Spring 1991, Volume 8.1
Tugboat Annie, Ephraim Tutt, and Popular Views of the Law
Fred Erisman (Ph.D., U of Minnesota) is Lorraine Sherley Professor of Literature at Texas Christian University. He specializes in popular culture studies with particular emphasis upon children's literature, science fiction, detective fiction, and the Western. He is the author of the Boise Western Writers pamphlet on Tony Hillerman (1989) and a contributor to the Literary History of the American West (1987). Most recently, his articles have appeared in Phaedrus, Extrapolation, and International Review of Children's Literature and Librarianship.
Two of the most durable figures of the popular culture of a generation ago are Tugboat Annie Brennan, master of the deep-sea tug, Narcissus, and Ephraim Tutt, a wily New York attorney with a heart of gold. Sharing the pages of the Saturday Evening Post over a thirty-year period, the two on the surface are as far apart as the settings of their adventures. Tugboat Annie is uncouth, earthy, and brawling—very much the westerner in her dealings with life as she sails the waters of Puget Sound. Ephraim Tutt, Vermont-born and Harvard-educated, is Constance Rourke's Yankee through and through, dead-panned, long-legged, loose-jointed, and transcendently shrewd; indeed, the illustrations by Arthur William Brown that accompany the stories often give him a striking resemblance to the older Ralph Waldo Emerson (Rourke 15-36; Tutt 402).
In other ways, however, the two are very much alike, for the exploits of both serve as useful tools to the investigator of American manners and mores. They suggest, first, the extent to which a widely circulated journal of general appeal served as a vehicle for the communication of ideas to a mass audience in a pre-television era. In its heyday, the Saturday Evening Post entered several millions of American homes each week, supplying its readers with familiar images, palatable information, reliable entertainment, and a quietly democratic perspective on life that served to establish an unstated but genuine sense of national unity (Mott 689). Second, they illuminate issues as pertinent in the present as in their own time: the problems faced by a competent woman making her way in a male-dominated society, and the crucial role of civil liberties in a diverse and democratic society. Third, and most significantly, they serve as dramatic commentaries on law and legal matters for the American public generally, "translating legal abstractions into meaningful human terms" and providing for their readers a reassuring sense of the power and the rightness of the law (Bloomfield 173).
The first Tugboat Annie story appeared in 1931, the creation of Norman Reilly Raine (1895-1971), a Pennsylvania-born journalist and screenwriter. Seventy-four others followed, as did two films and a short-lived television series; however, it is the short stories published in the Saturday Evening Post that establish the character of Annie herself and develop the series' characteristic themes. They are, as Robert Olafson points out, shamelessly formulaic: "In robust, rambunctious, pugnacious, and energetic ways, Tugboat Annie overcomes the simple male chauvinism of some owners and the malevolent trickery of other tugboaters to prove that she is their equal physically, and the master of the tugboater's craft intellectually" ("Norman Reilly Raine, 76, Dead," Olafson 36). Helped by a familiar cast of supporting characters, including Big Sam, the Narcissus's engineer; Pinto, her cook; Alec Severn, Annie's long-suffering employer; and Horatio Bullwinkle, master of the rival tug Salamander, Annie unfailingly brings home the salvage.
How she achieves her triumphs, however, is another matter, for beneath the familiar formula lie some provocative issues. In the largest sense, Annie is a sea-going western hero, as at home afloat as The Virginian is on the prairie, and equipped with much the same austere integrity and competence. She is not above a touch of mild skullduggery when her hand is forced (especially by Bullwinkle), yet, withal, her approach to her work is based "on principles, on honesty, on forthrightness, [and] on consistency" (Introduction," Raine vii). Those qualities she complements with a solid professional competence that, put to the test, sees her through; Alec Severn relies on her judgment on any question of tugboating, and even Bullwinkle, when pressed, concedes her abilities. Indeed, her skill and her directness place her squarely in the western tradition (Raine 180, 290; Cawelti 220).
