15 June 2012

Arthur Stringer Under the Influence

Arthur J. Stringer
The Canadian Magazine, vol. XVII, no. 3 (July 1901)

Something less than not much of anything, the plot of this early Arthur Stringer story is simple. A middle-aged man marries a young beauty. The young beauty loses her baby and becomes depressed. Work calls her husband away and a young man aims to fill the void. Gossip grows. The climax occurs after the husband's return. Loggers both, the husband and aspiring paramour disappear in the drink while trying to clear a log jam; only the older man survives. "W'ere is he? W'ere is he?" screams the young beauty. Told that "he" is dead, she poisons herself. The gentle twist comes with the revelation that – gossip be damned – the young wife had remained true; she poisoned herself thinking that it was her husband who'd been killed.

Far from Shakespeare – though something might be owed Romeo and Juliet – I was surprised to discover that so slight a story went on to be reprinted throughout the English-speaking world.

I think that language had everything to do with its considerable commercial success. You see, the description of our heroine as a "young beauty" is mine. Stringer's narrator has her as "de mos' pretty girl on all de Reever, wit' cheeks lak de peach-blossom, an' de hair w'at she braid alms' down to de knee." Her husband – Patrice Gérin – is a "qui't feller" who "try hard to make some plaisurement for hees young wife an' always mos' kind wit' her." And the unfortunate man who tried to break up their marriage? He wasn't such a bad sort; one cannot fault him for "fall in loaf wit' Emmeline."

With "Emmeline", the ever-savvy Stringer sees and seizes the poetry of William Henry Drummond to produce profitable prose. Clever. In 1901, Dr Drummond was our best-selling writer; his distinctive dialectic verse sold in the tens of thousands. It had been that way ever since his debut, The Habitant and Other French Canadian Poems, arrived in bookstores four years earlier. Nineteen-aught-one saw the publication of Drummond's second biggest selling book, Johnnie Courteau and Other Poems
Who was de man can walk de log
W'en w'ole of de reever she's black wit' fog
An' carry de beeges' load on hees back?
Johnnie  Courteau! 
Johnnie, meet Patrice. He's a good man, though he doesn't have your skill in walk de log.


  1. I wonder if Harry Stephen Keeler read a lot of Stringer when he was a young'un. He loved him some dialectical talkin' in his goofy, sometimes unreadable, books.

    Oddly, that French Canadian speech sounds to me more like what Octavus Roy Cohen did in his embarrassing stories of Florian Slappey and his gang of friends in Alabama.

    1. Keefer just keeps giving, doesn't he. I think only Stringer's Without Warning comes close to matching the man in terms of sheer weirdness.

  2. I have always wondered why some dialectical speech is considered demeaning while other such speech, that of Robert Burns for example, is a matter of intense ethnic pride.

    1. I suppose it might come down to the fact that Burns was Scottish, while Drummond wasn't French Canadian. That said, I think it worth nothing that no less a figure than Louis Fréchette was an admirer, and in his day Drummond's verse was read by both English and French-speaking Canadians. Are we too sensitive today... taking offence on behalf of those who took no offence themselves?