From: The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years After by Edward William Bok (1863-1930)
Location: Internet Archive; Google Books Date: 1922
Today’s selection is about one of Chicago’s great early humorists and poets, Eugene Field (1850-1895). It comes from the Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography Edward Bok, best known as editor of the Ladies Home Journal and a good friend of Field’s. Field wrote the highly successful column, “Sharps and Flats”, for the Chicago Daily News from 1883 until his untimely death in 1895 at the age of 45. He is also hugly famous for his children’s poetry, which includes the favorite, ”Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.” Bok, writting in the third person, paints an engaging portrait of Field.
EUGENE FIELD’S PRACTICAL JOKES
Eugene Field was one of Edward Bok’s close friends and also his despair, as was likely to be the case with those who were intimate with the Western poet. One day Field said to Bok: “I am going to make you the most widely paragraphed man in America.” The editor passed the remark over, but he was to recall it often as his friend set out to make his boast good.
The fact that Bok was unmarried and the editor of a woman’s magazine appealed strongly to Field’s sense of humor. He knew the editor’s opposition to patent medicines, and so he decided to join the two facts in a paragraph, put on the wire at Chicago, to the effect that the editor was engaged to be married to Miss Lavinia Pinkham, the granddaughter of Mrs. Lydia Pinkham, of patent-medicine fame. The paragraph carefully described Miss Pinkham, the school where she had been educated, her talents, her wealth, etc. Field was wise enough to put the paragraph not in his own column in the Chicago News, lest it be considered in the light of one of his practical jokes, but on the news page of the paper, and he had it put on the Associated Press wire.
He followed this up a few days later with a paragraph announcing Bok’s arrival at a Boston hotel. Then came a paragraph saying that Miss Pinkham was sailing for Paris to buy her trousseau. The paragraphs were worded in the most matter-of-fact manner, and completely fooled the newspapers, even those of Boston. Field was delighted at the success of his joke, and the fact that Bok was in despair over the letters that poured in upon him added to Field’s delight.
He now asked Bok to come to Chicago. “I want you to know some of my cronies,” he wrote. “Julia [his wife] is away, so we will shift for ourselves.” Bok arrived in Chicago one Sunday afternoon, and was to dine at Field’s house that evening. He found a jolly company: James Whitcomb Riley, Sol Smith Russell the actor, Opie Read, and a number of Chicago’s literary men.
When seven o’clock came, some one suggested to Field that something to eat might not be amiss.
“Shortly,” answered the poet. “Wife is out; cook is new, and dinner will be a little late. Be patient.” But at eight o’clock there was still no dinner. Riley began to grow suspicious and slipped down-stairs. He found no one in the kitchen and the range cold. He came back and reported. “Nonsense,” said Field. “It can’t be.” All went down-stairs to find out the truth. “Let’s get supper ourselves,” suggested Russell. Then it was discovered that not a morsel of food was to be found in the refrigerator, closet, or cellar. “That’s a joke on us,” said Field. “Julia has left us without a crumb to eat.”
It was then nine o’clock. Riley and Bok held a council of war and decided to slip out and buy some food, only to find that the front, basement, and back doors were locked and the keys missing! Field was very sober. “Thorough woman, that wife of mine,” he commented. But his friends knew better.
Finally, the Hoosier poet and the Philadelphia editor crawled through one of the basement windows and started on a foraging expedition. Of course, Field lived in a residential section where there were few stores, and on Sunday these were closed. There was nothing to do but to board a down-town car. Finally they found a delicatessen shop open, and the two hungry men amazed the proprietor by nearly buying out his stock.
It was after ten o’clock when Riley and Bok got back to the house with their load of provisions to find every door locked, every curtain drawn, and the bolt sprung on every window. Only the cellar grating remained, and through this the two dropped their bundles and themselves, and appeared in the dining-room, dirty and dishevelled, to find the party at table enjoying a supper which Field had carefully hidden and brought out when they had left the house.
Riley, cold and hungry, and before this time the victim of Field’s practical jokes, was not in a merry humor and began to recite paraphrases of Field’s poems. Field retorted by paraphrasing Riley’s poems, and mimicking the marked characteristics of Riley’s speech. This started Sol Smith Russell, who mimicked both. The fun grew fast and furious, the entire company now took part, Mrs. Field’s dresses were laid under contribution, and Field, Russell, and Riley gave an impromptu play. And it was upon this scene that Mrs. Field, after a continuous ringing of the door-bell and nearly battering down the door, appeared at seven o’clock the next morning!
It was fortunate that Eugene Field had a patient wife; she needed every ounce of patience that she could command. And no one realized this more keenly than did her husband. He once told of a dream he had which illustrated the endurance of his wife.
“I thought,” said Field, “that I had died and gone to heaven. I had some difficulty in getting past St. Peter, who regarded me with doubt and suspicion, and examined my records closely, but finally permitted me to enter the pearly gates. As I walked up the street of the heavenly city, I saw a venerable old man with long gray hair and flowing beard. His benignant face encouraged me to address him. ‘I have just arrived and I am entirely unacquainted,’ I said. ‘May I ask your name ?’
‘”My name,’ he replied, ‘is Job.’
“‘Indeed,’ I exclaimed, ‘are you that Job whom we were taught to revere as the most patient being in the world?’
‘”The same,’ he said, with a shadow of hesitation; ‘I did have quite a reputation for patience once, but I hear that there is a woman now on earth, in Chicago, who has suffered more than I ever did, and she has endured it with great resignation.’
“‘Why,’ said I, ‘that is curious. I am just from earth, and from Chicago, and I do not remember to have heard of her case. What is her name ?’
“‘Mrs. Eugene Field,’ was the reply.
“Just then I awoke,” ended Field.
Related selection: Eugene Field: The Unforgettable Trickster
Photo Credit: DN-0079960, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society