“A fine figure of a Negro”

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal on Jan. 10, 2023—but heavily edited and with a different title (“Early remembrances of Alexander Clark”). And with the page-one teaser above. Further explanation follows the end of the column.

A celebrated 20th century humorist drew much of his material from memories of growing up in Muscatine. Ellis Parker Butler (1869-1937) struck gold in 1906 with “Pigs Is Pigs,” then kept American laughing for three decades.

He married his hometown sweetheart, went to New York, and there succeeded as a publisher and banker. Always a part-time author, he wrote at least 32 books and more than 2,000 stories and essays.

Muscatine Journal and News-Tribune (September 14, 1937): “The pen, with which he brought smiles to brighten the faces of countless readers from coast to coast, will write no more. The clean humor he created however, remains. He scattered sunshine while he lived.”

When he died, a tribute in the New York Herald-Tribune described him as “a shooting star” in the literary firmament, “…a meteor of such magnitude and brilliance, however, that thirty years after its publication, ‘Pigs Is Pigs’ still wakens cheerful chuckles.…”   

Which brings me to his yarn based on Alexander Clark’s appointment as U.S. ambassador to Liberia. Then 21, Butler had worked as a bill clerk at Muscatine Spice Mills, and some of his first fiction had been published in the Muscatine News.

The Clark yarn makes up about one-sixth of an essay published in Success Magazine in December 1923—“Beloved Humans: It’s Going to Be a Great Life.” I would recite the passage in full, but it’s longer than the space allowed for my column.

“Another man I knew out home…was colored, too, and a fine figure of a Negro. He was in politics. One day the President offered him the job of Minister to Liberia.”

That’s how it starts. Then Butler goes into a long, hilarious riff on postage stamps as the main business of the place President Harrison sent Clark.

“However that may be, it does seem to be a fact that the United States Minister to Liberia is not as important as the Ambassador to [Great Britain]…. His speeches do not get in the papers as often. Nobody knows whether he wears knee breeches or none. He does not have to lie awake at night wondering how to prevent Liberia from declaring war on the United States (and he does not have to worry about Ireland). It looks like a one-horse job.”

“But, to return to Muscatine—although this man was quite an important political figure among the colored voters of Muscatine, Iowa, he did not say: ‘I won’t take a Ministerial position until I can go to the Court of St. James.’ … The minute he was offered the ministership to Liberia he took it—and in two weeks he was on his way to Monrovia—and in less than two months he was on his way home again, soldered in a lead coffin—and the entire round trip was at the Government’s expense. It did not cost him a cent!”

Hold on. Is this mockery or all in good fun? How shall we read Mr. Butler? Remember, we are 100 years later. In a more enlightened time? No Jim Crow. No minstrelsy. No writing in demeaning dialect.

Butler’s humor is loaded with dialect. Not only for people of color; he caricatures Germans and Irish and others. In the same year as “Pigs Is Pigs,” he argues for creative spelling: “No man who devotes the fiery days of his youth to learning to spell has time to be a genius.” (The Atlantic Monthly, June 1906)

Back to the Black ambassador. “Now, somebody may scoffingly say: ‘That just shows! If that man had stayed at home he would not have got swamp fever, or whatever killed him. And he would not have needed a coffin—not even an expensive soldered one the angel Gabriel will have to open with a can-opener!’”

“But that is all wrong. If my old colored friend had hesitated and wondered and worried, instead of telegraphing in haste (collect) accepting that Liberian job, there would have been a Democratic administration come in and he would have fretted and worried for eight years more—mighty unhappy all the time.”

“Then—when he was so old he could not really enjoy Liberian postage stamps with lizards on them, or any of the other Liberian advantages, such as bare feet and silk hats at the same time, the Republicans would have come in again and he would have been made Minister to Liberia just the same—and the swamp fever would have got him just the same—and he would have come home in a non-refillable waterproof container just the same! The only difference would have been that he would have had eight years of needless worry—and would have had to pay for food and taxes and rent and upkeep during the entire interim. And at the end of the period he would have been dead just the same!”

Call it clean humor and sunshine.

Next time: When I wore brownface

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I never wrote nor submitted that “When I wore brownface” column, however. This was Column 73 in the series begun for Black History Month 2022. You can read the unacceptably edited version at https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-muscatine-journal-early-remembrance/149516144/. The not-local “editing” came as a shock, because it was clearly not the doing of the local editor whose support I had so enjoyed.

The Journal published five more columns before we ended the series, amicably, with Column 78. Read Butler’s essay at http://www.philsp.com/EllisParkerButler/epb/bibliod82f.html. I look forward to saying more on these topics via Bleeding Heartland.]

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  • Was I right to feel so grumpy?

    On Jan. 10, I posted on Facebook: “Usually I’d be delighted to snag a front-page teaser. Not today. I will not post a facsimile of my latest column yet, because I am angry and embarrassed by the ‘edited’ version published this morning. Editor David Hotle says the changes were not his doing, and I believe him. Our deal is that we will discuss any changes; otherwise he will run whatever I submit without chunking up paragraphs or ‘fixing’ for modern style or sensibility. I usually quote from writings we recognize as historic, likely coming across as quaint or obsolete and often long-winded. I trust Dave to try to satisfy me. If his higher-ups fail to support him, this Column 73 might have been the last in my series.”

    Dave and I met, and he told me he could not undo or redo the changes his higher-up had made. I went away unhappy and have written four more columns since then. I have not yet written my intended Column 74 (‘When I wore brown face’) and can’t predict when I might, considering that “colored” got changed to “(Black)” five times in No. 77, along with other disappointing changes yet to be explained. Maybe I will present it as Column 79 after Bleeding Heartland has published 74-78.

    Dan Clark

  • excellent article

    Great information – thanks!