Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #2
Finley Peter Dunne: The Bard of Bridgeport

As I look across my bookshelves, works by Russell Baker, Anna Quindlen, Mike Royko, and Myles na Gopaleen (aka, Flann O'Brien) and a first-edition of Nelson Algren's nonfiction collection, Who Stole an American, remind me that when it came to writing, journalism was my first love. This blog is the realization of a very long-standing dream of mine to have my own column.

I had to experience a lot and hone my craft to get to this point. But perhaps the most important thing I did on the road to fulfillment was to discover Finley Peter Dunne. The first sentence of the preface of the book that started it all for me, Charles Fanning's Finley Peter Dunne and Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years, says, "Every four years editorial writers remember that Finley Peter Dunne created a bartender-philosopher named Martin Dooley, whose comments on national politics remain fresh enough for resurrection and application to the current presidential campaign." Alas, that sentence no longer pertains. Dunne has faded like the numerous newspapers, causes, and times he wrote for and about. I'm not sure that the residents of Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, Irish stronghold of Chicago mayors and the place Dunne attempted to paint in dialect and prose for so many years, would even recognize his name.

I have never forgotten him, but I haven't revisited his works in a while. However, recent events in Chicago--the retiring of the name of the Marshall Field's department store in favor of its new owner, Macy's; the announced closing of the 100+-year-old German restaurant The Berghoff; and the demolition of ParKing, the miniature-golf mecca of my youth--had me dipping into Fanning's book for a taste of old Chicago and the man who set me on the road to my professional future.

Dunne got his start at the Chicago Daily News in 1884 and began experimenting with reporting in Irish dialect at the Chicago Times in 1889. He job-hopped quite a bit, eventually landing at the Evening Post, where he gave birth to Martin Dooley on October 7, 1893, as follows:

"Business was dull in the liquor-shop of Mr. Martin Dooley in Archey [Archer] Road last Wednesday night and Mr. Dooley was sitting back in the rear of the shop holding a newspaper at arm's length before him and reading the sporting news. In came Mr. John McKenna...

"...'Good evening, Martin,' he said.

"'Hello, Jawnny,' replied Mr. Dooley, as if they had parted only the evening before. 'How's thricks? I don't mind, Jawnny, if I do. 'Tis duller here than a ray-publican primary in th' fourth wa-ard, th' night. Sure, ye're like a ray iv sunlight, ye ar that.'"

Through the 1890s, Dunne would use Mr. Dooley to report on the Irish experience in America as lived by the residents of Bridgeport, providing a unique record of this evolving community. Just as we baby boomers learned at the knees of our Depression-formed parents, Dunne was influenced by his elders, refugees from the Irish Famine. He recorded indelibly the pain of their experience. Comparing poor strike-bound families in Chicago with Famine victims, he said:

"'Tis not th' min, ye mind; 'tis th' women an' childhren. Glory be to Gawd, I can scarce go out f'r a wa-alk f'r pity at seein' th' little wans settin' on th' stoops an' th' women with thim lines in th' fa-ace that I seen but wanst befure, an' that in our parish over beyant, whin th' potatoes was all kilt be th' frost an' th' oats rotted with th' dhrivin' rain. . . Musha, but 'tis a sound to dhrive ye'er heart cold whin a woman sobs an' th' young wans cries, an' both because there's no bread in th' house.'" (EP, Aug. 25, 1894)

Dunne's chronicles saw no event as too small to note. A church play staged by parish youth, weddings and funerals, raffles--all provided fodder for Mr. Dunne's street sage. He used Dooley to hammer hard at the killing division of haves and have-nots in American society, writing especially damning columns during the extremely harsh winter of 1896-1897:

"A man, or a woman ayether, has to have what ye may call peculiar qualifications f'r to gain th' lump iv coal or th' pound iv steak that an organized charity gives out. He must be honest an' sober an' industhrious. He must have a frind in th' organization. He must have arned th' right to beg his bread be th' sweat iv his brow. He must be able to comport himself like a gintleman in fair society an' play a good hand at whist. He must have a marridge license over th' pianny an' a goold-edged Bible on th' marble-topped table."

His columns broadened over time, and those on the Spanish-American War catapulted him to the national stage at the turn of the 20th century. He moved to New York, became prosperous, and eventually lost touch with the Bridgeport neighborhood that formed him. One day, Mr. Dooley became irrelevant, and he vanished from Dunne's writing. But he deserves a new audience; as the above excerpt shows us, the times haven't changed nearly enough.

I know that reading dialect can be hard going, but what a gift it is to have a virtual recording of voices at this momentous time in American history! I'll end this meditation on the estimable Mr. Dunne with Mr. Dooley's justification for the types of columns Dunne wrote in Chicago:

"I know histhry isn't thrue, Hinnissy, because it ain't like what I see ivry day in Halsted Sthreet. If any wan comes along with a histhry iv Greece or Rome that'll show me th' peopole fightin', gettin' dhrunk, makin' love, gettin' married, owin' th' grocery man an' bein' without hard-coal, I'll believe they was a Greece or Rome, but not before. Historyans is like doctors. They are always lookin' f'r symptoms. Those iv them that writes about their own times examines th' tongue an' feels th' pulse an' makes a wrong dygnosis. Th' other kind iv histhry is a post-mortem examination. It tells ye what a counthry died iv. But I'd like to know what it lived iv." l

Fanning, Charles. (1978). Finley Peter Dunne and Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

The Literary Encyclopedia short biography of Finley Peter Dunne: http://tinyurl.com/8so6h


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