--and he says
to him, "W'y," he says, "Cap, it's a comrade o' mine
and the pore feller has got his leg shot off, and I'm
a-packin' him back to where the doctors is; and there
was nobody to he'p him, and the feller would 'a' died
in his tracks--er track ruther--if it hadn't a-been fer
me, and I'm a-packin' him back where the surgeons
can take keer of him; where he can get medical
attendance--er his wife's a widder!" he says, " 'cause
he's got his leg shot off!" Then CAP'N says, "You
blame fool you, he's got his HEAD shot off." So then
the feller slacked his grip on the body and let it
slide down to the ground, and looked at it a minute,
all puzzled, you know, and says, "W'y, he told me
it was his leg!" Ha! ha! ha!
DIALECT IN LITERATURE
'And the common people heard him gladly'
Of what shall be said herein of dialect, let it be
understood the term dialect referred to is of
that general breadth of meaning given it to-day,
namely, any speech or vernacular outside of the
prescribed form of good English in its present state.
The present state of the English is, of course, not
any one of its prior states. So first let it be
remarked that it is highly probable that what may
have been the best of English once may now by some
be counted as a weak, inconsequent patois, or
To be direct, it is the object of this article to show
that dialect is not a thing to be despised in any event
--that its origin is oftentimes of as royal caste as
that of any speech. Listening back, from the stand-
point of to-day, even to the divine singing of that old
classic master to whom England's late laureate
". . . the first warbler, whose sweet breath
Preluded those melodious bursts that fill
The spacious times of great Elizabeth
With sounds that echo still";
or to whom Longfellow alludes, in his matchless
". . . the poet of the dawn, who wrote
The Canterbury Tales, and his old age
Made beautiful with song"--
Chaucer's verse to us is NOW as veritably dialect as
to that old time it was the chastest English; and even
then his materials were essentially dialect when his
song was at best pitch. Again, our present dialect,
of most plebeian ancestry, may none the less prove
worthy. Mark the recognition of its own personal
merit in the great new dictionary, where what was,
in our own remembrance, the most outlandish dialect,
is now good, sound, official English.
Since Literature must embrace all naturally
existing materials--physical, mental and spiritual--we
have no occasion to urge its acceptance of so-called
dialect, for dialect IS in Literature, and HAS been
there since the beginning of all written thought and
utterance. Strictly speaking, as well as paradoxically,
all verbal expression is more or less dialectic,
however grammatical. While usage establishes
grammar, it no less establishes so-called dialect.
Therefore we may as rightfully refer to "so-called
It is not really a question of Literature's position
toward dialect that we are called upon to consider,
but rather how much of Literature's valuable time
shall be taken up by this dialectic country cousin.
This question Literature her gracious self most
amiably answers by hugging to her breast voluminous
tomes, from Chaucer on to Dickens, from
Dickens on to Joel Chandler Harris. And this
affectionate spirit on the part of Literature, in the
main, we all most feelingly indorse.
Briefly summed, it would appear that dialect
means something more than mere rude form of
speech and action--that it must, in some righteous
and substantial way, convey to us a positive force
of soul, truth, dignity, beauty, grace, purity and
sweetness that may even touch us to the tenderness
of tears. Yes, dialect as certainly does all this as
that speech and act refined may do it, and for the
same reasons: it is simply, purely natural and
Yes, the Lettered and the Unlettered powers are
at sword's points; and very old and bitter foemen,
too, they are. As fairly as we can, then, let us look
over the field of these contending forces and note
their diverse positions: First, THE LETTERED--they
who have the full advantages of refined education,
training, and association--are undoubtedly as
wholly out of order among the UNLETTERED as the
Unlettered are out of order in the exalted presence
of the Lettered. Each faction may in like aversion
ignore or snub the other; but a long-suffering Providence
must bear with the society of both. There
may be one vague virtue demonstrated by this feud:
each division will be found unwaveringly loyal to
its kind, and mutually they desire no interchange of
sympathy whatever.--Neither element will accept
from the other any PATRONIZING treatment; and,
perhaps, the more especially does the UNLETTERED faction
reject anything in vaguest likeness of this spirit. Of
the two divisions, in graphic summary,--ONE knows
the very core and center of refined civilization, and
this only; the OTHER knows the outlying wilds and
suburbs of civilization, and this only. Whose, therefore,
is the greater knowledge, and whose the just
right of any whit of self-glorification?
