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"Jim Bludso" by John Hay

– A source worthy of the famous ballad "John Maynard" by Theodor Fontane?

Text of "Jim Bludso"

In search of elusive source material for Theodor Fontane's ballad "John Maynard" (1886), the coarse and controversial ballad of "Jim Bludso" as found in John Hay's Pike County [Illinois] Ballads (1871) cannot be overlooked.

The overwhelming popularity of Jim Bludso in the 1870's and and in later years among the vast number of Americans (even Teddy Roosevelt as late as 1902 when reading it to his children), can only suggest that any knowledgeable foreign observer of the American scene would of necessity have been familiar with Hay's ballad.

The simplified content of the ballad is that of a helmsman on a steamer who sacrifices his life when the boat catches fire to save the lives of the passengers. This, of course, reminds us of the basic theme in "John Maynard" by Theodor Fontane, and one is particularly struck by the time frame in which this obvious example of American "pop culture" (as contrasted with "high culture") enjoyed its heyday.

The man in the centre is none other than Jim Bludso in all his ugliness, with the "fine" folks (lower left) gossiping about him behind his back!


From American Folklore and Legend, Reader's Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, N.Y./Montreal, 1978, p. 150 Picture credit: Diamond M. Foundation, possibly having some connection with (to quote Google) "the Museum of Texas Tech University : An exhibition of works about people drawn from the Diamond M Fine Art Collection."

For many educated Americans, however, the ballad was a source of dire embarrassment. Certainly Horatio Alger's "John Maynard" stood as a more "dignified" possible source of inspiration for Fontane. Alger's ballad is at the very least an instance of "polite poetry". And there was more in Alger's "John Maynard" for Fontane to draw from. Yet Alger's ballad did not equal Hay's in terms of popularity.

Trying to express the tenor of Hay's ballad in a positive light, we can refer to Edwin P. Whipple, who stated:

"John Hay is, like Bret Harte, a humorist, and his contributions, in Pike County Ballads, to what may be called the poetry of ruffianism, if less subtile in sentiment and characterization than those of his model, have a rough raciness and genuine manliness peculiarly his own."

[ - Harper's New Monthly, March 1876, p. 527]

The legitimate question of what makes for a hero we can empathize with – a good man staying good or a bad man turning good is considered in the following review:

"We can hardly imagine anything more curious as a subject of inquiry than the difficulty experienced by every writer of fiction in the attempt to paint a very good man or woman. It seems to be very easy to depict wicked people. The villains of the play and the novel appear in great variety, with no lack of types of the finest interest. Wickedness seems to be perennially fresh, as it is proverbially engaging. For instance: it would have been quite impossible for John Hay to write an acceptable or impressive poem about a sweet Christian fellow, who had sacrificed his life to save a boat-load of passengers; but he could paint Jim Bludso – a bad man – with a few touches that can never be forgotten. If he had undertaken to describe a good young man, who did not "chew," or drink or swear, who taught a class in the Sunday School, and who lived virtuously with his wife, and rose at last into an act of heroism, he would not have found ten readers; but the rough, coarse, profane wretch, who had one wife at Natches-under-the-hill, and another one up in Pike, becomes at once a memorable hero in his hands." [- Scribners Monthly, An Illustrated Magazine for the People, September 1878, p. 742]

Certainly, the charge of bigamy leveled against Jim exposed the ballad to vociferous attack from religious quarters. Also, the very thought that Jim would shoot straight up to heaven through one crowning act of heroism in spite of the despicable lifestyle he had been want to wallow in struck many Christians as nothing less than "impious". [ - Refer to "The Pike Poetry", The Galaxy, Nov. 1871, p. 641]

"For the doctrine that one virtue can compensate for the absence of another – that bigamy can be compensated by bravery, or infidelity to one's wife be atoned for by fidelity to one's business – we have only horror and disgust. If that is the doctrine in the last stanza of Jim Bludso (as perhaps the popular reader may easily enough have imagined), then it is simply mischievous and odious." – [Scribners Monthly, An Illustrated Magazine for the People, August 1871, p.431]

"Jim Bludso" is a ballad framed in the dialect of Pike County, Illinois, wanting in grammar and orthography, uncouth in word and bearing, the tale of a bigamist and rowdy with one saving grace. In stark contrast to Alger's "John Maynard", it immediately made itself susceptible to "the accolade of orthodox bludgeons" ["The Pike Poetry", ibid, p. 635]. Yet its "dramatic truthfulness of expression and the controversial point" at the very end have assured both its success and popularity ['The Pike Poetry", ibid, p. 640].

Jim Bludso's steamer "The Prairie Belle" is not "The Swallow". Jim is on the "Mississip", not Lake Erie. And Jim likes to race - even if the "Belle"is on her last leg:

"The oldest craft on the line –

With a nigger squat on her safety-valve,

And her furnace crammed, rosin and pine."

At this point two questions arise: Isn't Jim responsible for the fire if he is irresponsibly racing "The Belle"? Secondly, what about the use of "nigger"as a term of opprobrium? And isn't the "nigger" made to look like a fool sitting on a (hot?) safety-valve? [Refer to the Teddy Roosevelt anecdote]. Certainly the latter aspect is sufficient to disqualify Hay's ballad as a pointed example of "bad taste" if viewed from the moral and more egalitarian perspective of the 21st century. It should, however, be noted that not one of the critical reviews dealing with Jim Bludso in the 19th century showed any sensitivity to the social status of black Americans.

Although Jim "never lied", we wonder how he got two wives (unless it was through the mutual consent of the ladies). He does not go to church, and "he weren't no saint". In spite of Jim's failings, Hay provides a didactic closing stanza, as controversial as it is moving.

The gritty tenor of pioneer America – unrefined, lawless, adventurous, challenging, outside the confines of "law and order", fending for itself, and resourceful comes across in Hay's ballad. The very harshness of the surroundings mould the character of its denizens – "diamonds in the rough" who – despite their many imperfections – can sometimes rise to the occasion – no matter how perilous circumstances may be. Jim's ultimate sacrifice was saintly. Whether it got him into heaven is another matter. But it shows that "some pious gentlemen that wouldn't shook hands with him" were definitely no better than Jim, and that "the little guy"in America can sometimes achieve a higher status of moral worth than his so-called "betters". This naive notion of "moral progress"or, if you will, the possibility of a "quantum leap" into heaven was part and parcel of the native optimism of 19th century America. It is still at the core of what America means. This accounts for the inherent worthiness and potential saintliness of many a "Jim Bludso".

(Norman Bary is a retired Gymnasium teacher from Bad Schussenried, Germany)


Illustration & biography of John Hay from Scribners Monthly, An Illustrated Magazine for the People, Vol. 7, Issue 6, April 1874, p. 736.

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