JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY.COM

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HAPPY REMEMBRANCES of JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY

Yes, Happy Remembrance of YOU James Whitcomb Riley, America's Children's Poet and the poet of the Hoosier people wherever they may be around the world.  Riley is, you see, the "Hoosier Poet."  "Hoosier" is not just a name for Indiana folk.  No, it is the name for people who are humble before God and hardworking despite suffering all that life throws at them. They are sympathetic with the plight of  others and tolerant beyond measure of race, creed,  gender, orientation or social status. Each Hoosier keeps an eye out for trouble but hopes and prays that none hits him or her. The themes of the poetry of the "Hoosier Poet" reflect this kenotic outlook. For some fun "starters" with James Whitcomb Riley check out the following selections from his biography: James Whitcomb Riley: The Poet as Flying Islands of the Night by Thomas E.Q. Williams, 1999. (used by permission of the author).

Riley the Prankster
Man of Humor
America's Most Famous Hoax Poem
Hoosier Deutsch Boy
Ancestry
Youth
Beloved Nellie
Mother Love
The Passing of the Outhouse
Riley Prank Changes Course of the Presidency
The Funniest Story Mark Twain Ever Heard
Little Orphant Annie's Obituary

U.S. CAPITAL SUBURB HONORS HOME VISITED BY RILEY

Riley stays when the poet went to Washington DC to visit his friend President Benjamin Harrison have become a talking point at Falls Church, Virginia and the "Hoosier Poet" is included in a new town brochure describing its Victorian past. The home, "Cherry Hill" at 312 Park Avenue, was owned by Riley's uncle, Judge Joseph Riley. The "Judge" Riley was the incorporator of the town and set up its public school system. Our poet stayed there when he was summoned for "readings" of his poetry in the Washington DC area or for "state" entertainments. The home is now a museum.

WHAT HAPPENED???

Greenfield IN used to have a commemorative plaque emblazoned on a rock at Riley Park marking the spot of Riley's "Ole Swimmin' Hole." The stone is there but the plaque is gone as well as the words on it which would remind the American people of their humble pioneer beginnings and their joys in life such as a dip in a crick. (creek to non-Hoosiers). Yes, there was once such a time when the kids splashed in a crick instead of flashed IPods 24/7 or buried themselves in Facebook. The presently unmarked spot once attracted hundreds of tourists annually from around the nation. It was a revered place where one might meditate on the simple lifestyle of the children of the American frontier. Does anyone else miss the reminder of an earlier obliterated time?

LABELING THE POET JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY
Quit Williams, B.A. Yale University, Amer. Studies

