Monday 12 March 2012

On the Vernacular Voice

Rural Minnesota 1937: lumberjacks in a saloon
There’ve been a number of books written on what you might call the Huck Finn or Riddley Walker principle: written, that is, in the first person voice of an uneducated but lively narrator. You can think of plenty, I’m sure - but Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy springs to mind, as does Moira Young’s 'The Blood Red Road' and Caroline Lawrence's 'The Case of the Deadly Desperadoes' - and I’m wrestling with one myself which should see the light of day in a year or so.

It’s not an easy thing to do, so it’s good to look outside fiction at the real thing from time to time.

In a book called ‘Folklore on the American Land’ by Duncan Emrich (which I blogged about a couple of years ago in a post called 'Knee Deep in August'), Chapter Four is given over to what he calls ‘A Manuscript of the Folk Language’ written by ‘a gentleman by the name of Samuel M Van Swearengen’ whom he met while researching folk songs -

- in the Windsor Hotel on Denver’s Larimer Street. The Windsor, as anyone who lived in Denver at the time knows, was the most elegant hostelry on skid row. To it flocked old prospectors…cowboys who remembered the days of the long trails north from texas, one time gamblers who spoke of dust and thousands, and old age pensioners who qualified for the munificent largesse of the state of Colorado. Sam Van Swearengen was one of those last. …He had been born in Chariton County, Missouri, in 1869, and was seventy-two years old in the Denver of 1941.

Emrich and Sam got friendly.  “He was lonely, and my wife and I gradually became his ‘children’ - he so addressed us in letters” - and after a while Sam diffidently handed Emrich a manuscript he’d been typing out about his own life. Here is the beginning exactly as typed:

In Writing This Book I Have Carictorized It In The Best Manner Posible For Me To Remenber As I Am A Man of 66. Years Of Age And Did Never Keep No Dairie Of The Dayley Happenings As I Should Of Did But Nevver Thinking Of Writing This Book, I Just Have To Go Back In Memory As Fare As Posible And Give The Facts As Best I Can Remember I Was Born In Chariton County Misouri on January 19Th 1899. And Whas About 18 Mounths Old When My Mother Died She Died Leaving My Self And My Little Baby Brother Ho Whas About Two Mounths Old At Her Death, And My Father Not Beeing Very Well Fixed With The Necesary Things Of Life My Grand Parrents Taken Me And My Brother To Raise And Everything Went Good Tell About Four Years Later My Grand Mother Died Leaving US To The Murcy And Care Of Aunts And Uncle As For Whitch Had No Experience In Raising Of Children And Some Of Them Whas Only Children Them Selves

Emrich says,

I forgot about folk songs and encouraged Van Swearengen to go ahead and beat out some more of his life on his old turret-revolving Oliver typewriter, a relic salvaged from earlier, dining car days on the railroad. Even with the problem of capitals, to which he clung, and an aged hunt-and-peck system, the work progressed more rapidly for him than if he had attempted writing in a slow, longhand scrawl. Writing with pen and paper was labor. His schooling had been small.

(I can attest to this from my experience with Jean, see my post on 'The Power of Story'.)

Texas schoolboys, 1943

In all, Sam’s manuscript ran to 272 single spaced pages, and covered his whole life from birth and boyhood on.  Emrich continues:

He covers his life on the farm in Missouri, his brief schooling, his boyhood pleasures trapping and duck-hunting, and the hardships of his early days. He reviews his various jobs as a young man: making barrel hoops, work on the railroad, a job at the Armour plant in Kansas City, his ‘corear' as butcher and grocer, work as a dining car steward. He tackles his marital problems with candor: “How The Holy Roolers Stole My Wife.” … And he closes the manuscript with some fine, wild haymakes directed at hypocritical church people and the government of Colorado…

Here are some extracts, punctuated by Emrich and with capitals reduced.

The Wild Irish Minister at the Country School House.

Well I remember, in pioneer days in old Mo, when thire whas a church in about every hundred squire miles, and in them days the school houses whas used extencivley for religious services. And the people all knew automaticly the church days for certain ministers, and thay would all hitch up thayer ox teaims and some times start before day light on Sundays to church…

Adobe church, New Mexico, with graves

[There was] a minister widely known as the Wild Irishman. His name reaily wear Charley Davis but he whas known greater by his alias name as the Wild Irishman. And in them days I guess he whas thought to be the top minister, for it seemed that everybody that whas church inclined whould try to hear him, and would pour in for miles around.

However, the Wild Irishman liked his tipple, especially Sam’s grandfather’s moonshine whisky.

And, of corse, this old Irish minister whas a full fledged Irishman...and if you know the Irish, you know what thay railly do like.  And it has occurred to me that if thay will not pertake of the forbidden fruit, that he is not a full fledged Irishman. And I never will forget a old German man that used to go to hear the Wild Irishman preach. And at this special time the old German happened to be thire, and sed when the Wild Irishman got started, ‘he schust could show you Jesus Christ and the angels chust flooting in the air.’ And thire was the throne of God as plain as if it whas. And he showed them all the conveniences that a man had what was a church member, and shoed them all the different departments that thire was in haven. He showed the departments whire the people whas kept that had never sinned, and whire the people was held that had sined just a little, and whire the people was kept that had bin sinners tell thay foundout that that wear going to die. And that preacher told them that thay whas punished according to his deeds, and told them that the less a man sined, the less he whas punished. And he then, in return, showed them hell and showed them what a terrible place hell wear. And he [the old German] said, “Vell, I shust could see hell and de devell shust as plain as if I wear reaily in hell.” And I will admit my self he could show you a picture of things tell thire would be sompthing funny about it. But he nevver could nor he never would undertake this untell he whas just three sheets in the wind.

And that, my fellow writers, is what we're aiming at, though in my opinion Mr Samuel M Van Swearengen has us beat, hands down.  His narrative voice is not naïve, even if it may sound that way at first. We should beware if we suppose that. It’s a rich voice, a voice of wisdom and humour, the voice of a man who knows exactly who he is and exactly what he thinks, and has a wealth of experience to draw on that most of us will never match.

All photos from Duncan Emrich's book 'Folklore on the American Land'


  1. Wonderful! You are so right, the thing to do is to go back to the source wherever possible.Now if only the Wild Irishman had written his memoirs...

  2. There is so much to what you say here. I too enjoy this form of narrative voice. But it's mighty tricky to pull off. As you clearly show here.