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A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

By Irvin S. Cobb 








Wit and Humor 











New York 
George H. Dor an Company 


A Plea for 
Old Cap Collier 


Iruin S. Cobb 

Author of 

Back Home/ "Old Judge Priest" "Speaking 
of Operations" Etc. 

Frontispiece by Tony Sarg 

New York 
George H. Doran Company 


C 5 

Copyright, 1921, 
By George H. Doran Company 

Copyright, IQ20, 
By The Curtis Publishing Company 

Printed in the United States of America 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 




A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

FOR a good many years now I have 
been carrying this idea round with 
me. It was more or less of a loose 
and unformed idea, and it wouldn t jell. 
What brought it round to the solidification 
point was this: Here the other week, being 
half sick, I was laid up over Sunday in a 
small hotel in a small seacoast town. I 
had read all the newspapers and all the 
magazines I could get hold of. The local 
bookstore, of course, was closed. They 
won t let the oysters stay open on Sunday 
in that town. The only literature my fel 
low guests seemed interested in was mail 
order tabs and price currents. 

Finally, when despair was about to claim 
me for her own, I ran across an ancient 
Fifth Reader, all tattered and stained and 
having that smell of age which is common 
to old books and old sheep. I took it up 
to bed with me, and I read it through from 
cover to cover. Long before I was through 
the very idea which for so long had been 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

sloshing round inside of my head this 
idea which, as one might say, had been 
aged in the wood took shape. Then and 
there I decided that the very first chance 
I had I would sit me down and write a 
plea for Old Cap Collier. 

In my youth I was spanked freely and 
frequently for doing many different things 
that were forbidden, and also for doing 
the same thing many different times and 
getting caught doing it. That, of course, 
was before the Boy Scout movement had 
come along to show how easily and how 
sanely a boy s natural restlessness and a 
boy s natural love for adventure may be 
directed into helpful channels; that was 
when nearly everything a normal, active 
boy craved to do was wrong and, there 
fore, held to be a spankable offense. 

This was a general rule in our town. It 
did not especially apply to any particular 
household, but it applied practically to all 
the households with which I was in any 
way familiar. It was a community where 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

an old-fashioned brand of applied theology 
was most strictly applied. Heaven was a 
place which went unanimously Democratic 
every fall, because all the Republicans had 
gone elsewhere. Hell was a place full of 
red-hot coals and clinkered sinners and un- 
baptized babies and a smell like somebody 
cooking ham, with a deputy devil coming 
in of a morning with an asbestos napkin 
draped over his arm and flicking a fire 
proof cockroach off the table cloth and 
leaning across the back of Satan s chair and 
saying: "Good mornin , boss. How re you 
going to have your lost souls this mornin 
fried on one side or turned over?" 

Sunday was three weeks long, and longer 
than that if it rained. About all a fellow 
could do after he d come back from Sun 
day school was to sit round with his feet 
cramped into the shoes and stockings which 
he never wore on week days and with the 
rest of him incased in starchy, uncomfort 
able dress-up clothes just sit round and 
sit round and itch. You couldn t scratch 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

hard either. It was sinful to scratch 
audibly and with good, broad, free strokes, 
which is the only satisfactory way to 
scratch. In our town they didn t spend 
Sunday; they kept the Sabbath, which is 
a very different thing. 

Looking back on my juvenile years it 
seems to me that, generally speaking, when 
spanked I deserved it. But always there 
were two punishable things against w r hich 
being disciplined my youthful spirit re 
volted with a sort of inarticulate sense of 
injustice. One was for violation of the 
Sunday code, which struck me as wrong 
the code, I mean, not the violation 
without knowing exactly why it was 
wrong; and the other, repeated times with 
out number, was when I had been caught 
reading nickul libraries, erroneously re 
ferred to by our elders as dime novels. 

I read them at every chance; so did 
every normal boy of my acquaintance. We 
traded lesser treasures for them; we 
swapped them on the basis of two old 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

volumes for one new one; we maintained 
a clandestine circulating-library system 
which had its branch offices in every 
stable loft in our part of town. The more 
daring among us read them in school be 
hind the shelter of an open geography 
propped up on the desk. 

Shall you ever forget the horror of the 
moment when, carried away on the wings 
of adventure with Nick Carter or Big- Foot 
Wallace or Frank Reade or bully Old Cap, 
you forgot to flash occasional glances of 
cautious inquiry forward in order to make 
sure the teacher was where she properly 
should be, at her desk up in front, and 
read on and on until that subtle sixth sense 
which comes to you when a lot of people 
begin staring at you warned you something 
was amiss, and you looked up and round 
you and found yourself all surrounded by 
a ring of cruel, gloating eyes? 

