An Introduction to Peglerology, by John Finneran

An Introduction to Peglerology

by John Finneran

(Special to this web site. January, 2001.)

'T was several years ago, when I was reading about other things, I used to occasionally come across the melodious and utterly improbable name of Westbrook Pegler; and the name stuck in my head for a number of reasons: there was first of all the name itself with its Brahmin, patrician, seemingly made-up first name of Westbrook, which would seem to belong to some upper-class 19th Century poet, and its short, working-class last name of Pegler, which would seem to belong to a professional boxer.

And besides the sound of the name, the context was usually intriguing. First, it was almost always as an off-hand, by-the-way sort of reference, and usually a disparaging one ("notorious guttersnipe" or the like), and usually it referred to the Pegler style of writing, which I was able to gather was very powerful and characteristic and utterly unlike the style of anyone else.

But, and here was the maddening part, never would these offhand references explain just what the Pegler style was; they all seemed to just assume it was so well known as not to need any further explanation, and at the time they were written, this may have been true. But I decided myself to see if I could track down some of the writings of this guy Pegler and see if I could determine for myself just what the Pegler style was.

Time went by and I was fairly successful in this endeavor. I found a collection of Pegler's columns called The Dissenting Opinions of Mister Westbrook Pegler in my college library. More time went by and I found and bought 'T Ain't Right and George Spelvin, American and Fireside Chats, the only other collections of Pegler's columns. I also found and bought biographies of Pegler called Pegler: Angry Man of the Press by Oliver Pilat and Fair Enough by Finis Farr. All of which allows me to now consider myself moderately knowledgeable on the subject of Westbrook Pegler.

So, to cover the basics: James Westbrook Pegler (1894 - 1969) was a newspaper columnist from the 1910s through the 1960s, with his greatest influence probably in the '30s and '40s. He began as a sports writer in the '20s, and became a general interest columnist in the '30s. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1941 for reporting on corrupt union leaders. Two Pegler quotations are still often cited today: the first is from his days as a sports writer, when he wrote of the fur-cladded Yale fans who "rose as one raccoon"; the second is his characterization of the the '20s as "The Era of Wonderful Nonsense".

So what is the Pegler style? It's not that easy to describe, of course, but I'd say that the main characteristic is its changing rhythm: Pegler uses short, simple words most of the time, but instersperces them with slang expressions and big, multisyllabic words at the most unexpected times, throwing the reader off balance and catching his attention whenever his mind threatens to wander. The Pegler style is punchy, exciting, and, often, very funny.

A fine example of Pegler's stylistic virtuosity is "Mrs. Spelvin Speaks Her Mind", where Pegler moves effortlessly back and forth between mock pompous tones for an émigré Austrian doktor and a shrill lady columnist and an "everyman" American tone for Mr. and Mrs. Spelvin. And, since I'm on the subject, I should say a word about George and Mrs. Spelvin, Americans. These are fictitious characters introduced and occasionally used by Pegler to make satiric points about various political and social going-ons in the world. Other than Finley Peter Dunne with Mr. Dooley, I cannot think of another columnist who employed fictitious spokesmen so effectively.

Politically, Pegler is usually labelled right-wing, but this is an over-simplification. In his earliest years, Pegler was a liberal (he was a strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, for example), but he was never a conventional liberal; just as as he became more conservative, he was never a conventional conservative. There was a certain consistency in his positions: he saw himself as a spokesman for the little guy, whether against the corporate bosses or the union bosses. He was utterly fearless in taking on adversaries, and came in time to oppose more and more things, sometimes brilliantly, and sometimes using highly dubious arguments and interpretations of fact. He was an early opponent of Hitler and Mussolini. He came in time to oppose all the presidents of his time: Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. In his final years, he lost his national column and began writing for increasingly more marginal publications until his death in 1969.

Now, I learned about Pegler mainly in the early '90s. As the '90s wore on, technology advanced: Al Gore invented the Internet, and people began to put up websites of all sorts of exotic interests ("This is a picture of me. This is a picture of my cat, Fluffy. This is Fluffy and myself taking the car to the supermarket. I do wish Fluffy would signal before switching lanes. More updates coming soon.").

Which brings us to today: for amongst the myriads of sites out there, I haven't found any devoted to Pegler exclusively. Thus my impetus to create the website you are currently beholding. I'll be adding more articles occasionally, so check back from time to time, and, in the meantime, enjoy the current collection of writings of the controversial, immensely talented, sometimes wrong, but never dull, Westbrook Pegler.

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