The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Butler, Ellis Parker
(December 5, 1869–September 13, 1937)

–humorist—was the eldest child of Audley Gazzam Butler, a Muscatine, Iowa, bookkeeper, and Adella (Vesey) Butler. For financial and health reasons, Butler's parents sent him at age six to live with an aunt, who home schooled him and taught him to write in the style of classic authors. He began submitting unsigned poems to the Muscatine newspapers. He next tried his hand at writing stories and sold two to a religious magazine that paid him 50 cents each—in penny postcards.

    The elder Butlers economized so their son could enter high school, but with seven younger children to support they had to ask him to look for work after the first year. Barred by his weak heart from riverfront labor, he served variously for the next dozen years as assistant bookkeeper for a spice packager, bill clerk at an oatmeal mill, and salesman for a crockery store and a wholesale grocery.

    At age 16, inspired by Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Butler began slipping humorous "Letters from a Talking Woman" under the door of the Muscatine News at night. He signed them "Elpabu," an amalgam of his given names. A year later he turned his hand to serial fiction under the same pseudonym. The editor had by then learned his identity and revealed it to his counterpart at the Des Moines Register, who wrote a widely circulated editorial dubbing Butler "Iowa's Literary Promise."Realizing that a potential audience lay beyond Muscatine, he began sending material to the Midland Monthly and periodicals with a national circulation.

    In 1896, after eight years of minor sales, Butler received an acceptance from the most prestigious market in the country: the Century Magazine. This convinced him that his destiny lay in New York City as a professional writer. Assured by the editor of a satirical weekly that a job was waiting, he began saving money. In late 1897 he traveled east to begin the literary life–only to find that his employer-to-be had been fired, and the magazine had no place for him.

    For months Butler was despondent. He was used to composing at night to relieve the pressures of a day job: unemployed, he found himself cursed with writer's block. When his savings ran out, he took up advertising sales and then editing for trade papers. These jobs freed his creative side, and he was able to sell all that he wrote. Meanwhile, a Hunter College professor from Muscatine took an interest in him and began recommending him for speaking engagements. Butler quickly built a reputation with both the magazines and that late-19th-century innovation, the Sunday newspaper supplement. By 1899 he was confident enough to return to Muscatine to marry his sweetheart, Ida Zipser, and bring her back to New York with him.

    In these early years Butler devised his first continuing characters: master book salesman Eliph' Hewlett, and Perkins of Portland, a marketer with the soul of a con man. Philo Gubb, "Correspondence-School Detective," would make his debut in 1913; "Swatty" Schwartz in 1915; and boy genius Jibby Jones in 1921. But the initial outing of Mike Flannery, a rule-bound Irish "ixpriss agent," would define Butler's career. "Pigs Is Pigs" (1905), a tall tale of bureaucracy set awry by fast-breeding guinea pigs, was published in the American Magazine and in book form in 1906. For the rest of Butler's life, his public would compare every new creation against this single story—usually in the latter's favor.

    Even as he gained repute as a humorist, Butler was busy in other areas. In 1907 he and Ida moved to Flushing, Queens, then a sleepy suburban village in New York. The former grocer's clerk became a director and then vice president of the town bank and, later, president of its savings and loan. In 1912, angered by the lack of legal recourse for victims of plagiarism or unauthorized adaptation, a dozen writers, including Butler, formed the Authors' League of America (ALA), which remains a powerhouse as the separate Authors League and Writers Guild. Butler served as ALA president (1922-1924) and headed another organization, the Authors Club (1933-1935).

    In his lifetime Ellis Parker Butler sold more than 2,200 works to magazines and newspapers. Of the 40 books to his credit, half are slim volumes containing only one to three stories. Because his publishers claimed that full length works sold better than story collections, many of Butler's "novels" are cobbled together from previously unconnected tales. The exceptions are his finest work, particularly The Jack-Knife Man (1913) and Dominie Dean (1917), emotional dramas set in "Riverbank," his stand-in for 19th-century Muscatine. The earliest of the tales that make up Swatty (1920) are based largely on the doings of a boyhood friend; the humorist himself appears as narrator Georgie.

    By 1930 Butler's health was in decline. In 1936 he and Ida moved from Flushing to their former summer home in Williamsville, Massachusetts. Butler underwent an operation there in the spring of 1937 and died at home in September.
Sources Butler's papers tend to be scattered among those of his famous friends, though large collections exist at the University of Iowa and the New York Public Library. For further biographical detail, see Stanley Kunitz, Twentieth Century Authors (1938); and Katherine Harper, "In Commemoration of Ellis: The Iowa Beginnings of a Great American Humorist," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 84 (2003), 134–42.
Contributor: Katherine Harper

Cite as: Harper, Katherine. "Butler, Ellis Parker" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 21 January 2018