I say cruel advisedly, because up to a 
certain age children are naturally more 
cruel than tigers. Civilization has pro- 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

vided them with tools, as it were, for prac 
ticing cruelty, whereas the tiger must rely 
only on his teeth and his bare claws. So 
you looked round, feeling that the shadow 
of an impending doom encompassed you, 
and then you realized that for no telling 
how long the teacher had been standing 
just behind you, reading over your shoul 

And at home were you caught in the 
act of reading them, or what from the 
parental standpoint was almost as bad 
in the act of harboring them? I was. 
Housecleaning times, when they found 
them hidden under furniture or tucked 
away on the back shelves of pantry closets, 
I was paddled until I had the feelings of 
a slice of hot, buttered toast somewhat 
scorched on the under side. And each 
time, having been paddled, I was admon 
ished that boys who read dime novels 
only they weren t dime novels at all but 
cost uniformly five cents a copy always 
came to a bad end, growing up to be crimi- 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

nals or Republicans or something equally 
abhorrent. And I was urged to read books 
which would help me to shape my career 
in a proper course. Such books were put 
into my hands, and I loathed them. I 
know now why when I grew up my gorge 
rose and my appetite turned against so- 
called classics. Their style was so much 
like the style of the books which older 
people wanted me to read when I was in 
my early teens. 

Such were the specious statements ad 
vanced by the oldsters. And we had no 
reply for their argument, or if we had one 
could not find the language in which to 
couch it. Besides there was another and 
a deeper reason. A boy, being what he is, 
the most sensitive and the most secretive 
of living creatures regarding his innermost 
emotions, rarely does bare his real thoughts 
to his elders, for they, alas, are not young 
enough to have a fellow feeling, and they 
are too old and they know too much to be 
really wise. 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

What we might have answered, had we 
had the verbal facility and had we not 
feared further painful corporeal measures 
for talking back or what was worse, ridi 
cule was that reading Old Cap Collier 
never yet sent a boy to a bad end. I never 
heard of a boy who ran away from home 
and really made a go of it who was act 
uated at the start by the mckul librury. 
Burning with a sense of injustice, filled 
up with the realization that we were not 
appreciated at home, we often talked of 
running away and going out West to fight 
Indians, but we never did. I remember 
once two of us started for the Far West, 
and got nearly as far as Oak Grove Ceme 
tery, when the dusk of evening impend 
ing we decided to turn back and give 
our parents just one more chance to under 
stand us. 

, What, also, we might have pointed out 
was that in a five-cent story the villain 
was absolutely sure of receiving suitable 
and adequate punishment for his misdeeds. 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

Right then and there, on the spot, he got 
his. And the heroine was always so plu- 
perfectly pure. And the hero always was 
a hero to his finger tips, never doing any 
thing unmanly or wrong or cowardly, and 
always using the most respectful language 
in the presence of the opposite sex. There 
was never any sex problem in a nickiil 
llbrury. There were never any smutty 
words or questionable phrases. If a vil 
lain said "Curse you!" he was going pretty 
far. Any one of us might whet up our 
natural instincts for cruelty on Foxe s Book 
of Martyrs, or read of all manner of un 
mentionable horrors in the Old Testament, 
but except surreptitiously we couldn t walk 
with Nick Carter, whose motives were ever 
pure and who never used the naughty word 
even in the passion of the death grapple 
with the top-booted forces of sinister eviL 
We might have told our parents, had 
we had the words in which to state the case 
and they but the patience to listen, that in a 
nickul llbrury there was logic and the 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

thrill of swift action and the sharp spice 
of adventure. There, invariably virtue was 
rewarded and villainy confounded; there, 
inevitably was the final triumph for law 
and for justice and for the right; there 
embalmed in one thin paper volume, was 
all that Sandford and Merton lacked; all 
that the Rollo books never had. We might 
have told them that though the Leather- 
stocking Tales and Robinson Crusoe and 
Two Years Before the Mast and Ivanhoe 
were all w r ell enough in their way, the 
trouble with them was that they mainly 
were so long-winded. It took so much 
time to get to where the first punch was, 
whereas Ned Buntline or Col. Prentiss 
Ingraham would hand you an exciting jolt 
on the very first page, and sometimes in 
the very first paragraph. 

You take J. Fenimore Cooper now. He 
meant well and he had ideas, but his In 
dians were so everlastingly slow about 
getting under way with their scalping 
operations! Chapter after chapter there 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

was so much fashionable and difficult lan 
guage that the plot was smothered. You 
couldn t see the woods for the trees. 

But it was the accidental finding of an 
ancient and reminiscent volume one Sun 
day in a little hotel which gave me the 
cue to what really made us such confirmed 
rebels against constituted authority, in a 
literary way of speaking. The thing which 
inspired us with hatred for the so-called 
juvenile classic was a thing which struck 
deeper even than the sentiments I have 
been trying to describe. 

The basic reason, the underlying motive, 
lay in the fact that in the schoolbooks of 
our adolescence, and notably in the school 
readers, our young mentalities were fed 
forcibly on a pap which affronted our in 
telligence at the same time that it cloyed 
our adolescent palates. It was not alto 
gether the lack of action; it was more the 
lack of plain common sense in the literary 
spoon victuals which they ladled into us 
at school that caused our youthful souls 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

to revolt. In the final analysis it was this 
more than any other cause which sent us 
up to the haymow for delicious, forbidden 
hours in the company of Calamity Jane 
and Wild Bill Hickok. 

