29 February 2016

Familiarity Breeds Content

The Measure of a Man: A Tale of the Big Woods
Norman Duncan
New York: Revell, 1911

The Measure of a Man is a novel I thought I'd never read. Here's why:

You understand, I'm sure.

But looking at the book again last week – it is quite attractive – I happened upon this second note to the reader:

Oh, I do like a roman à clef. In fact, I once wrote an entire book about them. And in that book I made sport of Duncan's protests against those who saw something of Doctor Grenfell in Doctor Luke. A touchy sort,
so irritated was the novelist that he had a note appended to future editions of Dr Luke of the Labrador warning the reader against "this growing misconception." Duncan's Dr. Grenfell's Parish (1905), published the following year, features yet another note to the reader: "Dr. Grenfell is not the hero of a certain work of fiction dealing with life on the Labrador coast. Some unhappy misunderstanding has arisen on this point. The author wishes to make it plain that 'Doctor Luke' was not drawn from Dr. Grenfell."

Got that? Mission doctor Luke is in no way modelled on Duncan's friend Grenfell, a man who for four decades travelled the Labrador coast bringing medical care and the word of God to deep sea fishermen.

Duncan is more forthright when it comes to Rev Frances E. Higgins and The Measure of a Man, allowing that "some of the incidents in this story are taken directly from his experience, and many others are founded upon certain passages in his missionary career".

There really was no way around it. Not two years earlier, Duncan had published Higgins: A Man's Christian. A slim biography of the preacher, then in the fifteenth year of his mission, it begins with hungry lumberjack "Jimmie the Beast" emerging from a saloon and robbing a bulldog of its bone. Duncan recreates the scene in The Measure of a Man to introduce hero John Fairmeadow:
A worthy dog fight. Pale Peter's bulldog was concerned, being the aggrieved party to the dispute; and the other dog, the aggressor, was Billy the Beast from the Cant-hook cutting, a surly lumber-jack, who, being at the same time drunk, savage and hungry, had seized upon the bulldog's bone, in expectation of gnawing it himself. It was a fight to be remembered, too: the growls of man and beast, the dusty, yelping scramble in the street, the howls of the spectators, the blood and snapping, and the indecent issue, wherein Billy the Beast from the Cant-hook cutting sent the bulldog yelping to cover with a broken rib, and himself, staggering out of sight, with lacerated hands, gnawed at the bone as he went.
     When the joyous excitement had somewhat subsided, John Fairmeadow, now returned from the Big Rapids trail, laid off his pack.
     "Boys," said he, "I'm looking for the worst town this side of hell. Have I got there?"
     "You're what?" Gingerbread Jenkins ejaculated.
     "I'm looking," John Fairmeadow drawled, "for the worst town this side of hell. Is this it?"
     "Swamp's End, my friend," said Gingerbread Jenkins, gravely, " is your station."
And so, Fairmeadow adopts Swamp's End as the home base from which he ventures out preaching to lumber camps.

Who can fault Duncan? That story of the drunken, hungry lumberjack fighting a dog for a bone is a good one. There are plenty of others in Higgins: A Man's Christian, like when the preacher punched out a bartender and the time he took on a man who insisted on drowning out his sermon by grinding an axe:
"Keep back, boys!" an old Irishman yelled, catching up a peavy-pole. Give the Pilot a show! Keep out o' this or I'll brain ye!"
     The Sky Pilot caught the Frenchman about the waist – flung him against a door – caught him again on the rebound – put him head foremost in a barrel of water – and absent-mindedly held him there until the old Irishman asked, softly, "Say, Pilot, ye ain't goin' t' drown him, are ye?"
Here it is again in The Measure of a Man:
"Keep back, boys!" an old Irishman screamed, catching up a peavy-pole. "Give the parson a show! Keep out o' this or I'll brain ye!"
     Fairmeadow caught his big opponent about the waist – flung him against the door (the preacher was wisely no man for half measures) – caught him on the rebound – put him head fore-most in a barrel of water and absent-mindedly held him there until the old Irishman asked, softly, "Say, parson, ye ain't goin' t' drown him, are ye?"
It's not all fisticuffs, mind. I admit to being moved by the death of young consumptive prostitute Liz:
     "Am I dyin'. Pilot?" she asked.
     "Yes, my girl," he answered.
     "Dyin' – now?"
     Higgins said again that she was dying; and little Liz was dreadfully frightened then – and began to sob for her mother with all her heart.
– Higgins: A Man's Christian 
    "Am I dyin', parson?" little Liz asked.
    "Yes, my girl."
    " Yes, my girl."
    "Now?" little Liz exclaimed. "Dyin' – now?"
    " Mother!" little Liz moaned. "Oh, mother!"
The Measure of a Man
Gets me every time.

