Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ellis Parker Butler KILLED in 1905. NOT!

First of all, I know it’s a hamster, not a guinea pig. But since guinea pig/Lego elevator videos are in short supply, this will have to suffice.

In Ellis Parker Butler’s “Pigs is Pigs,” we have two things going: First, the ever-popular humor tactic of a semantics arguments. Mr. Morehouse wants to have two guinea pigs delivered, twenty-five cents each. The reticent railway clerk insists that “pigs is pigs” and wants to charge the 30-cent-per-head rate for livestock. Hilarity ensues.

Or somewhat.

Because the other thing we have going in this story is a wide selection of Things that Will Likely Never be Shouted in Ordinary Dialogue, such as:

“You everlastingly stupid idiot!”

“Why you poor ignorant foreigner!”

“Where’s the ink!” (How anachronistic can you get, unless, of course, you’re talking of the inkjet, $85 a gallon variety.)

But there is this gem:

Mr. Morehouse went home raging. His boy, who had been awaiting the guinea-pigs, knew better than to ask him for them. He was a normal boy and therefore always had a guilty conscience when his father was angry. So the boy slipped quietly around the house. There is nothing to soothing to a guilty conscience as to be out of the path of the avenger.

The story then evolves into a history of bureaucratic mayhem, as officers both high and low in the Interurban Express Company debate whether guinea pigs are livestock or pets, all the while as the Oirish-speakin’ clerk at the depot continues to feed the guinea pigs cabbage and as they multiply like Tribbles. By the time the snafu is fixed – and it went all the way to the president of the company, who sent to an eminent scientist exploring in the Andes a request on the ruling: are guinea pigs pets or pigs—Mr. Morehouse has moved, his son, we can assume, went on feeling guilty about crimes we’re sure he committed and Mr. Flannery had 4,270 guinea pigs to care for at the depot:

"Error in guinea-pig bill. Collect for two guinea-pigs, fifty cents. Deliver all to consignee."

Flannery read the telegram and cheered up. He wrote out a bill as rapidly as his pencil could travel over paper and ran all the way to the Morehouse home. At the gate he stopped suddenly. The house stared at him with vacant eyes. The windows were bare of curtains and he could see into the empty rooms. A sign on the porch said, "To Let." Mr. Morehouse had moved! Flannery ran all the way back to the express office. Sixty-nine guinea-pigs had been born during his absence. He ran out again and made feverish inquiries in the village. Mr. Morehouse had not only moved, but he had left Westcote. Flannery returned to the express office and found that two hundred and six guinea-pigs had entered the world since he left it. He wrote a telegram to the Audit Department.

"Can't collect fifty cents for two dago pigs consignee has left town address unknown what shall I do? Flannery."

The telegram was handed to one of the clerks in the Audit Department, and as he read it he laughed.

"Flannery must be crazy. He ought to know that the thing to do is to return the consignment here," said the clerk. He telegraphed Flannery to send the pigs to the main office of the company at Franklin.

When Flannery received the telegram he set to work. The six boys he had engaged to help him also set to work. They worked with the haste of desperate men, making cages out of soap boxes, cracker boxes, and all kinds of boxes, and as fast as the cages were completed they filled them with guinea-pigs and expressed them to Franklin. Day after day the cages of guinea pigs flowed in a steady stream from Westcote to Franklin, and still Flannery and his six helpers ripped and nailed and packed—relentlessly and feverishly. At the end of the week they had shipped two hundred and eighty cases of guinea-pigs, and there were in the express office seven hundred and four more pigs than when they began packing them.

The story concludes with the typical zinger:

He paused long enough to let one of the boys put an empty basket in the place of the one he had just filled. There were only a few guinea-pigs left. As he noted their limited number his natural habit of looking on the bright side returned.

"Well, annyhow," he said cheerfully, "'tis not so bad as ut might be. What if thim dago pigs had been elephants!"

Just in case you’re wondering, Walt Disney Studios did make a cartoon of this story, filled with ethnic stereotypes:

By the way, I really like how Flannery schwiggles his hips as he builds that guinea pig cage.

And now something for you linguists out there: Lots of people like to consider the rejoinder “Not!” as a modern construction. Not. So, In Butler’s 1905 story, there is this:

“Proceed to collect,” he said softly. “How thim clerks do loike to be talkin’! Me proceed to collect two dollars and twinty-foive cints off Misther Morehouse! I wonder do thim clerks know Misther Morehouse? I’ll git it! Oh, yes! ‘Misther Morehouse, two an’ a wuarter, plaze.’ ‘Cert’nly, me dear frind Flannery. Delighted!’ Not!”

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