Midway of the old dog-eared reader 
which I picked up that day I came across 
a typical example of the sort of stuff I 
mean. I hadn t seen it before in twenty- 
five years; but now, seeing it, I remem 
bered it as clearly almost as though it had 
been the week before instead of a quarter 
of a century before when for the first time 
it had been brought to my attention. It 
was a piece entitled, The Shipwreck, and 
it began as follows: 

In the winter of 1824 Lieutenant G , 

of the United States Navy, with his beauti 
ful wife and child, embarked in a packet 
at Norfolk bound to South Carolina. 

So far so good. At least, here is a direct 
beginning. A family group is going some 
where. There is an implied promise that 


A Plea for Old Cap Colher 

before they have traveled very far some 
thing of interest to the reader will happen 
to them. Sure enough, the packet runs into 
a storm and founders. As she is going 

down Lieutenant G puts his wife and 

baby into a lifeboat manned by sailors, and 
then there being no room for him in the 
lifeboat he remains behind upon the deck 
of the sinking vessel, while the lifeboat 
puts off for shore. A giant wave overturns 
the burdened cockleshell and he sees its 
passengers engulfed in the waters. Up to 
this point the chronicle has been what a 
chronicle should be. Perhaps the phrase 
ology has been a trifle toploftical, and 
there are a few words in it long enough 
to run as serials, yet at any rate we are 
getting an effect in drama. But bear with 
me while I quote the next paragraph, just 
as I copied it down: 

The wretched husband saw but too dis 
tinctly the destruction of all he held dear. 
But here alas and forever were shut off 
from him all sublunary prospects. He 

[21] " 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

fell upon the deck powerless, senseless, 
a corpse the victim of a sublime sensi 

There s language for you! How differ 
ent it is from that historic passage when 
the crack of Little Sure Shot s rifle rang 
out and another Redskin bit the dust. 
Nothing is said there about anybody hav 
ing his sublunary prospects shut off; noth 
ing about the Redskin becoming the victim 
of a sublime sensibility. In fifteen graphic 
words and in one sentence Little Sure Shot 
croaked him, and then with bated breath 
you moved on to the next paragraph, sure 
of finding in it yet more attractive casual 
ties snappily narrated. 

No, sir! In the nickul librury the 
author did not waste his time and yours 
telling you that an individual on becoming 
a corpse would simultaneously become 
powerless and senseless. He credited your 
intelligence for something. For contrast, 
take the immortal work entitled Deadwood 
Dick of Deadwood; or, The Picked Party; 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

by Edward L. Wheeler, a copy of which 
has just come to my attention again nearly 
thirty years after the time of my first read 
ing of it. Consider the opening para 
graph : 

The sun was just kissing the mountain 
tops that frowned down upon Billy-Goat 
Gulch, and in the aforesaid mighty seam 
in the face of mighty Nature the shadows 
of a warm June night were gathering 

The birds had mostly hushed their songs 
and flown to their nests in the dismal lonely 
pines, and only the tuneful twang of a 
well-played banjo aroused the brooding 
quiet, save it be the shrill, croaking 
screams of a crow, perched upon the top 
of a dead pine, which rose from the nearly 
perpendicular mountain side that retreated 
in the ascending from the gulch bottom. 

That, as I recall, was a powerfully long 
bit of description for a nickul librury, and 
having got it out of his system Mr. 
Wheeler wasted no more valuable space on 
the scenery. From this point on he gave 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

you action action with reason behind it 
and logic to it and the guaranty of a proper 
climax and a satisfactory conclusion to 
follow. Deadwood Dick marched many a 
flower-strewn mile through my young life, 
but to the best of my recollection he never 
shut off anybody s sublunary prospects. If 
a party deserved killing Deadwood just 
naturally up and killed him, and the his 
torian told about it in graphic yet straight 
forward terms of speech; and that was all 
there was to it, and that was all there 
should have been to it. 

At the risk of being termed an iconoclast 
and a smasher of the pure high ideals of 
the olden days, I propose to undertake to 
show that practically all of the preposter 
ous asses and the impossible idiots of litera 
ture found their way into the school readers 
of my generation. With the passage of 
years there may have been some reform 
in this direction, but I dare affirm, with 
out having positive knowledge of the facts, 
that a majority of these half-wits still are 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

being featured in the grammar-grade lit 
erature of the present time. The authors 
of school readers, even modern school 
readers, surely are no smarter than the 
run of grown-ups even, say, as you and as 
I; and we blindly go on holding up as 
examples before the eyes of the young of 
the period the characters and the acts of 
certain popular figures of poetry and prose 
who did but we give them the acid test 
of reason would reveal themselves either 
as incurable idiots, or else as figures in 
scenes and incidents which physically 
could never have occurred. 

You remember, don t you, the school- 
book classic of the noble lad who by rea 
son of his neat dress, and by his use in 
the most casual conversation of the sort 
of language which the late Mr. Henry 
James used when he was writing his very 
Jamesiest, secured a job as a trusted mes 
senger in the large city store or in the city s 
large store, if we are going to be purists 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

about it, as the boy in question undoubtedly 

It seems that he had supported his 
widowed mother and a large family of 
brothers and sisters by shoveling snow and, 
I think, laying brick or something of that 
technical nature. After this lapse of years 
I won t be sure about the bricklaying, but 
at any rate, work was slack in his regular 
line, and so he went to the proprietor 
of this vast retail establishment and pro 
cured a responsible position on the strength 
of his easy and graceful personal address 
and his employment of some of the most 
stylish adjectives in the dictionary. At 
this time he was nearly seven years old 
yes, sir, actually nearly seven. We have 
the word of the schoolbook for it. We 
should have had a second chapter on this 
boy. Probably at nine he was being con 
sidered for president of Yale no, Har 
vard. He would know too much to be 
president of Yale. 

