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JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY , THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT HOME

JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY
THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT
by Thomas Earl Williams with primary illustrations by Katherine Kuonen and the great assistance of Robert Tinsley with Riley artifacts, Copyright, 1997, Thomas Earl Williams

Part 18

 

 

 

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MR. BRYCE

JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY AS A HUMOROUS MAN
LECTURING ACROSS THE
COUNTRY WITH A "SAD FACE"
NOBODY SEES
BOOKMARK FOR JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY ON THE LYCEUM CIRCUIT

504 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

MR. BRYCE

A HUMOROUS MAN LECTURING ACROSS THE COUNTRY WITH A "SAD FACE" NOBODY SEES

There is a "special" Riley role that was perhaps his most professional "self." This was Riley the "Platform Lecturer," Mr. Bryce. Riley describes himself this way in the Buzz Club series published in the Indianapolis Saturday HERALD IN 1878 as his platform career was unfolding. The Buzz Club series, of course, included the first appearance of Riley's "The Flying Islands of the Night." At the second meeting of this "fictional" Buzz Club, a new character is introduced as Mr. Bryce.

Mr. Bryce sounds an awful lot like James Whitcomb Riley. He also sounds like a "Jucklet" clone or maybe a "histrionic Jucklet." What is Riley up to this time?

Mr. Bryce is described as "a sad faced, seedy gentleman of slender architecture, and a restless air indicative or a highly sensitive temperament. He wore no badge of age, save that his beardless face was freaked about the corners of the eyes, nose and mouth with wrinkles not quite thick enough for mature years and yet too deeply etched to indicate either a brief or Gentle contact with the acrid cares of life. His dress, although much worn, and sadly lacking in length of leg and sleeve still held a certain elegance that retained respect. But without dilating further as to details of description, or retrograding to rehearse the incident through which the genial Mr. Hunchley formed the queer young man's acquaintance in a concert hall a night or two preceding... Mr. Hunchley's introduction, "Gentlemen, I

have the very great honor of introducing to your notice a gentleman of whose intrinsic talents the world is yet to hear when the plaudits of a nation shall infest the atmosphere. A gentleman, a genius and an artist all corn‑

Riley as "Mr. Bryce." A photograph of Riley popularly know as "The Debonair Lecturer." (Neg. C7I71, IMCPL-Riley Collection, Indiana Historical Society.)

MR. BRYCE • 505

bined in a music-box of nature and a masterwork of mind. A drawing star whose brilliance shall permeate the gloom of - of histrionic history, and -and - but why continue in a vein of prophetic possibilities whose length is simply boundless."

Mr. Bryce was Riley's new "self' as a "Platform Lecturer."

With hindsight, let us examine how Mr. Bryce did for himself. Mr. Bryce had four most special platform occasions which we will mention briefly before tracing this life of Riley. The first was Riley's great success on the platform at Kokomo, Indiana in the year of the writing of "The Flying Islands of the Night." He had floundered around before this and failed time after time as a platform entertainer. The Boston engagement in I 882 at the Tremont Temple was the second great platform event. Riley was a success in this first major booking by the famous Boston James Redpath Agency and this brought him instant national attention. The third major platform appearance was one for a Copyright League engagement at New York's Chickering Hall in 1886. The greatest poets of America read to this audience and James Whitcomb Riley was the most enthusiastically received. His reading on the first day was so successful that James Russell Lowell, the organizer of the event, asked Riley to re-take the stage the second day which Riley did with equal success. The final significant reading was in 1890 when Riley returned to Indianapolis and was given a reception by the Indianapolis Literary Club after his breakup with Nye in Louisville, Kentucky. The breakup was clue to Riley's public alcoholism and this event triggered the feeling in Riley that he was still valued as Mr. Bryce despite his shame. He never did lecture much after that and Mr. Bryce slowly "fades away." However, Mr. Bryce did not retire in shame and degradation but was saved from this by Hoosier friends who forgave him his alcoholism because of his literary and public platform achievements.

A NEWCOMER AFTER FLYING ISLANDS SOUL-SELVES

If we assume that Riley wrote "The Flying Islands of the Night" to give his soul-selves an opportunity for inner dialogue, poor Mr. Bryce was left out. Bryce was not dead. He was a future Riley when Riley might be able to perform on the lyceum circuit or lecture on platforms successfully.

Riley, as Mr. Bryce, was not out of Riley's mind. Later, in the sixth meet­ing of the Buzz Club, "Mr Bryce arose, bowed, fluttered his hands, and said: "As I believe I expressed myself on a former occasion, I lay no claims to that

506 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

immortal gift of song, yet I trust that what I shall offer you to-night may serve at least the purpose for which it is designed, namely, that of pleasing rather as a sketch of character than as a work of art. And although I feel that it must, too, fall short of the requirements of strict imitation, it was project­ed in that spirit, and weak as it is, and all unworthy to be classed as even that, as such I must present it, reserving, however, the right to claim it as my own in case the model remains undiscovered. And with this little whiff of pleasantry, Mr. Bryce bowed his smiling face an instant from sight, and lift­ing it again, grown old and wrinkled as by enchantment, and then in a voice grown husky as with age and little use, he read, or rather recited, with moat life-like simplicity, the homely romance of "Farmer Whipple -Bachelor."

