Book People | December 2008 | Nicholas Basbanes

I See by the Papers

An homage of sorts today to the great Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936), the inimitable Chicago newspaperman whose syndicated column of a century ago was a national sensation, earning the unqualified endorsement of such fans as Teddy Roosevelt, despite the fact that TR was a frequent target of his barbed wit.

Dunne's observations were expressed through the voice of a fictional Irish-American bartender, one Martin Dooley, who held court in a South Side pub and expounded on all matters political, cultural, and social, typically in conversation with his good friend and foil, Mr. Hennessy. What captured the fancy of readers everywhere was the spontaneity and infectious good nature of Mr. Dooley, and the fact that his sardonic words of wisdom were expressed in the barely penetrable voice of a thick Irish brogue.

Dunne wrote some 700 Dooley pieces, a good many of them collected in eight volumes published between 1898 (Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War) and 1919 Mr. Dooley on Making a Will and Other Necessary Evils), all runaway best-sellers of their day in a manner that prefigured the enormous popularity of the great newspaper humorist Art Buchwald, who died last year at 81. Because the Dooley collections are all in the public domain, full texts for most are available online through Google Books or Project Gutenberg. In each instance, just do a search for Finley Peter Dunne, and follow the directions.

Alternatively, you might want to borrow a real copy from the public library, in which case I suggest you go to WorldCat, the online database for materials held in thousands of libraries worldwide. Find the item you are looking for by author, title, keyword, or a combination, plug in your zip code, and the nearest copy near you will be displayed. This is one of the most remarkable tools available online to readers everywhere, and it is absolutely free. I regard it as indispensable to what I do.

But I digress: what prompted me, you might ask, to think about Mr. Dooley today, and to recall his comment about what he had just read in the newspaper ("I see be th' pa-apers," which Dunne tells in the preface to the 1898 collection of the columns that his alter ego read every day "with solemn care")? A couple things: the first, a terrific piece in today's New York Times about the small Brooklyn, NY printing firm that has been awarded the contract to print the invitations for Barack Obam's forthcoming inauguration, the second a review that appeared last week in the Christian Science Monitor, and brought to my attention by another electronic miracle known as Google News Alerts.

The review in question was written seven years ago by the noted reviewer Merle Rubin for my second book, Patience & Fortitude and republished last week with this explanation: The Monitor occasionally reprints book reviews from its archives. This review originally ran on Dec. 27, 2001.

It's hard enough these days to get new books reviewed in the major media, never mind books that have been around for a couple of years. This was one of the most perceptive reviews, I must say, written of P&F, and certainly one of the most gratifying for me to receive as the author. To see it again like this--indeed, to run across it in a fashion that recalls the words of Mr. Dooley--makes for an unforgettable Christmas gift.