Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

C. J. Finger in Fayetteville: The Last Horizon

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

C. J. Finger in Fayetteville: The Last Horizon

Article excerpt

Charles J. Finger lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for about the last twenty years of his life, from 1920 until 1941. During those years, he wrote more than thirty books as well as many articles. Two of his books for young readers won prestigious literary prizes, and his work was re- viewed in important publications and even praised by H. F. Mencken, who otherwise had little good to say about Arkansas or Arkansans. Finger contributed to two publishing ventures with the goal of improving their readers: the University in Print, popularly called the Fittle Blue Books, which aimed at the common reader; and Journeys Through Bookland, a program of guided reading for children. He also published a magazine, All 's Well, the contents of which were almost totally his own. Considering the precarious economic situation of the era in which he wrote, his success is impressive. For all that, though, his reputation has all but faded away.

Finger figures prominently in lists of Arkansas authors of the nine- teenth and twentieth centuries. But like Murray Sheehan, Opie Read, Oc- tave Thanet, and others who were essentially outsiders to the state, Finger generally wrote disparagingly of Arkansas. He depicted the ignorance, violence, and general cussedness of Arkansans even while he extolled the natural beauty of his adopted state.1 Nevertheless, his reputation as a writ- er earned him an important role in the production of Arkansas: A Guide to the State, the Depression-era Federal Writers' Project publication.2 Fur- thermore, the University of Arkansas, located just a few miles from his Fayetteville farm, thought enough of him to award him an honorary doc- torate.3 Mostly, however, his connection to Arkansas, even to whatever literary Arkansas there was in his day, was minimal. He wrote about his own life experiences and what he had read. He was a writer living in Ar- kansas more than an Arkansas writer.

Wendy T. McElheny wrote a study of Finger's early life, but it ends as he is moving his family to Fayetteville.4 His autobiography, Seven Hori- zons, provides a general and probably heavily-edited version of his life story to 1930. Nevertheless, it is probably the best source we have for some episodes, though he said on the first page that "this story cannot be cluttered up with dates." He also admitted in the introduction that it had been necessary to blur the identities of several whom he described, be- cause their later lives were so different from when he knew them.5

Finger's seven horizons represented stages of his life. The first few horizons cover his boyhood and young manhood. Bom in Willesden, En- gland, on December 25, 1867, he was the son of immigrants.6 His father and namesake was a German tailor and his mother an Irishwoman, née Julia Connolly. He enrolled at King's College, London, and in his late teens studied music in Frankfurt, Germany. Although he outgrew many Victorian values, his tastes in literature and his ideas of character and personal morality remained rooted in that era. As he told it, his schooling was not much different from that described in Charles Dickens's nov- els."Nine-tenths of our school time was spent in non-essentials. . . . I . . . paid no attention at all while labored expositions went forward. . . . But, the lesson being ended, I would ask some older boy to show me how he did the problem, and in a few swift and homely words ... he would make everything clear."7

When his parents emigrated to the United States in 1887, Finger re- mained in England, supporting himself with odd jobs including reading to an eccentric, playing the organ, and leading a boys' choir. A friend in- troduced him to the London Polytechnic, a cross between an educational institution and a men's club catering to the working classes, "a place of plurality of development, muscular, intellectual, emotional."8 It was "a club not at all exclusive, with a side line of educational facilities in the way of night classes, by which young men of ambition might prepare themselves for various trades or professions on which their hearts were set, though circumstances had thrust them into spheres for which they were not fitted by inclination. …

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