Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936)
Contributing Editor: Charles Fanning
Classroom Issues and Strategies
There are two kinds of pieces here: vignettes of daily life and national commentary. Discuss the aims of each kind, and Dunne's ways of achieving them. The vignettes are like short stories; the commentaries are closer to the traditional newspaper column.
The issue of dialectical writing should be raised. What are the risks entailed? What are the benefits?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Immigrant/ethnic voices in the 1890s. Consider Dunne as presenting "Irish-American" perspectives: Ireland as a colonized country, the perspective on imperialism, reactions against American Anglophilia. The rise to respectability in the new world of Irish immigrants.
Dunne switched gears in 1900, moving to New York and national commentary, leaving the community-based Chicago perspective behind. What did he gain and what did he lose by this shift?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Consider the limits of the weekly newspaper column. How did Dunne work within them and expand the possibilities? Look again at the issue of dialectical writing, and what the quality of these pieces tells us about the level of literacy (very high) assumed in the newspaper audience from the 1890s to World War I.
Newspaper readers, at first in Chicago, and then all across the country in the syndicated post-1900 pieces were Dunne's original audience. In fact, he was the most famous columnist in America from 1900 to 1914. Why was this so?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Useful comparisons can be made with contemporary columnists familiar to the college-age audience, such as Mike Royko, Russell Baker, Dave Barry, Art Buchwald.
Compare also the ethnic perspective of other writers of the eighteen-nineties and subsequently. Dunne's pieces add the Irish-American voice to this chorus.
Compare other nineteenth-century humorists, from Mark Twain to the lesser figures--Artemus Ward, Petroleum V. Nasby, James Russell Lowell in the "Big'low Papers." A comparable twentieth-century figure to Mr. Dooley is Harlem's Jesse B. Semple, or "Simple," the creation of Langston Hughes.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Students may try their hands at writing a short, short story with some of the punch of Dunne's best work, such as "The Wanderers," or writing a column of commentary on national policy comparable to "Immigration," which again in our time is a big issue. Such an exercise should illustrate the genius of the original pieces, which looks so effortless upon first reading.
The most accessible paperback collection of Dunne's Chicago pieces is Charles Fanning, ed. Mr. Dooley and the Chicago Irish: The Autobiography of a Nineteenth-Century Ethnic Group. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1987. The most accessible paperback collection of Dunne's national pieces is Robert Hutchinson, ed. Mr. Dooley on Ivrything and Ivrybody. New York: Dover Press. A recent assessment of Dunne can be found in J. C. Furnas, "The True American Sage." American Scholar 60 (Autumn 1991): 570-74.