Emphasizing her professional expertise is her sense of herself as a woman, a quality that gives Annie her first level of significance. Widow of the alcoholic tugboat captain, Terry Brennan, from whom she inherited the Narcissus, she remembers fondly their turbulent life together; however, she sees no conflict between her sex and her profession and asks only to be judged on her expertise. If she conventionally speaks of herself as "a towboat man," she nevertheless defends the capabilities of her sex with all the passion of which she is capable (Raine 2, 94). In "'If the Cap Fits,'" for example, she puts a closed-minded ship-owner in his place in no uncertain terms:
If a god in pants like yerself had been in command o' the Narcissus, ye'd ha' called it a act o' providence or peril o' the sea, and made the best of it. But because a woman was skipper, ye call it poor seamanship and bad judgment, and ye cancel Alec's contract and git me the sack! But don't you forget, me fine-feathered friend...that it was a woman what l'arned you to eat, and talk, and walk, and blow yer nose, and put yer little britches on! (Raine 129)
Woman she is and woman she remains, but it is as towboat master that she insists on being judged, making her one of the earliest of modern feminist advocates in American popular fiction.1
Yet Annie has more to offer than overt action and feminist activism, and therein lies her importance. Earthy, gross, and crude though she may be, she has a profound working knowledge of maritime law, and her explicating the intricacies of a salvage decision is as much a part of the formula as her gorging on Pinto's succulent cooking or her brawling with Bullwinkle. Her very first adventure is resolved when she "[takes] down a dog-eared manual of maritime law, [wets] her thumb lavishly and [turns] over to the required page," pointing unerringly to the ruling that turns the tables on an unscrupulous captain. Other stories establish that her professional library contains, in addition to that dog-eared manual, "a salt-stained volume on admiralty law" and "a slender volume on Shipmasters' Business," books whose rulings she knows intimately and refers to constantly (Raine 16, 130, 201).
That Annie knows her trade is no surprise; the formula that lies behind her characterization demands that she be competent. But her command of the law sets her apart from her formulaic kinsmen. Like them, she acts when action is called for, and is as ready with her fists as with a heaving line. Unlike them, however, she addresses problems on another level as well, using her own native wit and the professional skills that earn her her keep to master the intricacies of one of the most complex forms of law. Raine's message is clear: the law exists to ensure justice, and it is accessible to even the simplest of folk, serving as their shield against hypocrisy, greed, and rascality. If Tugboat Annie can use the law to protect her and her employer's reputations, the stories imply, so, too, can any person.
If Annie's province is the sea and her approach to law intuitive, Ephraim Tutt's bailiwick is the city and his view of the law that of the professional lawyer. First appearing in 1919 and continuing into the mid-1940s, the eighty-three Tutt stories are the work of Arthur C. Train (1875-1945), a practicing attorney who during his career also served as a New York prosecutor and as Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Though the tales never attained the secondary circulation of film and television that the Tugboat Annie stories did, they nevertheless achieved a widespread, admiring, and deeply engaged audience; when Train published Yankee Lawyer: The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt over the signature of "Ephraim Tutt" in 1944, his and the Saturday Evening Post's offices were bombarded with mail from persons throughout the nation, all seeking legal advice from Mr. Tutt (Train, "Should I Apologize?" 11, 52-54). That the stories touched the American imagination is clear.
Like the Tugboat Annie stories, Ephraim Tutt's adventures involve a well-developed background and a familiar cast. Their setting is the New York of the 1920s and 1930s, when machine politics was an accepted fact of life and party faithful with the right connections were assured of comfortable appointments throughout the criminal justice system, from the patrol officer on the street to the judge on the bench. Though Mr. Tutt makes occasional forays out of the city (a number of the stories take place in Pottsville, New York, the village where he began practice; his fishing trips into Canada are regular events; and, in the later stories, he ventures at times as far west as Colorado), he always returns to Manhattan, and his most memorable cases take place among the complex, multiethnic society of the city. Assisted by his partner, Samuel Tutt, his chief clerk, Minerva Wiggin, and the rest of his regular office staff, he takes on cases reflecting that same complexity; the firm's motto is "Never Turn Down a Case," and the record shows that they lived up to their pledge (Train, Tutt and Mr. Tutt 5).
In their way, Mr. Tutt's adventures are as formulaic as those of Tugboat Annie. They have, Train admits, a pattern as precise as a stage play: Act I, which introduces characters and a legal problem; Act II, which provides complication and suspense; and Act III, wherein Mr. Tutt's knowledge of the law saves the day. Behind this formula, however, is a broader vision, for many of the stories derive from Train's own experiences, and Mr. Tutt's practice in great part reflects what Train believes a law practice should be. The nature of that practice is summed up concisely in "The Hand is Quicker than the Eye" (1919), when Minerva Wiggin stops her employer to ask: "I wonder, Mr. Tutt, if you would be willing to take a criminal case where there wouldn't be any prospect of a fee, simply to prevent a possible miscarriage of justice?" (Train, My Day in Court 488-89; Train, The Adventures of Ephraim Tutt 543). Though the fees that come to Tutt & Tutt are often substantial (one of their earliest cases, "Mock Hen and Mock Turtle" , paid twenty thousand dollars), justice is more important than the fee, and any client regardless of sex, economic status, or ethnicity, is assured of representation.