A curious thing, indeed, is this factional pride, as
made equally manifest in both forces; in one, for
instance, of the Unlettered forces: The average
farmer, or countryman, knows, in reality, a far better
and wider range of diction than he permits himself
to use. He restricts and abridges the vocabulary
of his speech, fundamentally, for the reason
that he fears offending his rural NEIGHBORS, to whom
a choicer speech might suggest, on his part, an
assumption--a spirit of conscious superiority, and
therewith an implied reflection on THEIR lack of
intelligence and general worthiness. If there is any
one text universally known and nurtured of the
Unlettered masses of our common country, it is that
which reads, "All men are created equal." Therefore
it is a becoming thing when true gentility prefers
to overlook some variations of the class who,
more from lack of cultivation than out of rude
intent, sometimes almost compel a positive doubt of
the nice veracity of the declaration, or at least a
grief at the munificent liberality of the so-bequoted
statement. The somewhat bewildering position of
these conflicting forces leaves us nothing further to
consider, but how to make the most and best of the
situation so far as Literature may be hurt or helped
Equally with the perfect English, then, dialect
should have full justice done it. Then always it is
worthy, and in Literature is thus welcome. The
writer of dialect should as reverently venture in its
use as in his chastest English. His effort in the
SCHOLARLY and ELEGANT direction suffers no neglect--
he is SCHOOLED in that, perhaps, he may explain.
Then let him be SCHOOLED in DIALECT before he sets
up as an expounder of it--a teacher, forsooth a
master! The real master must not only know each
varying light and shade of dialect expression, but
he must as minutely know the inner character of the
people whose native tongue it is, else his product is
simply a pretense--a wilful forgery, a rank
abomination. Dialect has been and is thus insulted,
vilified, and degraded, now and continually; and
through this outrage solely, thousands of generous-
minded readers have been turned against dialect
who otherwise would have loved and blessed it in
its real form of crude purity and unstrained sweetness--
Honey dripping from the comb.
Let no impious faddist, then, assume its just
interpretation. He may know everything else in the
world, but not dialect, nor dialectic people, for both
of which he has supreme contempt, which same, be
sure, is heartily returned. Such a "superior"
personage may even go among these simple country
people and abide indefinitely in the midst of them,
yet their more righteous contempt never for one instant
permits them to be their real selves in his presence.
In consequence, his most conscientious report
of them, their ways, lives, and interests, is absolutely
of no importance or value in the world. He
never knew them, nor will he ever know them. They
are not his kind of people, any more than he is their
kind of man; and THEIR disappointment grieves us
more than his.
The master in Literature, as in any art, is that
"divinely gifted man" who does just obeisance to
all living creatures, "both man and beast and bird."
It is this master only who, as he writes, can sweep
himself aside and leave his humble characters to do
the thinking and the talking. This man it is who
celebrates his performance--not himself. His work
he celebrates because it is not his only, but because
he feels it to be the conscientious reproduction of
life itself--as he has seen and known and felt it;--a
representation it is of God's own script, translated
and transcribed by the worshipful mind and heart
and hand of genius. This virtue is impartially
demanded in all art, and genius only can fully
answer the demand in any art for which we claim
perfection. The painter has his expression of it,
with no slighting of the dialect element; so, too, the
sculptor, the musician, and the list entire. In the
line of Literature and literary material, an illustration
of the nice meaning and distinction of the art
of dialect will be found in Charles Dudley Warner's
comment on George Cable's work, as far back as
1883, referring to the author's own rendition of it
from the platform. Mr. Warner says:
While the author was unfolding to his audience a life
and society unfamiliar to them and entrancing them with
pictures, the reality of which none doubted and the spell
of which none cared to escape, it occurred to me that here
was the solution of all the pother we have recently got into
about the realistic and the ideal schools in fiction. In
"Posson Jone," an awkward camp-meeting country preacher
is the victim of a vulgar confidence game; the scenes are
the street, a drinking-place, a gambling-saloon, a bull-ring,
and a calaboose; there is not a "respectable" character in
it. Where shall we look for a more faithful picture of low
life? Where shall we find another so vividly set forth in
all its sordid details? And yet see how art steps in, with
the wand of genius, to make literature! Over the whole the
author has cast an ideal light; over a picture that, in the
hands of a bungling realist, would have been repellent he
has thrown the idealizing grace that makes it one of the
most charming sketches in the world. Here is nature, as
nature only ought to be in literature, elevated but never
So we find dialect, as a branch of literature,
worthy of the high attention and employment of
the greatest master in letters--not the merest
mountebank. Turn to Dickens, in innumerable
passages of pathos: the death of poor Jo, or that
of the "Cheap John's" little daughter in her father's
arms, on the foot-board of his peddling cart before
the jeering of the vulgar mob; smile moistly, too,
at Mr. Sleary's odd philosophies; or at the trials
of Sissy Jupe; or lift and tower with indignation,
giving ear to Stephen Blackpool and the stainless
nobility of his cloyed utterances.
The crudeness or the homeliness of the dialectic
element does not argue its unfitness in any way.