Then there was the familiar instance of 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

the Spartan youth who having stolen a 
fox and hidden it inside his robe calmly 
stood up and let the animal gnaw his vitals 
rather than be caught with it in his pos 
session. But, why? I ask you, why? 
What was the good of it all? What ob 
ject was served? To begin with, the boy 
had absconded with somebody else s fox, 
or with somebody s else fox, which is un 
doubtedly the way a compiler of school 
readers would phrase it. This, right at the 
beginning, makes the morality of the trans 
action highly dubious. In the second 
place, he showed poor taste. If he was 
going to swipe something, why should he 
not have swiped a chicken or something 
else of practical value? 

We waive that point, though, and come 
to the lack of discretion shown by the fox, 
He starts eating his way out through the 
boy, a mussy and difficult procedure, when 
merely by biting an aperture in the tunic 
he could have emerged by the front way 
with ease and dispatch. And what is the 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

final upshot of it all? The boy falls dead, 
with a large unsightly gap in the middle 
of him. Probably, too, he was a boy whose 
parents were raising him for their own 
purposes. As it is, all gnawed up in this 
fashion and deceased besides, he loses his 
attractions for everyone except the under 
taker. The fox presumably has an attack 
of acute indigestion. And there you are! 
Compare the moral of this with the moral 
of any one of the Old Cap Collier series, 
where virtue comes into its own and sanity 
is prevalent throughout and vice gets what 
it deserves, and all. 

In McGuffey s Third Reader, I think it 
was, occurred that story about the small 
boy who lived in Holland among the dikes 
and dams, and one evening he went across 
the country to carry a few illustrated post 
jcards or some equally suitable gift to a 
poor blind man, and on his way back home 
in the twilight he discovered a leak in 
the sea wall. If he went for helg the 
breach might widen while he was gone 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

and the whole structure give way, and then 
the sea would come roaring in, carrying 
death and destruction and windmills and 
wooden shoes and pineapple cheeses on its 
crest. At least, this is the inference one 
gathers from reading Mr. McGuffey s ac 
count of the affair. 

So what does the quick-witted youngster 
do? He shoves his little arm in the crevice 
on the inner side, where already the water 
is trickling through, thus blocking the leak. 
All night long he stays there, one small, 
half-frozen Dutch boy holding back the 
entire North Atlantic. Not until centuries 
later, when Judge Alton B. Parker runs 
for president against Colonel Roosevelt and 
is defeated practically by acclamation, is 
there to be presented so historic and so 
magnificent an example of a contest against 
tremendous odds. In the morning a peas 
ant, going out to mow the tulip beds, finds 
the little fellow crouched at the foot of 
the dike and inquires what ails him. The 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

lad, raising his weary head but wait, I 
shall quote the exact language of the book: 

"I am hindering the sea from running 
in," was the simply reply of the child. 

Simple? I ll say it is! Positively noth 
ing could be simpler unless it be the stark 
simplicity of the mind of an author who 
figures that when the Atlantic Ocean starts 
boring its way through a crack in a sea 
wall you can stop it by plugging the hole 
on the inner side of the sea wall with a 
small boy s arm. Ned Buntline may never 
have enjoyed the vogue among parents and 
teachers that Mr. McGuffey enjoyed, but 
I ll say this for him he knew more about 
the laws of hydraulics than McGuffey ever 

And there was Peter Hurdle, the ragged 
lad who engaged in a long but tiresome 
conversation with the philanthropic and 
inquisitive Mr. Lenox, during the course 
of which it developed that Peter didn t 
want anything. When it came on to storm 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

he got under a tree. When he was hungry 
he ate a raw turnip. Raw turnips, it would 
appear, grew all the year round in the 
fields of the favored land where Peter re 
sided. If the chill winds of autumn blew 
in through one of the holes in Peter s 
trousers they blew right out again through 
another hole. And he didn t care to accept 
the dime which Mr. Lenox in an excess 
of generosity offered him, because, it 
seemed, he already had a dime. When 
it came to being plumb contented there 
probably never was a soul on this earth 
that was the equal of Master Hurdle. He 
even was satisfied with his name, which I 
would regard as the ultimate test. 

Likewise, there was the case of Hugh 
Idle and Mr. Toil. Perhaps you recall 
that moving story? Hugh tries to dodge 
work; wherever he goes he finds Mr. 
Toil in one guise or another but always 
with the same harsh voice and the same 
frowning eyes, bossing some job in a 
manner which would cost him his boss- 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

ship right off the reel in these times when 
union labor is so touchy. And what is 
the moral to be drawn from this narrative? 
I know that all my life I have been try 
ing to get away from work, feeling that 
T was intended for leisure, though never 
finding time somehow to take it up seri 
ously. But what was the use of trying to 
discourage me from this agreeable idea 
back yonder in the formulative period of 
my earlier years? 

