Poetry of Despair and Wandering
Poetry of Nature
Old Riley Estate
R. Movie Rights
"The Life of Riley"
Riley Biography Book Length
Little Orphant Annie
Riley by Niece
Frost on Punkin Saved Job
Reminder of Poverty
Orphant Annie Visits Riley Home
Fairbank's Tea Party
Old Soldier's Story
Riley and Kipling
Western Writers Assn.
Passing of Outhouse
Hamlin Garland Dialogue with Riley 1893
Riley Bio Williams
Collier Complete Works
Orphant Annie's Obituary
Reminiscences: Clara Laughlin
Complete Poetry Index by Title
Complete Poetry Index by First Line
Riley Poetry by Topic
HAPPY REMEMBRANCES of JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY
U.S. CAPITAL SUBURB HONORS HOME VISITED BY
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
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?
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
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
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.
We repeat a greeting to our "Hoosier Poet" from a birthday
from an Indiana Governor: