Wednesday, May 22, 2019


News of Yore 1905: Winsor McCay on the Creation of "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend"

[When a book of Winsor McCay's "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend" was published a publicity article was sent out to newspapers nationwide. Many newspapers edited it for length, but I think I worked from a pretty complete version for this reprinting. I worked primarily from the version that ran in the Minneapolis Tribune on October 9 1905]

 How The Rarebit Fiend Happened

by "Silas" (Winsor McCay)

Author of "The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend"


 How did the Rarebit Fiend happen?

What can I say about him?

Well, as author of "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend," I have been asked to tell about my work in connection with this "justly celebrated" comic series.
How the Rarebit Fiend came into existence is about as easily explained as it is to tell how a Patagonian field became full of Scotch thistles. I fear I cannot tell the whole story in the space that this paper will permit unless it should decide to run it as a serial for a couple of years. But it will not, and I don't blame the editor -- much. So I will be brief, merely hitting the high places in presenting the sad tale.

In the first place, I am not a funny man. I am not a humorist. I am a plain, ordinary newspaper artist, and that is distinctly a sad affair.

I woke up about ten years ago from a dream which lasted -- well, as long as I can remember. It was a dream that I was to be a "master" whose works would hang on the line a dozen centuries or so hence. My mother used to tell me I was a clown. She knew me better than I did, I guess, for I have since discovered it to be only too true.

I love the serious side, and have done considerable work along that line. No! No! Nothing worth mentioning, but just enough to acquaint myself with the fact that I never was or never will be a "master." I would rather picture a man falling in battle than one falling down stairs. They are both falling, but there is that funny something about the man falling down stairs that I can't keep out of the battle scene.

I once painted an oil of a man dying of thirst in Death valley, and almost every one that visited the exhibition turned away from my sad picture with a smile. I asked an old critic what caused the merriment, and he replied: "Because it's funny: the dying man looks like he is kidding."

From that on I have been drawing a salary as a comic artist.

I feel so flustered and fidgety about receiving the great honor of telling I came to draw "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend" that I hardly know how to start. I can now realize how other "great" authors and artists felt when called upon to tell their troubles, too. However, about a year ago, when nothing disturbed the calm morning air except the noise in the street, the machinery in the building and the yells of the other employees going to and fro in the halls, my brain gave birth to a tiny idea. I blew in its face and it opened its little eyes, and it blinked at me. Swathed in flannels, I tucked it away and began a system of coddling and caresses that threatened my health. After one week's nursing, he was able to go and see the editor.

If that gentleman had used that word that causes so much pain in this world, and which has given me so many pains, that cruel word "unavailable," this great universe would have never known of this great Rarebit Fiend. Although on wobbly legs and covered with pin feathers, he made quite a showing, and the next day readers knew that he had been born.

At first his bed was in my card case, then in a stamp drawer. He soon grew so that from a shoe box filled with cotton he required a soap box filled with saw dust under my desk. I fed him regularly, groomed and petted him fondly and exhibited him semi-weekly, while he kept on growing until today he reaches from coast to coast both ways.

I have partaken of Welsh rarebit (I know the preferred spelling is rabbit, but artists could never spell any more than great men can write, so let it go as it happened to begin) on several occasions with hospitable friends, but not often enough fortunately, to become addicted to the habit. It was not their magnanimity that inspired the birth of this monster now prowling throughout the land, but the tales my friends told of the dreams they had had after retiring that made him a possible quantity.

About the time that my pet was shedding his baby teeth and his mouth looked like an unfinished subway entrance, I inserted a note inviting the public to send in their dreams, as you may remember. In telling this I not only modestly confess my utter inability to furnish food to him, but also that the public assisted me by sending in thousands of good ideas in nourishing my child up to the proportions he has now assumed. For which I am so thankful that to express it would require pages.

As I said before, I am an illustrator. One newspaper artist is sent to a big fire, another to a banquet, another to a railroad wreck or murder. I am assigned to illustrate the rarebit dream of some unfortunate in Hoboken, N.J.; Kokomo, Ind., or Oshkosh, Wis. If the dream is funny, that is not my affair. It is the public who is responsible and not I. I merely tell the story, like any other newsgatherer or reporter.

I come to work in the morning and on opening my mail read of some woman in Albany dreaming of taking a bath in hot tar to beautify her complexion. It might upset me for a minute, but I soon am at work putting it in news shape that readers may know what is going on up state.