In Harper s Fourth Reader, edition of 
1888, I found an article entitled The Dif 
ference Between the Plants and Animals. 
It takes up several pages and includes some 
of the fanciest language the senior Mr. 
Harper could disinter from the un 
abridged. In my own case and I think I 
was no more observant than the average 
urchin of my age I can scarcely remem 
ber a time when I could not readily deter 
mine certain basic distinctions between 
such plants and such animals as a child 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

is likely to encounter in the temperate 
parts of North America. 

While emerging from infancy some of 
my contemporaries may have fallen into 
the error of the little boy who came into 
the house with a haunted look in his eye 
and asked his mother if mulberries had 
six legs apiece and ran round in the dust 
of the road, and when she told him that 
such was not the case with mulberries he 
said: "Then, mother, I feel that I have 
made a mistake." 

To the best of my recollection, I never 
made this mistake, or at least if I did I am 
sure I made no inquiry afterward which 
might tend further to increase my doubts; 
and in any event I am sure that by the 
time I was old enough to stumble over 
Mr. Harper s favorite big words I was 
old enough to tell the difference between 
an ordinary animal say, a house cat and 
any one of the commoner forms of plant 
life, such as, for example, the scaly-bark 
hickory tree, practically at a glance. I ll 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

add this too: Nick Carter never wasted 
any of the golden moments which he and 
I spent together in elucidating for me the 
radical points of difference between the 
plants and the animals. 

In the range of poetry selected by the 
compilers of the readers for my especial 
benefit as I progressed onward from the 
primary class into the grammar grades I 
find on examination of these earlier Amer 
ican authorities an even greater array of 
chuckleheads than appear in the prose di 
visions. I shall pass over the celebrated 
instance as read by us in class in a loud 
tone of voice and without halt for inflec 
tion or the taking of breath of the Turk 
who at midnight in his guarded tent was 
dreaming of the hour when Greece her 
knees in suppliance bent would tremble 
at his power. I remember how vaguely I 
used to wonder who it was that was going 
to grease her knees and why she should 
feel called upon to have them greased at 
all. Also, I shall pass over the instance of 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

Abou Ben Adhem, whose name led all the 
rest in the golden book in which the angel 
was writing. Why shouldn t it have led 
all the rest? A man whose front name 
begins with Ab, whose middle initial is 
B, and whose last name begins with Ad 
will be found leading all the rest in any 
city directory or any telephone list any 
where. Alphabetically organized as he 
was, Mr. Adhem just naturally had to lead; 
and yet for hours on end my teacher con 
sumed her energies and mine in a more 
or less unsuccessful effort to cause me to 
memorize the details as set forth by Mr. 
Leigh Hunt. 

In three separate schoolbooks, each the 
work of a different compilator, I discover 
Sir Walter Scott s poetic contribution 
touching on Young Lochinvar Young 
Lochinvar who came out of the West, the 
same as the.Plumb plan subsequently came, 
and the Hiram Johnson presidential boom 
and the initiative and the referendum and 
the I. W. W. Even in those ancient times 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

the West appears to have been a favorite 
place k>r upsetting things to come from; 
so I can t take issue with Sir Walter there. 
But I do take issue with him where he 

So light to the croupe the fair lady he swung, 
So light to the saddle before her he sprung! 

Even in childhood s hour I am sure I 
must have questioned the ability of Young 
Lochinvar to perform this achievement, for 
I was born and brought up in a horseback- 
riding country. Now in the light of yet 
fuller experience I wish Sir Walter were 
alive to-day so I might argue the question 
out with him. 

Let us consider the statement on its phys 
ical merits solely. Here we have Young 
Lochinvar swinging the lady to the croupe, 
and then he springs to the saddle in front 
of her. Now to do this he must either 
take a long running start and leapfrog 
clear over the lady s head as she sits there, 
and land accurately in the saddle, which 
is scarcely a proper thing to do to any 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

lady, aside from the difficulty of spring 
ing ten or fifteen feet into the air and 
coming down, crotched out, on a given 
spot, or else he must contribute a feat in 
contortion the like of which has never been 
duplicated since. 

To be brutally frank about it, the thing 
just naturally is not possible. I don t care 
if Young Lochinvar was as limber as a 
yard of fresh tripe and he certainly did 
shake a lithesome calf in the measures of 
the dance if Sir Walter, In an earlier 
stanza, is tojbe credited with veracity. Even 
so, I deny that he could have done that 
croupe trick. There isn t a croupier at 
Monte Carlo who could have done it. Buf 
falo Bill couldn t have done it. Ned 
Buntline wouldn t have had Buffalo Bill 
trying to do it. Doug Fairbanks couldn t 
do it. I couldn t do it myself. 

