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Mr. Dooley, Petroleum V. Nasby, and Friends

Lileks linked to an Ohio U. article on New Yorker humor today which, just in passing, mentioned Petroleum V. Nasby. I vaguely remembered having to memorize the name of this character in Ohio or American history, but hadn’t realized he’d supposedly been a Kentuckian or appeared in fake letters to the editor in the Toledo Blade. (But the Findlay paper first, apparently. Typical big city reductionism.) I felt annoyed at myself, because if I’d known when I was in Toledo, I probably could have read entire collections of the guy. So to repair my error, I Googled.

Indeed, the letters of Petroleum V. Nasby during the Reconstruction period seem to be pretty funny, so I’m sure his war and ante-bellum letters were equally so. Unfortunately, just as the political humor appears to be in the school of Mr. Dooley and his many predecessors, so does the dialectal humor. In other words, it’s hard as heck to read the dang thing. My dad (a patient and scholarly man) thinks Mr. Dooley is really funny and has a book of his pronouncements. I’ve never made it through the whole thing, just because it’s too bloody slow to read silently. Mark Twain and Kipling are the only ones I manage to slog through. (And the Dayton poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, but he was doing serious regional poetry after the style of Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley.)

Usually, I’m all for authorial intentions. No doubt there’s linguistic analysis that could be done on both characters. What the heck kind of weird Kentucky accent is Nasby saying, and where in Ireland birthed Mr. Dooley before he came to this country? Where did the authors screw up on the accent? Etc cetera. But … wouldn’t these characters be a lot easier to read today if we got rid of the dialectal spellings? (Of course, this would make the Reverend Nasby’s favorite term for African-Americans stand out rather glaringly. I seem to recall this being Mr. Dooley’s as well. Satire or no, I doubt that would go over well; but I suppose that it’s really a dialectal misspelling of “Negro”, and could be treated as such.)

But that does seem kinda weasel-y, doesn’t it? Not only overeager editing of the sort I deplore in Baen Books’ Eric Flint, but the kind which looks down the editorial nose at what the past was really like. It’s very easy to deplore the casual racism of those times…but we only have the kinder casualness of our times because the Civil War was fought and more than a hundred years of opinion-making done. By people like the creator of “Petroleum V. Nasby”.

So I guess the ideal presentation of dialectal characters from the past would be as an audiobook. If an actor read the dialectally-spelled words in the indicated accent, we would hear only a whimsical reading of what the author wrote, without having to worry about whether dialectal spelling is intrinsically a put-down of the people who speak that dialect. (A rather problematic allegation about folks like Dunbar, Whitcomb, and the Irish-American author of Mr. Dooley.) But it would have to be a very thick-skinned actor; while there are many people willing to say profanities in the service of art (or otherwise), I think most people would have a lot more problem with saying “n—-r” than “f–k”. But I guess if you could get an African-American to do the reading, and put enough warnings on the box about this being satire and inappropriate language, it might get sold unsued.

I think that would be a good thing. It’s a shame to let the thoughts and humor that influenced millions of Americans go silently into the night, read only by bored graduate students who think they’re big intellectual stuff for reading something so obscure, when they’re really reading Bloom County. Also, it’d be a good present for my dad.

It would also not be too far from the intent of the original authors. They almost certainly meant their work to be read aloud to one’s family or co-workers for the humor of it. They also went on lecture tours, just as Mark Twain did, doing dramatic readings of their works. In fact, Twain apparently really liked Locke’s performance of “Cussed Be Canaan”, according to this article. (The Library of Congress apparently has a picture of
David R. Locke as his character Petroleum V. Nasby
from one of these tours). So audiobooks would not just be more suited to today’s popular tastes; they could actually be pretty authentic.

Here’s a few more links. Mr. Dooley on golf, as presented by the scholarly golfers of Myrtle Beach, and on temperance, as presented by some kind of anti-anti-drug crusaders. Also, here’s Artemus Ward on visiting the Tower of London. Josh Billings seems to be represented on the Web mainly by quotes (in normalized spelling, of course….)

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