Monday, May 24, 2010

Josh Billings and his, uh, Tripes

It’s every writer’s dream to be remembered.

Actually, it’s every writer’s dream to be followed by billowing clouds of cash blown out of his or her pockets wherever they go, but being remembered for something written down is second best.

That brings us to Josh Billings, the nom de plume of Henry Wheeler Shaw, pictured at left.

Shaw as Billings was one of the first popular "crackerbarrel" philosophers, who brought folk comedy, philosophy and spelling to the fore of American popular culture. Aside from Mark Twain, Billings was the most popular author in America in the 19th century.

Thing is, you've heard things Josh Billings said, but you don't recognize them as his. First of all, that line -- "In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy... to wit the wag of a dog's tail," was featured in Disney's "Lady and the Tramp."But infinitely more famous is this little four-liner:

I hate to be a kicker,
I always long for peace,
But the wheel that does the squeaking,
Is the one that gets the grease.

Yep, every time you say "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease," you're paraphrasing Josh Billings.

For "The Treasury of Laughter," Untermeyer chose two pieces, the first of which we'll discuss here. It's called "The Mule." Behold:

The mule is haf hoss, and haf Jackass, and then kums to a full stop, natur diskovering her mistake. Tha weigh more, akordin tu their heft, than enny other kreetur, except a crowbar. Tha kant hear anny quicker, nor further than the hoss, yet their ears are big enuff for snow shoes. You kan trust them with enny one whose life aint worth enny more than the mules. The only wa tu keep them into a paster, is tu turn them into a medder jineing, and let them jump out. Tha are reddy for us, just as soon as they will du tu abuse. Tha haint got enny friends, and will live on huckel berry brush, with an ockasional chanse at Kanada thissels. Tha are a modern invenshun, i dont think the Bible deludes tu them at tall. Tha sel for more money than enny other domestik animile. Yu kant tell their age by looking into their mouth, enny more than you could a Mexican cannons.

And it goes on like this.

Tha are the strongest creeturs on earth, and heaviest, ackording tu their size; i her tell ov one who fell oph from the tow path, on the Eri kanawl, and sunk as soon as he touched bottom, but he kept rite on towing the boat tu the nex stachun, breathing thru his ears, which stuck out ov the water about 2 feet six inches; i didn't see this did, but an auctioneer told me ov it, and i never knew an auctioneer tu lie unless it was absolutely convenient.

Music to the ears of Henry Higgins, I'm sure. We kind of hear echoes of Billings in the twang and slang written by contemporary Mark Twain and in any string of radio comics, from the Old Timer on Fibber McGee and Molly to Amos 'n' Andy's Silverfish. This kind of folksy hokum is pretty much extinct today, being heard only in whispers of Rancid Crabtree in Pat McManus' delightful reminisces. Garrison Kellior is too progressive and urbane for this kind of tomfoolery, fortunately enough for us. He's ugly enough without this kind of misdirected language coming out of his puss.

Billings' death was ignominious, but remembered. Per Wikipedia:

Billings' death is described in Chapter 12 of John Steinbeck's fictional Cannery Row. According to Steinbeck's homage, Billings died in the the Hotel del Monte in Monterey after which his body was delivered for burial preparation by the local constable to the town's only doctor, who also doubled as an amateur mortician. The doctor, per his usual embalming protocol, dispensed of Billings' entrails by tossing them into the gulch behind his house before packing the torso with sawdust. The stomach, liver and intestines were found in the gulch the following morning by a dog whose master, a small boy, intended on using them for fish bait. Some local men, realizing the disgrace this could bring to Monterey -- a town proud of its literary heritage -- were able to stop the boy as he was preparing to row out to sea, retrieved the "tripas" and forced the doctor to give Billings' organs a proper burial befitting a great author.

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