Some people take those dreams seriously.

They all should. A dream is no joke. It is a condition in the mind of a sleeping man which, if it existed when he was awake, would land him in the psychopathic ward. The most dignified person will, while innocently slumbering, pass through an apparent and lifelike experience that he awakes weeping, perhaps; perhaps shrieking or laughing over some incident of his dream.

A man comes home early from church, perhaps and without malice aforethought partakes of a luscious rarebit and retires for the night. Three or four hours later he is fighting like a demon with hundreds of hungry Igorrotes who seek him for the succulent rib roasts, steaks, chops and broilers which comprise his general makeup. Not until he bumps his head or barks his shins on some nearby furniture does he awake and breathe a sigh of relief. Then I come along looking for an item for my paper.

All is not rosy, though, with me. I have been unmercifully condemned by some for, as they declare, driving people away from rarebit emporiums. Other say, "Rarebits do not make one dream." My only reply is that I am in the hands of the public.

Mrs. ------ surely would not deliberately lie to me when she writes that after eating a rarebit she dreamed that her husband used her biscuits for paperweights down at his office, and that he had a trained wart hog to do his short hand work.

The dream of the young man who could not keep from laughing, try as he might, when his mother-in-law was being hanged, brought down on me the wrath of one Mr. -----, to whom I can only say, "I did the best I could with that dream."

While I prefer to stick to the facts, in this case, for the old lady's sake, I treated the subject tamely compared to what my correspondent reported.

The real situation was the old lady had twelve married daughters and their twelve husbands formed a lynching bee and -- well, it was cruel to draw. But do you know, I have had that "dream" pronounced at least twenty-five times by married men -- who, however, were particularly confidential in their manner of expressing their appreciation -- as being the best dream I ever drew.

I could say volumes about the odd letters I get. The queer dreams and comments on dreams that come in daily have convinced me that the people like and look for the "Rarebit Fiend." It is a very remarkable news sections of the paper. I try to put the facts just as I receive them. I shall stick to the truth. The "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend" is no joke, satire or burlesque; it is a plain, ordinary every night occurrence in our daily life illustrated and published for the public good.

I go at my work as seriously as my co-worker down the hall who is writing the obituary  notice of some great political organization. I might occasionally be deceived; some one might send in a dream -- a hair raiser -- who, instead of eating a rarebit the night before, had eaten sauerkraut dumplings. In that case I innocently do the rarebits a wrong.

I have enough letters stacked away to pad a carpet for the state of Texas telling me I spell the word wrong; that it should be "rabbit." I wish people would be a little more considerate of my young life. Poor spelling is an artist's prerogative.

I may as well say a few words as to how I feel during the time I am at work on a dream. I am first overcome with a strange bearing down on my shoulders. A something seems to push me to my desk. I may be gazing out of the window, but my mind is far away. I resist gently at first as the desire to gaze possesses me, but presently I find myself struggling with the something with no small effort, when my boss will appear on the scene and say, "Get busy." I then sink into my chair with a somewhat pained expression and mechanically reach for my pencil and go to work.

Yes, I do feel my work. I put my heart into my drawings and act them in imagination as an actor might. Thus when I am illustrating a man having his skeleton pulled out through his mouth by a dentist you can imagine the terrible sufferings I endure.

When I draw a man frantically dodging some monster green baboon every muscle in my body is in full tension. If I am making a man laugh, I grin like a pet fox; if he scowls, I scowl also. The result is I am as busy as a man with eczema counting money. My face looks as though I had St. Vitus dance, my hands working like a shuttlecock and my feet doing a sand jig.

Yes, occasionally I laugh at my own work, but it's more hysteria than mirth. When I have finished I am blue in the face. I am then taken in charge by my trainer, who, with bottle and sponge, quickly revives me. I am placed in the sun to bleach out.

My book, "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend," which is now on the market, promises to add to my millions considerably, as I expect every man, woman and child to buy one if they have the price handy. I am almost tempted to believe a man would steal enough money to purchase one of these books. Libraries throughout the country will do well if they send in their orders early, thereby avoiding any panic which might occur at their doors. Mr. Carnegie, I am told, expects to throw in a carload with every new library. I hope so.

In conclusion, I will say for the rarebit it is a great game. The lady who can make good rarebit might have to chain her husband down when sleep comes to him, but, like glue, he will stick to her through thick and thin.


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