Some readers seem to think so; but they are wrong,
and very gravely wrong. Our own brief history as
a nation, and our finding and founding and maintaining
of it, left our forefathers little time indeed
for the delicate cultivation of the arts and graces
of refined and scholarly attainments. And there
is little wonder, and utter blamelessness on their
part, if they lapsed in point of high mental
accomplishments, seeing their attention was so absorbed
by propositions looking toward the protection of
their rude farm-homes, their meager harvests, and
their half-stabled cattle from the dread invasion of
the Indian. Then, too, they had their mothers and
their wives and little ones to protect, to clothe, to
feed, and to die for in this awful line of duty, as
hundreds upon hundreds did. These sad facts are
here accented and detailed not so much for the sake
of being tedious as to indicate more clearly why it
was that many of the truly heroic ancestors of "our
best people" grew unquestionably dialect of caste
--not alone in speech, but in every mental trait and
personal address. It is a grievous fact for us to
confront, but many of them wore apparel of the
commonest, talked loudly, and doubtless said "thisaway"
and "thataway," and "Watch y' doin' of?"
and "Whur yi goin' at?"--using dialect even in
their prayers to Him who, in His gentle mercy,
listened and was pleased; and who listens verily
unto this hour to all like prayers, yet pleased; yea,
haply listens to the refined rhetorical petitions of
those who are NOT pleased.
There is something more at fault than the language
when we turn from or flinch at it; and, as
has been intimated, the wretched fault may be
skulkingly hidden away in the ambush of OSTENSIBLE
dialect--that type of dialect so copiously produced
by its sole manufacturers, who, utterly stark and
bare of the vaguest idea of country life or country
people, at once assume that all their "gifted pens"
have to do is stupidly to misspell every word;
vulgarly mistreat and besloven every theme, however
sacred; maim, cripple, and disfigure language never
in the vocabulary of the countryman--then smuggle
these monstrosities of either rhyme or prose somehow
into the public print that is innocently to smear
them broadcast all over the face of the country they
How different the mind and method of the true
intrepreter. As this phrase goes down the man
himself arises--the type perfect--Colonel Richard
Malcolm Johnston, who wrote "The Dukesborough
Tales"--an accomplished classical scholar and
teacher, yet no less an accomplished master and
lover of his native dialect of middle Georgia. He,
like Dickens, permits his rustic characters to think,
talk, act and live, Just as nature designed them. He
does not make the pitiable error of either
patronizing or making fun of them. He knows them and
he loves them; and they know and love him in
return. Recalling Colonel Johnston's dialectic
sketches, with his own presentation of them from
the platform, the writer notes a fact that seems
singularly to obtain among all true dialect-writers,
namely, that they are also endowed with native
histrionic capabilities: HEAR, as well as read, Twain,
Cable, Johnston, Page, Smith, and all the list with
barely an exception.
Did space permit, no better illustration of true
dialect sketch and characterization might here be
offered than Colonel Johnston's simple story of
"Mr. Absalom Billingslea," or the short and simple
annals of his like quaint contemporaries, "Mr. Bill
Williams" and "Mr. Jonas Lively." The scene is
the country and the very little country town, with
landscape, atmosphere, simplicity, circumstance--all
surroundings and conditions--VERITABLE--everything
rural and dialectic, no less than the simple,
primitive, common, wholesome-hearted men and women
who so naturally live and have their blessed being
in his stories, just as in the life itself. This is the
manifest work of the true dialect writer and
expounder. In every detail, the most minute, such
work reveals the master-hand and heart of the
humanitarian as well as artist--the two are indissolubly
fused--and the result of such just treatment
of whatever lowly themes or characters we can but
love and loyally approve with all our human hearts. Such masters
necessarily are rare, and such ripe
perfecting as is here attained may be in part the
mellowing result of age and long observation,
though it can be based upon the wisest, purest
spirit of the man as well as artist.
With no less approval should the work of Joel
Chandler Harris be regarded: His touch alike is
ever reverential. He has gathered up the bruised
and broken voices and the legends of the slave,
and from his child-heart he has affectionately
yielded them to us in all their eery beauty and
wild loveliness. Through them we are made to
glorify the helpless and the weak and to revel in
their victories. But, better, we are taught that even
in barbaric breasts there dwells inherently the sense
of right above wrong-equity above law-and the
One Unerring Righteousness Eternal. With equal
truth and strength, too, Mr. Harris has treated the
dialectic elements of the interior Georgia country--
the wilds and fastnesses of the "moonshiners." His
tale of Teague Poteet, of some years ago, was
contemporaneous with the list of striking mountain
stories from that strong and highly gifted Tennesseean,
Miss Murfree, or "Charles Egbert Craddock."