It's right to criticize Duncan's recycling, as Elizabeth Miller has, but I'm prepared to give him a pass. The incidents aren't nearly so numerous as I think I've implied – and the axe-grinding incident is the only one that didn't go through a significant rewrite.

I think Duncan is correct: it must not be inferred that Higgins "bears any invidious resemblance to John Fairmeadow." The character might share Higgins' faith, brawn and fighting skills, but his backstory is markedly different. Higgins was an uneducated Ontario farm boy who one day decided that he wanted to become a preacher; Fairmeadow is a college-graduate who found salvation after descending into drink. It's not until the mid-point of The Measure of a Man that we learn anything of our hero's life before reaching Swamp's End. The tale is told in the sixteenth chapter – "Theological Training" – which finds a younger, bleary-eyed John Fairmeadow stumbling about Manhattan's Five Points in stupid thirst:
Dim, stifling lodging-houses, ill-lit cellar drinking-places, thieves' resorts, wet saloon-bars, back alleys, garbage pails, slop-shops, pawn-brokers' wickets, the shadowy arches of the Bridge, deserted stable yards, a multitude of wrecked men, dirt, rags, blasphemy, darkness: John Fairmeadow's world had been a fantastic and ghastly confusion of these things. The world was without love: it was besotted. Faces vanished: ragged forms shuffled out of sight for the last time.
Fairmeadow has been thrown out of aptly-named Solomon's Cellar – as low as you can go – and looks about to die when he is saved by Jerry McAulay's Water Street Mission.

Lasting just twelve pages, never to be mentioned again, Fairmeadow's battle with the bottle is the most memorable thing in the novel... next to Billy the Beast's fight for the bulldog's bone, anyway. Incongruity has something to do with it, I suppose – everything else takes place in the "Big Woods" – but in these pages I couldn't help but see something of the author in Fairmeadow. An alcoholic and a Christian, Duncan casts drink as the scourge of Manhattan and Swamp's End. Barroom owners prey. A hungry man who has spent all his money on drink fights for a bone that has been gnawed by a dog.

Drink killed Duncan. In October 1916, he dropped dead on the steps of a golf course clubhouse in Fredonia, New York. The writer was forty-five. His last book, the boys' adventure Billy Topsail, M.D., sees the return of Dr Luke, complete with requisite note to the reader:
Doctor Luke has often been mistaken for Doctor Wilfred Grenfell of the Deep Sea Mission. That should not be. No incident in this book is a transcript from Doctor Grenfell's long and heroic service.
Duncan had written those words seven months earlier. With the author dead and buried, and the Christmas season approaching, publisher Revell abandoned the script:

Boys' Life, December 1916

Trivia: In 1915, several chapters were gathered, bowdlerized and published under the title Christmas Eve at Swamp's End. Illustrator unknown.

Object: An attractive hardcover in brown boards, its 356 pages are enlivened further with three plates by illustrator George Harding. I purchased my copy four years ago at Attic Books in London, Ontario. Price: $5.00. I'm not entirely certain, but I think the jacket is the oldest I own.

I've seen a variant in green boards. The design will be familiar to Duncan fans.

Access: "HARD TO FIND ORIGINAL 1911 EDITION", trumpets a Michigan bookseller. Don't you believe it; as befits the work of a popular author, The Measure of a Man had a generous print-run. Decent copies –sans jacket – are listed for as little as US$8.00 online. At US$25, the one to buy is inscribed by the author.

Found in thirty-one of our universities and the Kingston-Frontenac Public Library. It can also be downloaded and read online here, but really, don't you want that inscribed copy?

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