Skipping over Robert Southey s tiresome 
redundancy in spending so much of his 
time and mine, when I was in the Fifth- 
Reader stage, in telling how the waters 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

came down at Ladore when it was a petri 
fied cinch that they, being waters, would 
have to come down, anyhow, I would next 
direct your attention to two of the foremost 
idiots in all the realm of poesy; one a 
young idiot and one an older idiot, prob 
ably with whiskers, but both embalmed 
in verse, and both, mind you, stuck into 
every orthodox reader to be glorified be 
fore the eyes of childhood. I refer to that 
juvenile champion among idiots, the boy 
who stood on the burning deck, and to 
the ship s captain in the poem called The 
Tempest. Let us briefly consider the given 
facts as regards the latter: It was winter 
and it was midnight and a storm was on 
the deep, and the passengers were huddled 
in the cabin and not a soul would dare to 
sleep, and they were shuddering there in 
silence one gathers the silence was so deep 
you could hear them shuddering and the 
stoutest held his breath, which is consider 
able feat, as I can testify, because the 
stouter a fellow gets the harder it is for 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

him to hold his breath for any considerable 
period of time. Very well, then, this is 
the condition of affairs. If ever there was 
a time when those in authority should 
avoid spreading alarm this was the time. 
By all the traditions of the maritime serv 
ice it devolved upon the skipper to remain 
calm, cool and collected. But what does 
the poet reveal to a lot of trusting school 

"We are lost!" the captain shouted, 
As he staggered down the stair. 

He didn t whisper it; he didn t tell it 
to a friend in confidence; he bellowed it 
out at the top of his voice so all the pas 
sengers could hear him. The only possible 
excuse which can be offered for that cap 
tain s behavior is that his staggering was 
due not to the motion of the ship but to 
alcoholic stimulant. Could you imagine 
Little Sure Shot, the Terror of the Paw 
nees, drunk or sober, doing an asinine thing 
like that? Not in ten thousand years, you 
couldn t. But then we must remember 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

that Little Sure Shot, being a moral dime- 
novel hero, never indulged in alcoholic 
beverages under any circumstances. 

The boy who stood on the burning deck 
has been played up as an example of youth 
ful heroism for the benefit of the young 
of our race ever since Mrs. Felicia Doro 
thea Hemans set him down in black and 
white. I deny that he was heroic. I insist 
that he merely was feeble-minded. Let us 
give this youth the careful once-over: The 
scene is the Battle of the Nile. The time 
is August, 1798. When the action of the 
piece begins the boy stands on the burn 
ing deck whence all but him had fled. You 
see, everyone else aboard had had sense 
enough to beat it, but he stuck because his 
father had posted him there. There was 
no good purpose he might serve by stick 
ing, except to furnish added material foi 
the poetess, but like the leather-headed 
young imbecile that he was he stood there 
with his feet getting warmer all the time, 
while the flame that lit the battle s wreck 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

shone round him o er the dead. After 
which : 

There came a burst of thunder sound; 

The boy oh! where was he? 
Ask of the winds, that jar around 

With fragments strewed the sea 

Ask the waves. Ask the fragments. Ask 
Mrs. Hemans. Or, to save time, inquire 
of me. 

He has become totally extinct. He is 
no more and he never was very much. Still 
we need not worry. Mentally he must 
have been from the very outset a liability 
rather than an asset. Had he lived, un 
doubtedly he would have wound up in a 
home for the feeble-minded. It is better 
so, as it is better that he should be spread 
about over the surface of the ocean in 
a broad general way, thus saving all the 
expense and trouble of gathering him up 
and burying him and putting a tombstone 
over him. He was one of the incurables. 

Once upon a time, writing a little piece 
on another subject, I advanced the claim 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

that the champion half-wit of all poetic 
anthology was Sweet Alice, who, as de 
scribed by Mr. English, wept with delight 
when you gave her a smile, and trembled 
in fear at your frown. This of course was 
long before Prohibition came in. These 
times there are many ready to weep with 
delight when you offer to give them a 
smile; but in Mr. English s time and 
Alice s there were plenty of saloons handy. 
I remarked, what an awful kill-joy Alice 
must have been, weeping in a disconcert 
ing manner when somebody smiled in her 
direction and trembling violently should 
anybody so much as merely knit his brow! 
But when I gave Alice first place in the 
list I acted too hastily. Second thought 
should have informed me that undeniably 
the post of honor belonged to the central 
figure of Mr. Henry W. Longfellow s 
poem, Excelsior. I ran across it Excel 
sior, I mean in three different readers the 
other day when I was compiling some of 
the data for this treatise. Naturally it 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

would be featured in all three. It wouldn t 
do to leave Mr. Longfellow s hero out of 
a volume in which space was given to 
such lesser village idiots as Casabianca and 
the Spartan youth. Let us take up this 
sad case verse by verse: 

The shades of night were falling fast, 
As through an Alpine village passed 
A youth, who bore, mid snow and ice, 
A banner with the strange device, 

There we get an accurate pen picture 
of this young man s deplorable state. He 
is climbing a mountain in the dead of 
winter. It is made plain later on that 
he is a stranger in the neighborhood, conse 
quently it is fair to assume that the moun 
tain in question is one he has never climbed 
before. Nobody hired him to climb any 
mountain; he isn t climbing it on a bet 
or because somebody dared him to climb 
one. He is not dressed for mountain climb 
ing. Apparently he is wearing the costume 
in which he escaped from the institution 
where he had been an inrrate a costume 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

consisting simply of low stockings, sandals 
and a kind of flowing woolen nightshirt, 
cut short to begin with and badly shrunken 
in the wash. He has on no rubber boots, 
no sweater, not even a pair of ear muffs. 
He also is bare-headed. Well, any time 
the wearing of hats went out of fashion 
he could have had no use for his head, 

