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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Finley Peter Dunne

Born to Irish immigrants on Chicago's West Side in 1867, Finley Peter Dunne began a career as a newspaperman in the city in 1884. After working on six different dailies, he settled in as the precocious editorial chair at the Chicago Evening Post in 1892. There, he imagined himself into the character of Martin Dooley, whose 750-word monologues (delivered to genial politician John McKenna or long-suffering millworker Malachi Hennessy) became a Chicago tradition. The last in a series of dialect experiments by his creator, Mr. Dooley succeeded Dunne's Colonel Malachi McNeery, a fictional downtown Chicago barkeeper who had become a popular Post feature during the World's Fair of 1893. Unlike the cosmopolitan McNeery, Mr. Dooley was placed on Chicago's South Side, in the Irish working-class neighborhood known as Bridgeport.

Between 1893 and 1900, when Dunne moved on to New York and a different sort of career as a satirist of our national life, some 300 Dooley pieces appeared in Chicago newspapers. Taken together, they form a coherent body of work, in which a vivid, detailed world comes into existence—that of Bridgeport, a self-contained immigrant culture with its own set of customs and ceremonies, and a social structure rooted in family, geography, and occupation.

The Chicago Dooley pieces contain valuable chunks of social history and pioneering contributions to the development of literary realism in America. Dunne takes the late-nineteenth-century journalistic phenomenon of urban local color and extends it, through his feeling for place and community, to evoke Bridgeport as the most solidly realized ethnic neighborhood in nineteenth-century American literature. He takes the realist's faith in the common man as literary subject and creates sympathetic, dignified, even heroic characters, plausibly placed in a working-class immigrant neighborhood. And finally, place, community, and character are all embodied in the vernacular voice of a sixty-year-old, smiling public-house man, the first such dialect voice to transcend the stereotypes of "stage-Irish" ethnic humor. Throughout the 1890s, Mr. Dooley gave Chicagoans a weekly example of the potential for serious fiction of common speech and everyday life. In his way, Dunne was as much a trailblazer into the American city as a setting for literature as Theodore Dreiser or Stephen Crane. Actually, he adds a dimension lacking in the work of both of these better known writers. Unlike those archetypal lost souls in the alien city, Dreiser's Carrie Meeber and Crane's Maggie, Mr. Dooley is relatively comfortable in Bridgeport. He proves that the city can be a home.

Dunne's career took a sharp turn in 1898, when Mr. Dooley's satirical coverage of the Spanish-American War brought him to the attention of readers outside Chicago. Beginning with his scoop of "Cousin George" Dewey's victory at Manila, Mr. Dooley's reports of military and political bungling during the "splendid little war" were widely reprinted, and national syndication soon followed. By the time Dunne moved to New York in 1900, Mr. Dooley was the most popular figure in American journalism. From this point until World War I, Dunne's gadfly mind ranged over the spectrum of newsworthy events and characters, both national and international: from Teddy Roosevelt's health fads to Andrew Carnegie's passion for libraries; from the invariable silliness of politics to society doings at Newport; from the Boer and Boxer Rebellions abroad to the so-called Negro, Indian, and immigration problems in the United States.

Mr. Dooley's perspective was consistently skeptical and critical. The salutary effect of most pieces was the exposure of affectation and hypocrisy through undercutting humor and common sense. The most frequently quoted Dooleyisms indicate this thrust. Teddy Roosevelt's egocentric account of the Rough Riders is retitled, "Alone in Cuba." The rationale of American imperialists becomes "Hands acrost th' sea an' into somewan else's pocket." High Court solemnity is undercut with a memorable phrase: "America follows th' flag, but th' Supreme Court follows th' illiction returns." A fanatic is defined as "a man that does what he thinks th' Lord wud do if He knew th' facts iv th' case." Although he joined Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens in taking over the American Magazine in 1906, Dunne was not himself a progressive reformer. He viewed the world as irrevocably fallen and unimprovable, and many Dooley pieces reflect their author's tendency toward fatalism. More pronounced in the early Chicago work than in the lighter national commentary, Dunne's darker side may be explained by his roots in the oppressed, colonized culture of Ireland and his journalist's education into the harsh realities of nineteenth-century urban life.

The pieces in the anthology represent both Dunne's Chicago work—his pioneering realistic sketches of an urban ethnic community—and his national phase, which includes some of the best social and political commentary ever written in America.

Charles Fanning
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

In the Heath Anthology
The Piano in the Parlor (1895)
The Popularity of Firemen (1895)
The Wanderers (1895)
Immigration (1902)

Other Works
Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War (1868)
Mr. Dooley in the Hearts of His Countrymen (1899)
Mr. Dooley's Philosophy (1900)
Mr. Dooley's Opinions (1901)
Observations by Mr. Dooley (1902)
Dissertations by Mr. Dooley (1906)
Mr. Dooley Says (1910)
Mr. Dooley on Making a Will and Other Necessary Evils (1919)

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Literature Who's Who
Collection of "Mr. Dooley" texts.

Secondary Sources

Elmer Ellis, Mr. Dooley's America: A Life of Finley Peter Dunne, 1941

Charles Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne and Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years, 1978

Charles Fanning, The Irish Voice in America, second edition, 2000