     Riley is one of the most misunderstood poets of all time.  For many years from 1883 with the publication of “The Old Swimmin’-Hole and ‘Leven More Poems” until his death on July 22, 1916, when the American people sought out a voice of self-expression they summoned James Whitcomb Riley.  Riley devoted his bachelor life to meeting this duty. I have carried on a friendly but confrontive conversation with a Whitman scholar in academia for years who relegates Riley to a backbench in his university poetry classes. But – I say - what about the poet who expressed America for its busy growing population?
     The major problem is one of pigeonholing Riley.  Those who have tried to label Riley have made terrible mistakes.  Riley was not just a “Children’s Poet,” or “America’s Nature Poet,” or a local phenomenon as a “Hoosier Poet.”  Nor was he simply a voice of either national piety or pride.   He straddled all of these titles and an argument can be made for each of them.  My own feeling is that his despair at his personal life resulted in his most trenchant poetry.
     Be that as it may, I would propose that if one is looking for a “label” for the hugely popular poet he might well be deemed “The Poet of a Dynamically Emerging Self-Empowering American People.”
     The title is probably much too long to be even recollected but it is seems the only title broad enough to encompass the vast stock of Riley poetry.  It also includes the realm of almost impossible expectation that Riley faced as a public poet dealing with a personal life of frustration and hurt.  Public veneration was Riley’s relief from his alcoholism and personal weariness. He obtained forgiveness for his personal faults by expressing and forging America’s self-image. The poetry was so powerful and compelling that America responded to it and was encouraged to see itself as not merely a powerful country but also a radically humanizing force in a violent and sometimes human rights restrictive world. Riley was forgiven his personal faults because America so desperately needed a voice to express its emergence as a unified people out of disparate immigrations, clashing cultural backgrounds,  broken hopes due to extreme pioneer hardship as America moved west toward the Pacific Ocean and from a horrible Civil War that divided not just the nation but also almost every community. Riley offered his voice and gave his life over to providing a literary expression that accommodated the shared American dynamic of life.
     How in the world could any poet occupy such a role?  
     I think the answer lies in his resort to the imagery of life faced by the American people. He saw the American people embedded in their situation on the North American continent, nurturing its land and harmonizing its productivity into the goal of turning America into a place of plenty and hope for all its pioneer peoples.
    American might tear itself apart over economic dislocations or class distinctions, industrialism, banking practices or monetary policies, slavery or anything else. But Americans could share a common understanding of their situation as a people.  It took a genius to pull apart the great rendings of contentious issues in order to help Americans understand that they shared something more basic than their divisive life choices.  They shared the dynamic of being members of an emergent people forged out of diverse roots and backgrounds.
     America identified itself as a result of Riley poetry.  The identity was not as fans of Riley.  That would have been an idolatry of some sort. 
     America understood itself thematically as a result of Riley poetry.
     All Americans saw themselves as gifted with a great bounty of land.   They saw themselves as a people with an important future.  They recognized that their children were their chief resource.  They also refused prejudice in favor of humility as opposed to goals of self-aggrandizement. The result of all of this was a lifting up of concern for others as a chief national priority along with a demand that all have equal opportunities to participate in the American dream. The poetry of James Whitcomb Riley, born in a log cabin in our small community, greatly influenced the direction of an identifiable American way that continues to this day.
     Some say that a claim like this is not provable.  I think it is.
     Poetry was not simply literature in Riley’s day.  Poetry was a recourse for reflection, study, expression of  hopes and aspirations of newspaper readers, public speakers, church congregants, lonely and hurting people as well as those simply seeking out the same entertainment as a modern person seeks when switching television channels or clicking the icons for websites.
     Clicking on Riley brought people into touch with an American experience and the sum of all such experiences greatly focused by the forces modeling Riley’s poetry settled America into its current self-image.
     Of all the influences the humanitarian seems to me to be the most compelling. What does friendship mean to an American? (“To my Old Friend, William Leachman”)  Who wants a stream so pure that its “ripples one by one reach each other’s hands and run like laughing little children in the sun!” (“The Brook-Song”) or who can sympathize with a little cripple (“The Happy Little Cripple”) or worry about the justice of killing a child’s dog? (“The Preacher’s Boy”) There are no “different people” in Riley’s poetry against whom Americans can discriminate.  All Americans share in human life. (“Thoughts fer the Discuraged Farmer”)
     Riley was of course an entertaining poet.  His humor was fine-tuned on the Lyceum Circuit and Mark Twain considered him the premier humorist in America of his time. But Riley’s enormous readership was not simply attracted to a jokester.  Riley was much more than that.  If his writing were simply funny, then surely their repetitions would be the same.  How many times have I tried to read “The Old Soldier’s Story” to others without earning a cracked smile.
     The fact is that people were constantly exposed to Riley over close to half a century.  They joined him on his trip “From Delphi to Camden” appreciating the entrancing almost suffocating natural beauty of America if only it is looked for.  They shared the experience of knowing “Little Orphant Annie” who has “come to our house to stay.” They recognized the home life of “An Old Sweetheart of Mine.” They relished the splash of a jump into a crick at the “Old Swimmin’-Hole” on a hot summer’s day by all children of the westward bound nation whether the children were rich or poor.  They shared the joy and sorrow of a visit to the home of Aunt Mary.  They thrilled in patriotism when Riley’s poem was read to the accompaniment of John Philip Sousa’s marching music or his “Messiah of the Nations” was sung by huge choruses throughout the nation following the assassination of President William McKinley. 
     We have a poet whose life blossomed in what was then the small settlement originally with log cabins lining a small stretch of the National Road, now Main Street in Greenfield, Indiana.  Riley who was born in 1849 recalled seeing his father riding his horse to this log cabin with a freshly hunted deer over his saddle. The land was a huge forest and part of the largest forested area of North America.  It is said that Riley was the last of the great Nineteenth Century Americans who was born in a log cabin. 
     America needs to get to know itself a little better.  America needs to ponder what thematically about the American people allowed us to become a nation of preeminence in the world and a caring people.  America needs to refocus to remember that we have always been a pioneer people lighting the way of humanity. There is no better way to find that impulse and participate in the dynamic of American society than to appreciate one of its primary sources in the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley.

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We repeat a greeting to our "Hoosier Poet" from a birthday proclamation from an Indiana Governor:

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