I grant you that in the poem Mr. Long 
fellow does not go into details regarding 
the patient s garb. I am going by the illus 
tration in the reader. The original Mr. 
McGuffey was very strong for illustrations. 
He stuck them in everywhere in his 
readers, whether they matched the themes 
or not. Being as fond of pictures as he 
undoubtedly was, it seems almost a pity 
he did not marry the tattooed lady in a 
circus and then when he got tired of study 
ing her pictorially on one side he could 
ask her to turn around and let him see what 
she had to say on the other side. Perhaps 
he did. I never gleaned much regarding 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

the family history of the McGufTeys. 

Be that as it may, the wardrobe is en 
tirely unsuited for the rigors of the climate 
in Switzerland in winter time. Symptom- 
atically it marks the wearer as a person 
who is mentally lacking. He needs a 
keeper almost as badly as he needs some 
heavy underwear. But this isn t the worst 
of it. Take the banner. It bears the 
single word "Excelsior." The youth is 
going through a strange town late in the 
evening in his nightie, and it winter time, 
carrying a banner advertising a shredded 
wood-fiber commodity which won t be in 
vented until a hundred and fifty years after 
he is dead! 

Can you beat it? You can t even tie it. 

Let us look further into the matter: 

His brow was sad; his eyes beneath 
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath, 
And like a silver clarion rung 
The accents of that unknown tongue, 

Get it, don t you? Even his features fail 
to jibe. His brow is corrugated with grief, 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

but the flashing of the eye denotes a lack 
of intellectual coherence which any alienist 
would diagnose at a glance as evidence of 
total dementia, even were not confirmatory 
proof offered by his action in huckstering 
for a product which doesn t exist, in a 
language which no one present can under 
stand. The most delirious typhoid fever 
patient you ever saw would know better 
than that. 
To continue: 

In happy homes he saw the light 
Of household fires gleam warm and bright; 
Above, the spectral glaciers shone, 
And from his lips escaped a groan, 

The last line gives him away still~more 
completely. He is groaning now, where 
a moment before he was clarioning. A 
bit later, with one of those shifts character 
istic of the mentally unbalanced, his mood 
changes and again he is shouting. He s 
worse than a cuckoo clock, that boy. 

"Try not the Pass/ the old man said; 
"Dark lowers the tempest overhead, 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

The roaring torrent is deep and wide!" 
And loud that clarion voice replied^ 

"Oh stay" the maiden said, "and rest 

Thy weary head upon this breast 1 / 

A tear stood in his bright blue eye, 

But still he answered, with a sigh, 


"Beware the pine-tree s withered branch! 
Beware the awful avalanche!" 
This was the peasant s last Good night; 
A voice replied, far up the height, 

These three verses round out the picture. 
The venerable citizen warns him against 
the Pass; pass privileges up that moun 
tain have all been suspended. A kind- 
hearted maiden tenders hospitalities of a 
most generous nature, considering that she 
never saw the young man before. Some 
people might even go so far as to say 
that she should have been ashamed of her 
self; others, that Mr. Longfellow, in giving 
her away, was guilty of an indelicacy, to 
say the least of it. Possibly she was prac 
ticing up to qualify for membership on 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

the reception committee the next time the 
visiting firemen came to her town or when 
there was going to be an Elks reunion; so 
I for one shall not question her motives. 
She was hospitable let it go at that. The 
peasant couples with his good-night mes 
sage a reference to the danger of falling 
pine wood and also avalanches, which have 
never been pleasant things to meet up with 
when one is traveling on a mountain in 
an opposite direction. 

All about him firelights are gleaming, 
happy families are gathered before the 
hearthstone, and through the windows the 
evening yodel may be heard percolating 
pleasantly. There is every inducement for 
the youth to drop in and rest his poor, 
tired, foolish face and hands and thaw 
out his knee joints and give the maiden 
a chance to make good on that proposition 
of hers. But no, high up above timber 
line he has an engagement with himself 
and Mr. Longfellow to be frozen as stiff 
as a dried herring; and so, now groaning, 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

now with his eye flashing, now with a tear 
undoubtedly a frozen tear standing in 
the eye, now clarioning, now sighing, on 
ward and upward he goes: 

At break of day, as heavenward 
The pious monks of Saint Bernard 
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer, 
A voice cried through the startled aif, 

I ll say this much for him: He certainly 
is hard to kill. He can stay out all night 
in those clothes, with the thermometer 
below zero, and at dawn still be able to 
chirp the only word that is left in his 
vocabulary. He can t last forever though. 
There has to be a finish to this lamentable 
fiasco sometime. We get it: 

A traveler, by the faithful hound, 
Half buried in the snow was found, 
Still grasping in his hand of ice 
That banner with the strange device. 