Mr. Tutt's regard for true justice takes on added resonance from the context in which it occurs. His adventures, extending from 1919 until 1945, embrace a period incorporating two notable abuses of American Civil liberties—the "Red Scare" raids and prosecutions engineered by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in 1919-1920, and the isolation and confinement of more than 100,000 Japanese-American citizens by General John L. De Witt during World War II.2 Although neither of these episodes figures explicitly in the stories, both accentuate the general point that Train strives to make. In an era when American society tolerated (and at times actively supported) wholesale infringements of civil liberties, he recognized that "the laws of man, like those of nature often work deep hardship." He sets out, therefore, to articulate for his readers a vision of society and an attorney whose actions are controlled "by technically extra-legal considerations, according to what might be called the laws of God rather than those of Man . . . trying to get at what Wigmore called 'the Justice of the case.'" Speaking for this vision is Ephraim Tutt, "the Quixote who tries to make things what they ought to be in this world of things as they are, who has the courage of his illusions, following the dictates of his heart where his head says there is no way" (Train, My Day in Court 488-89, 115, 489).
The cases of Tutt & Tutt reflect Train's pervasive concern with what should be as opposed to what is, making them thought-provoking reflections upon the many kinds of injustice extant in the world and the ways in which that injustice can—or, at least, should—be confronted. They fall readily into three categories. The first involves human failings at the personal level, examining the abuses that result as arrogance, snobbery, or greed on the part of one individual work hardship on another. "You're Another" (1920) ridicules the social pretensions of a nouveau riche matron even as it comments wryly on the tendency of laws to beget more laws. "'That Sort of Woman'" (1921) uses the priggish Payson Clifford, Jr., to make a point about the supremacy of personal honor over legalistic hair-splitting, and "The Viking's Daughter" (1927) ruminates upon just what constitutes "quality breeding" in a democratic society as the snobbish cereal magnate, Allison Dingle, tries vainly to block his son's engagement to the daughter of a lobster fisherman (Train, Old Man Tutt 76; Train, Adventures of Ephraim Tutt 406-07, 313-17). The second group concerns individual, social, or corporate indifference to the needs or rights of the individual, reflected in what Mr. Tutt calls "the tyranny of money." Even though "Doc" Barrows of "Lallapaloosa Limited" (1919) is an exconvict and an admitted confidence man, when the Horse's Neck Extension Copper Mining Company attempts to shut him out of a hush-hush stock reorganization scheme he is as entitled to the law's protection as any other person. "Saving His Face" (1921) dramatized "the tremendous difficulty under which the poor and insignificant inevitably labor when they have to approach the rich and powerful" as a widow futilely tries to get a hearing from a pompous financier, while, in "Nine Points of the Law" (1924), Mr. Tutt calls on a friendship to block a $500 million construction project in the name of the rights of the original landowner's descendants (Train, Tutt and Mr. Tutt 284; Train, Tut, Tut! Mr. Tutt 168; Train, Adventures of Ephraim Tutt 123-24).
The final category explores the debasing of the law itself, relating Mr. Tutt's defiant opposition to the machinations of corrupt or self-centered public officials and echoing Train's concern with potential threats to American civil liberties. "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" (1920) raises the question of entrapment and how far an agent of law may go to entice a person into committing an illegal act. "The Bloodhound" (1920) introduces Assistant District Attorney William Francis O'Brien, whose Palmer-like ambition and passion for convictions override his regard for the laws of evidence and judicial procedure. A recurring antagonist in the Tutt stories, O'Brien also figures in "Jefferson Was Right" (1937), manipulating procedures to circumstantial evidence, and in "His Honor, the Judge" (1941), in which an honest but pliable and politically vulnerable judge almost becomes a party to the prosecutor's schemes (Train, Adventures of Ephraim Tutt 504-07; Train, Tut, Tut! Mr. Tutt 7-9; Train, Old Man Tutt 13-14; Train, Mr. Tutt at His Best 349-50). Here, more so than in any of the other categories, Mr. Tutt appears at his most vehement, for the O'Briens of the world threaten more than just their defendants; they threaten the nature of law itself.
