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Pigs is Pigs

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I know a Rock Island family who bought a spectacular new piece of furniture with the unfortunate effect of making all the other tables, chairs, stands and cabinets seem worn and dull. So, I understand the tragedy which befell Ellis Parker Butler of Muscatine, Iowa, back in 1905. That year, Butler wrote a short story that was too good.

Butler was born in Muscatine in 1869 and grew up there. Inspired by Mark Twain, just down the Mississippi, he began writing verses and short humor for the Midland Monthly magazine. In 1905, Butler wrote a light little piece called "Pigs Is Pigs," which was published in The American Magazine.

The story tells how a consignment of guinea pigs is sent to a small-town express agent, who insists on charging the livestock rate for them because "pigs is pigs." In the lengthy ensuing dispute with the shipper, the guinea pigs reproduce so rapidly that they take over the entire express company office.

"On to new pastures," Butler thought, but immediately the story began to proliferate faster than the pigs. It was published as a small book selling for a quarter, went into innumerable editions until more than a million copies had been sold. In 1945, the Modern Library printed it in their collection of The Best American Short Stories. The phrase "pigs is pigs" became a part of American folklore.

Had Ellis Parker Butler not written his pigs story, it is likely he would be remembered for more serious work, including two well-crafted novels, and powerful short stories such as "Bread," a moving account of the importance of bread in the life of one family, or "Interlude" the sensitive story of the effects of a brief but serious illness.

Instead, Butler had to live with his pigs, a heavy shipping charge indeed. When the State Historical Society of Iowa asked him for a copy of "Pigs is Pigs," he complied, but inscribed these words on the flyleaf: “O Iowa, state of my birth,/Accept this book, a quarter's worth./O state of corn, take it from me,/and ever let thy motto be:/Three million yearly for manure,/But not one cent for literature."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.