There in the twilight cold and gray, 
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay, 
And from the sky serene and far, 
A voice fell, like a jailing star, 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

The meteoric voice said "Excelsior!" It 
should have said "Bonehead!" It would 
have said it, too, if Ned Buntline had been 
handling the subject, for he had a sense of 
verities, had Ned. Probably that was one 
of the reasons why they barred his works 
out of all the schoolbooks. 

With the passage of years I rather im 
agine that Lieutenant G , of the United 

States Navy, who went to so much trouble 
and took so many needless pains in order 
to become a corpse may have vanished 
from the school readers. I admit I failed 
to find him in any of the modern editions 
through which I glanced, but I am able 
to report, as a result of my researches, 
that the well-known croupe specialist, 
Young Lochinvar, is still there, and so like 
wise is Casabianca, the total loss; and as 
I said before, I ran across Excelsior three 

Just here the other day, when I was pre 
paring the material for this little book, I 
happened upon an advertisement in a New 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

York paper of an auction sale of a collec 
tion of so-called dime novels, dating back 
to the old Beadle s Boy s Library in the 
early eighties and coming on down through 
the years into the generation when Nick 
and Old Cap were succeeding some of the 
earlier favorites. I read off a few of the 
leading titles upon the list: 

Bronze Jack, the California Thorough 
bred; or, The Lost City of the Basaltic 
Buttes. A strange story of a desperate ad 
venture after fortune in the weird, wild 
Apache land. By Albert W. Aiken. 

Tombstone Dick, the Train Pilot; or, 
The Traitor s Trail. A story of the Arizona 
Wilds. By Ned Buntline. 

The Tarantula of Taos; or, Giant 
George s Revenge. A tale of Sardine-box 
City, Arizona. By Major Sam S. (Buck 
skin Sam) Hall. 

Redtop Rube, the Vigilante Prince; or, 
The Black Regulators of Arizona. By 
Major E. L. St. Vrain. 

A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

Old Grizzly Adams, the Bear Tamer; 
or, The Monarch of the Mountains. 

Deadly Eye and the Prairie Rover. 

Arizona Joe, the Boy Pard of Texas 

Pacific Pete, the Prince of the Revolver. 
Kit Carson, King of the Guides. 

Leadville Nick, the Boy Sport; or, The 
Mad Miner s Revenge. 

Lighthouse Lige; or, The Firebrand of 
the Everglades. 

The Desperate Dozen; or, The Fair 

Nighthawk Kit; or, The Daughter of 
the Ranch. 

Joaquin, the Saddle King. 

Mustang Sam, the Wild Rider of the 

Adventures of Wild Bill, the Pistol 
Prince, from Youth to his Death by As 
sassination. Deeds of Daring, Adventure 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

and Thrilling Incidents in the Life of J. 
B. Hickok, known to the World as Wild 

These titles and many another did I 
read, and reading them my mind slid back 
along a groove in my brain to a certain 
stable loft in a certain Kentucky town, and 
I said to myself that if I had a boy say, 
about twelve or fourteen years old I 
would go to this auction and bid in these 
books and I would back them up and re- 
enforce them with some of the best of the 
collected works of Nick Carter and Cap 
Collier and Nick Carter, Jr., and Frank 
Reade, and I would buy, if I could find 
it anywhere, a certain paper-backed vol 
ume dealing with the life of the James 
boys not Henry and William, but Jesse 
and Frank which I read ever so long ago; 
and I would confer the whole lot of them 
upon that offspring of mine and I would 
say to him: 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

"Here, my son, is something for you; a 
rare and precious gift. Read these vol 
umes openly. Never mind the crude style 
in which most of them are written. It 
can t be any worse than the stilted and 
artificial style in which your school reader 
is written; and, anyhow, if you are ever 
going to be a writer, style is a thing which 
you laboriously must learn, and then hav 
ing acquired added wisdom you will for 
get part of it and crmck the rest of it 
out of the window and acquire a style of 
your own, which merely is another way of 
saying that if you have good taste to start 
with you will have what is called style in 
writing, and if you haven t that sense of 
good taste you won t have a style and noth 
ing can give it to you. 

"Read them for the thrills that are in 
them. Read them, remembering that if 
this country had not had a pioneer breed 
of Buckskin Sams and Deadwood Dicks 
we should have had no native school of 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

dime novelists. Read them for their brisk 
and stirring movement; for the spirit of 
outdoor adventure and life which crowds 
them; for their swift but logical proces 
sions of sequences; for the phases of 
pioneer Americanism they rawly but 
graphically portray, and for their moral 
values. Read them along with your 
Coopers and your Ivanhoe and your Mayne 
Reids. Read them through, and perhaps 
some day, if fortune is kinder to you than 
ever it was to your father, with a back 
ground behind you and a vision before 
you, you may be inspired to sit down and 
write a dime novel of your own almost 
good enough to be worthy of mention in 
the same breath with the two greatest ad 
venture stories dollar-sized dime novels 
is what they really are that ever were 
written; written, both of them, by sure- 
enough writing men, who, I m sure, must 
have based their moods and their modes 
upon the memories of the dime novels 


A Plea for Old Cap Collier 

which they, they in their turn, read when 
they were boys of your age. 

"I refer, my son, to a book called 
Huckleberry Finn, and to a book called 
Treasure Island." 







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