Opposing the greedy, the indifferent, and the corrupt stands Ephraim Tutt. Called by one critic "a hodge-podge of Puck, Robin Hood, Abraham Lincoln and Uncle Sam," Mr. Tutt in Train's view is "the fellow who evens things up. . . . He fights fire with fire, meets guile with guile, and rights the legal wrong." He uses the law, in short, truly to achieve justice: "To him every case that came into the offices of Tutt & Tutt presented a concrete triangular problem, standing on its own bottom, and exposing three sides, on one of which was inscribed 'What are the facts?' on another 'What's the law?' and on the third 'What then?'" In that "What then?" is the importance of the Tutt stories (Train, My Day in Court 484, 488-89; Train, Tut, Tut! Mr. Tutt 90-91).
As they detail Mr. Tutt's defense of the poor, the maltreated, or the wrongly accused, the stories become miniature seminars on the nature of the law. They point out, to be sure, the complexities, contradictions, and even idiocies of the law, and they freely acknowledge that the law's agents are themselves fallible human beings, as subject to greed, prejudice, or ambition as any other person. Throughout them, however, one theme recurs—that susceptible though the law is to evil applications in evil hands (e.g., those engineered by a Palmer, a De Witt, or an O'Brien), it can, in the end, ultimately do good. Laws, in and of themselves, Mr. Tutt points out, are not infallible: "No State legislature—even the Congress of the United States—is either inspired or inevitably righteous in its edicts, which are often passed for selfish ends. . . . There is nothing sacred in the legal process or in a law merely as such." Thus, in pursuing questions of law, the human element becomes paramount, as Train, in his own voice, remarks: "The really important thing was, not what [a person's] standards were, but that people should have standards at all; in fine that only sympathy and understanding could make life or law bearable" (Tutt 235 [italics added]; Train, My Day in Court 124). This conclusion, embodied in Ephraim Tutt's commonsensical but principled approach to the law, puts the law and lawyers on a reassuringly human level for Train's many readers.
Much of the significance of Tugboat Annie and Ephraim Tutt lies in their sharing the medium of the Saturday Evening Post. Perhaps the most noteworthy mass-circulation magazine of its times, the Post, through its confident and regular emphasis on "business, public affairs, and romance," attracted readers throughout the United States. By the time the Ephraim Tutt stories began to appear, it had a weekly circulation of close to three million copies, making it a broadly appealing, diverse publication that "amused and informed and taught [the] people for a longer time than any other American general magazine" (Mott 688, 696, 716). It was a forum in which Train and (later) Raine could develop their characters in individual, distinctive fashion, yet simultaneously use them to address issues within a national context and a national arena.
Although a seafarer and a woman, Tugboat Annie clearly is cast in the mold of the western hero, whose humor is "broad and masculine, often verging upon locker-room low comedy," but whose values embrace "self-reliance, individualism, acceptance of danger, disdain for class distinctions, pride in country, and a self-imposed obligation to aid those in distress." Living and working in close proximity to physical nature, she challenges human failings—greed, dishonesty, sharp dealing, and presumed male superiority—in forthright fashion, in her exploits reflecting the westerner's spontaneous, intuitive approach to issues (Hutchinson 516-17; Milton 60).
The problems she faces are immediate and specific; she deals with them immediately and specifically, confident in her professional skills but letting her sense of human worth override the niceties of the moment. Thus, for example, though her knowledge of maritime law ultimately resolves the issue in "Tugboat Annie and the Dangerous Cheapskate," her motive in invoking the law is one of outrage at greed's taking precedence over humanity: "The rotten hawser what Bulger provided snapped, off Ship Head," she bellows. "An' if it hadn't been for Bullwinkle an' the fine job he done wid his Salamander, the Chesil Bank would ha' bin a total loss! An' more important, so would seven human lives" (Raine 295). She goes as far as her skills permit, then turns to the law to save the remainder of the day.
Ephraim Tutt, in contrast, is the quintessential Yankee. In his personality and values as in his appearance, he reflects yankee shrewdness, emphasizing the calculating, rational attitude of the easterner. As his cases develop, his Yankee traits come through repeatedly; he emerges as wise, penetrating, observant, and adept at shrewd bargaining, yet not above his own brand of sharp dealing when getting justice for his client demands it. Whereas Annie is impulsive, Mr. Tutt is careful; whereas she is uncouth, he is cultivated. He is in every respect the eastern counterpart of her undeniable westernness, balancing her crudity to make the two series together emblematic of a cohesive, national whole (Milton 60; Rourke 33; Taylor 48).
