(originally published in Redwood Coast Review, Summer 2013)
An Odd, Old Book
On initial examination, Yankee Lawyer: the Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt (Scriber’s, 1943), doesn’t appear in any way peculiar. It seems an ordinary enough book: hardbound, in red cloth with gilt lettering, 464 pages, dust jacket unremarkable. Its ten pages of illustrations include photographs of Tutt at various ages, his mother and his father, and a woman named Esther, to whom the book is dedicated. Completing the impression that this is a work of non-fiction is its Index, comprehensive and detailed. The final touch is the Notice of Copyright, held by Ephraim Tutt, supposedly the book’s author.
The text contains much misdirection and few hints as to Yankee Lawyer’s true nature. The Introduction is signed by one Arthur Train, who admits to having published nearly a hundred stories about his friend Tutt in the Saturday Evening Post, beginning in 1919. Train claims that although classified as fiction, the stories are all based on the real Tutt’s cases.
Tutt, speaking for himself in the course of his “autobiography”, claims that he is writing now in self-defense. He explains that one evening, after dinner with Train and George Lorimer, editor of the Post, he told them of a murder case he had just concluded. His client, the defendant, admitted the crime and Tutt, though his sympathy as well as his duty, was with the man, saw no chance of acquittal. In fact, to his astonishment, because of an odd twist of circumstance worthy of O. Henry, the jury found the shooter not guilty. The details of the story as Tutt tells it make the surprise ending both credible and thought-provoking. (One of Tutt’s great concerns is the slippery relationship between law and justice).
According to Tutt, Train and Lorimer were struck by easy it would be to use the case as the basis for a piece of fiction for the Post. And then, following that, why not a series of stories? And, for that matter, why not use Tutt’s real name? “What a name for a central character,” Lorimer is supposed to have said. “Would you mind our using it?” Casually, Tutt gave permission.
But as the years passed, producing an outpouring of stories, Tutt came to regret his decision. “I can see now that it was a mistake in the first place to have allowed the use of my actual name for that of a fictional character... The ‘Ephraim Tutt’ of popular literature is not myself save in outward form and appearance... The character changes from story to story -- from mountebank to philosopher, from shyster to philanthropist, from law-breaker to upholder of the Constitution... I intended to surrender my privacy. Not my reputation.”
Enhancing the appearance of genuine autobiography is Tutt’s involvement, sometimes in passing, sometimes over long periods of time, with genuine figures of his time. As an undergraduate he takes philosophy at Harvard from William James. Later he becomes a friend of Oliver Wendell Holmes. He has a boyhood chum, an odd fellow named Cal Coolidge, who grows up to become the Calvin Coolidge. When Tutt is invited to the White House he finds Cal to be just as taciturn, conservative and calculating as he ever. Coolidge ponders for a good fifteen seconds or so before responding to Tutt’s question about how it feels to be President of the United States. Finally he says, “Well, you got to be mighty careful.”
The book’s illusion of non-fiction is almost perfect. No actors or photo libraries are credited for any of the illustrations. One small discrepancy appears when, on page 2, Tutt describes his father, Enoch, as a “stern heavily bearded man with a red beak of nose.” The photograph of Enoch which appears on the facing plate is in black and white, so there’s no telling about the nose, but although he has impressive s sideburns, he lacks a beard altogether.
When Yankee Lawyer appeared, Train managed to get the Yale Law Journal to publish his review of it, which begins, “To review the book of a friend is inevitably a delicate and ofttimes a dangerous task.” He is relieved to find that Yankee Lawyer is a wonderful book, containing a “wealth of pungent narrative and a richness of human philosophy.”
Most of the book’s other reviews are equally favorable, although they treat the book as fiction, either explicitly or by implication. On the other hand, when it made the New York Times Best Seller list, which it did three times, the paper, despite having called it a “literary hoax”, categorized it as non-fiction.
In fact, Tutt’s credibility was well established years before the publication of Yankee Lawyer. As a character in Train’s Post stories, he regularly received letters seeking his advice, often accompanied by substantial checks made out to Tutt, not Train, as a retainer for his legal services. It really is a great testament to Arthur Train that his character was so, quite literally, believable to so many people. Perhaps it was the idea of a lawyer who believed in using the law to obtain justice.
Doubtless, there is much of Train in Tutt. Train was a lawyer as well as a writer. The two were close in age. Tutt was born in 1869; Train in 1875. Both went to Harvard. Tutt makes his last appearance in the fourteenth of a series of anthologies, published by Scribner’s in March 1945. Train died on December 22 of that year. There are some significant differences. Tutt carried a torch all his life for the Esther he dedicates the book to. She loved him as well, but they could not marry because she had a husband made dependant on her by a crippling illness. Train was married twice and had four children.
Aside from its interest as a literary curiosity, is Yankee Lawyer: the Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt worth reading today? Many may find it so. The criminal cases are well wrought, entertaining stories. Because of the history in which they are set, the book captures and illuminates the steady course of change in American life from the latter decades of the 19th Century to the beginning of World War II. Tutt worries about the effect one particular technological development is having on politics. He describes “the orators who know that if they shout loud enough and long enough they will convince even themselves of what they say. I believe the curse of the world to be that it is governed by talkers, whose influence has been multiplied a million fold by the radio.”
So, like any good book, Yankee Lawyer: the Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt is many things; in this case, an intriguing artifact, an amusing puzzle, an interesting read and, finally, a meditation on identity, reality and the mysterious charm of illusion.