In the dialectic spirit her stories charm and
hold us. Always there is strangely mingled, but
most naturally, the gentle nature cropping out amid
the most desperate and stoical: the night scene in
the isolated mountain cabin, guarded ever without
and within from any chance down-swooping of the
minions of the red-eyed law; the great man-group
of gentle giants, with rifles never out of arm's-
reach, in tender rivalry ranged admiringly around
the crowing, wakeful little boy-baby; the return, at
last, of the belated mistress of the house--the sister,
to whom all do great, awkward reverence. Jealously
snatching up the babe and kissing it, she
querulously demands why he has not long ago been
put to bed. "He 'lowed he wouldn't go," is the
Thomas Nelson Page, of Virginia, who wrote
Meh Lady--a positive classic in the negro dialect:
his work is veritable--strong and pure and
sweet; and as an oral reader of it the doubly gifted
author, in voice and cadence, natural utterance,
every possible effect of speech and tone, is doubtless
without rival anywhere.
Many more, indeed, than may be mentioned now
there are of these real benefactors and preservers
of the wayside characters, times, and customs of our
ever-shifting history. Needless is it to speak here of
the earlier of our workers in the dialectic line--of
James Russell Lowell's New England Hosea Biglow,
Dr. Eggleston's Hoosier School-Master, or
the very rare and quaint, bright prattle of Helen's
Babies. In connection with this last let us very
seriously inquire what this real child has done that
Literature should so persistently refuse to give him
an abiding welcome? Since for ages this question
seems to have been left unasked, it may be timely
now to propound it. Why not the real child in
Literature? The real child is good enough (we all
know he is bad enough) to command our admiring
attention and most lively interest in real life, and
just as we find him "in the raw." Then why do we
deny him any righteous place of recognition in our
Literature? From the immemorial advent of our
dear old Mother Goose, Literature has been especially
catering to the juvenile needs and desires, and
yet steadfastly overlooking, all the time, the very
principles upon which Nature herself founds and
presents this lawless little brood of hers--the
children. It is not the children who are out of order;
it is Literature. And not only is Literature out of
order, but she is presumptuous; she is impudent.
She takes Nature's children and revises and corrects
them till "their own mother doesn't know them."
This is literal fact. So, very many of us are coming
to inquire, as we've a right, why is the real child
excluded from a just hearing in the world of letters
as he has in the world of fact? For instance,
what has the lovely little ragamuffin ever done of
sufficient guilt to consign him eternally to the
monstrous penalty of speaking most accurate grammar
all the literary hours of the days of the years of his
otherwise natural life?
"Oh, mother, may I go to school
With brother Charles to-day?
The air is very fine and cool;
Oh, mother, say I may!"
--Is this a real boy that would make such a request,
and is it the real language he would use? No, we
are glad to say that it is not. Simply it is a libel,
in every particular, on any boy, however fondly
and exactingly trained by parents however zealous
for his overdecorous future. Better, indeed, the
dubious sentiment of the most trivial nursery jingle,
since the latter at least maintains the lawless though
wholesome spirit of the child-genuine.--
"Hink! Minx! The old witch winks--
The fat begins to fry;
There's nobody home but Jumping Joan,
Father and mother and I."
Though even here the impious poet leaves the scar
of grammatical knowledge upon childhood's native
diction; and so the helpless little fellow is again
misrepresented, and his character, to all intents and
purposes, is assaulted and maligned outrageously
Now, in all seriousness, this situation ought not
to be permitted to exist, though to change it seems
an almost insurmountable task. The general public,
very probably, is not aware of the real gravity of
the position of the case as even unto this day it
exists. Let the public try, then, to contribute the
real child to the so-called Child Literature of its
country, and have its real child returned as promptly
as it dare show its little tousled head in the presence
of that scholarly and dignified institution. Then
ask why your real child has been spanked back
home again, and the wise mentors there will virtually
tell you that Child Literature wants no real children in it, that
the real child's example of
defective grammar and lack of elegant deportment
would furnish to its little patrician patrons suggestions
very hurtful indeed to their higher morals,
tendencies, and ambitions. Then, although the general
public couldn't for the life of it see why or
how, and might even be reminded that it was just
such a rowdying child itself, and that its FATHER--
the Father of his Country--was just such a child;
that Abraham Lincoln was just such a lovable, lawless
child, and yet was blessed and chosen in the
end for the highest service man may ever render
unto man,--all--all this argument would avail not
in the least, since the elegantly minded purveyors
of Child Literature can not possibly tolerate the
presence of any but the refined children--the very
proper children--the studiously thoughtful, poetic
children,--and these must be kept safe from the
contaminating touch of our rough-and-tumble little
fellows in "hodden gray," with frowzly heads,
begrimed but laughing faces, and such awful, awful
vulgarities of naturalness, and crimes of simplicity,
and brazen faith and trust, and love of life and
everybody in it. All other real people are getting
into Literature; and without some real children
along will they not soon be getting lonesome, too?
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