And yet, as for Annie, human values are the important ones for him, and his regard for justice rather than for law sets him apart from the antagonists whom he confronts. The practice of law, to be sure, provides him his income, but the purpose of that practice is a higher one. "If we're content to abandon humanity either to the laws of nature or to the laws of man the world would be a miserable place to live in," he says; "the only way to attain justice is by doing it ourselves everyday—with our own hands—to each other. . . . If each of us tried to right the wrongs that occur before his eyes. . . there would be little need for law" (Tutt 448-49). Until that time comes, though, he is prepared to take up the law for the good it can do, using it to support individual rights and to set the world right as best he can.
The two together speak in unison to Americans in times of profound social and economic change. The Tutt stories usher in Prohibition and the Red Scare, while those of Tugboat Annie extend from the time of the Depression through World War II. Each series, moreover, takes up problems characteristic of its time and its setting, dealing with them in ways related to that time and place. (Samuel Tutt, offered a glass of "Malt Extract" by his partner, declines ruefully, saying, "I never drank until prohibition, and somehow I can't seem to get used to it.") Yet, by resolving those problems as much by individualistic interpretation of the law as by regionally, chronologically, or socially defined actions, both go on to set their stories in a national context. And, within that context, they affirm Maxwell Bloomfield's assertion that "those who interpret the law to popular audiences . . . perform a valuable service to society." That service is to reassure their readers that though law and lawyers may continue to be suspect and some humans will always succumb to greed and temptation, the Law endures (Train, Tut, Tut! Mr. Tutt 86; Bloomfield 173).3 Accessible to all, available to East or West, innocent or schooled, immigrant or native-born, man or woman, it stands as an expression of the most basic principles of American life. Though it may at times totter under the onslaughts of the selfish and the unprincipled, it will, in the hands of decent citizens, be they amateurs or professionals at its practice, provide a model to lead us all to the best of which we are capable.
1 For a history of women in the American workplace, see Chafe.
2 See Coben and Irons, respectively.
3 For public perceptions of the legal profession, see Mayer and Stern.
Bloomfield, Maxwell. "Law and Lawyers in American Popular Culture." Law and American Literature: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Carl S. Smith, et al. New York: Knopf, 1983. 125-77.
Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
Chafe, William Henry. The American Woman: Her Changing Social Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.
Coben, Stanley. "A Study in Nativism: The American Red Scare of 1919-20." Political Science Quarterly 70 (1964): 52-75.
Hutchinson, W. H. "The Cowboy in Short Fiction." A Literary History of the American West. Ed. Thomas J. Lyon, et al. Fort Worth: Texas Christian UP, 1987. 515-22.
Irons, Peter. Justice At War: The Story of the Japanese-American Internment. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.
Mayer, Martin. The Lawyers. New York: Harper, 1967.
Milton, John R. The Novel of the American West. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1980.
Mott, Frank Luther. "The Saturday Evening Post." A History of American Magazines, 1885-1905. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1957. 671-716.
"Norman Reilly Raine, 76, Dead; Was Creator of Tugboat Annie." New York Times 29 July 1971: 36.
Olafson, Robert B. "Tugboat Annie in the Northwest." Pacific Northwest Forum 5 (1980): 2-4.
Raine, Norman Reilly. Tugboat Annie: Great Stories from the Saturday Evening Post. Indianapolis: Curtis Publishing Co., 1977.
Rourke, Constance. American Humor: A Study of the National Character.  Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, n.d.
Stern, Philip M. Lawyers On Trial. New York: Times Books, 1980.
Taylor, William R. Cavalier and Yankee. New York: Braziller, 1961.
Train, Arthur. The Adventures of Ephraim Tutt. New York: Scribner, 1930.
—. Mr. Tutt at His Best. Ed. Judge Harold R. Medina. New York: Scribner, 1961.
—. My Day in Court. New York: Scribner, 1939.
—. Old Man Tutt. New York: Scribner, 1938.
—. "Should I Apologize?" Saturday Evening Post 26 Feb. 1944: 9+.
—. Tut, Tut! Mr. Tutt. New York: Scribner, 1923.
—. Tutt and Mr. Tutt. New York: Scribner, 1922.
Tutt, Ephraim [pseud. Arthur Train]. Yankee Lawyer: The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt. New York: Scribner, 1943.