Riley is planning a "lecture" that will be successful after all of his prior ones which were dismal failures. He wants Mr. Bryce to be born out of his experiences. It happened.

Later, after Mr. Plempton delivers his Indian piece "Unawangawawa; Or the Eyelash of Lightning," Mr. Bryce says, "I would like to examine your sketch...the fact is, that, as a character reading, you understand, this contains the elements of a public hit, and if you'll allow me to take it I'll engage to bring down the applause of thousands! Ah!it's a - it's a - simply a literary bonanza, and I'd give my best "makeup" to be its author!"

Mr. Bryce, the Riley who is a platform lecturer is born.

A "FRESH START" YEAR ON THE PUBLIC PLATFORM

Let us recall Riley's year of the writing of "The Flying Islands of the Night."

In 1878, following his writing of "Das Krist Kindel," his public condemnation for writing the Edgar Allan Poe forgery "Leonainie," arrest for public intoxication and loss of his job as a journalist on the Anderson DEMOCRAT, Riley began a counterattack on his life which depended upon success as a platform lecturer. On January 24, 1878, he wrote the Editor of the Kokomo DISPATCH, Oscar Henderson, the publisher of "Leonainie" to propose a lecture there. It was arranged for Valentine's Day and was a rous­ing success. The people of Kokomo wanted to see the person who had caused their town's name to be broadcast nationally as the site of the news­paper perpetrating the "Leonainie" hoax. The Editor of the rival newspaper, The Kokomo TRIBUNE, also assisted with publicity.

The Kokomo TRIBUNE reported this first great success of Riley on the

MR. BRYCE • 507

Kokomo JOURNAL, Feb. 16, 1878.

r---14:1V1LEYti  Splendid S

4                                      •

Largt.et Audience

and Everybod

audiences at

61 One of          largos

has. asse.r#bled in  le Operiniotise- for a ytar' past. wad hat which Erect-- ed Mr. I. V. Riley, n last Thursdan-, eveninz. And for ntelligence. flask, cultureohe outlier' has never before-.

been equaled i t s city—our best,

people were out an• close attentiver to each word spo e was given to the- speaker

Mr. kiiey gay a

HE ioIrr)

ceesa 1'

of the Delighte '

V

r

it

y

is

le

,e

elect rLdini 'at

an hour trid a h If. which 'delightetts those (resent m. than any Uth41*-. entert lament w h ve had for maul.-  a day. ; It woul our pleasure's,. review the ente ai ment fully, gliw-- ing ex )cession to e perfect natural., ness o each renditi • , but we have` no spas left to do o. IWe she II do. this at another tim

·     

 Mr. kiley has to be proutti of his icreeting in is city. Commr among us a compa Live stranger, a& people have been dissatisfied/ venal -enters inmenta of the. Ihe has resaon to be gratifiedti by the larg audience whicii, com enteld..„1.2iwmm,tif:ir zat

One of the largest audiences that has assembled in the Opera House for a year past, was that which greeted Mr. J.W,. Riley, on last Thursday evening... The auditors are unanimous in their opinion that Mr. Riley's reading afforded the best entertainment we have had for months.

We are pleased to commend Mr. Riley to our brethren of the press, and can assure them that they cannot be too loud in their praise of him. It is his intention, we believe, to visit most of the leading cities

of the State during the next few months, and if we are not very much mis­taken, it will not be long until Mr. Riley will rank high up among the best readers of the day, with Miss Helen Potter, them so successful person in that line of entertainment who is now before the people.-

Riley totted up receipts of about seventy dollars which meant that approx­imately three hundred people were in the audience.

The people of Kokomo were so delighted with Riley that they took up a petition to have him repeat his lecture on the following night. The petition was published in the Kokomo Tribune together with Riley's reply:

Gentlemen: I have no engagement for this evening and could remain but fearing that a church organization kindly postponed a social in consideration of my appearance last evening my remaining to-night - the occasion of that meeting - would not reflect a proper courtesy. But heartily appreciating the honor you do me, and willing and eager to respond, I will select the first favorable date, and designate the same as soon as chose.

Very Gratefully Yours, J.W. Riley

lecture stage as follows:

J.W. RILEY, THE POET

SPLENDID SUCCESS!

LARGEST AUDIENCE OF THE
SEASON AND EVERYBODY
DELIGHTED.

508 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

Another testimonial was printed in the same newspaper, "We, the teachers of the Kokomo city schools, who attended the entertainment given by Mr. Riley last evening, take this method of thanking him for the many laughs which we are sure erased some wrinkles, though our eyes filled with tears during the rendition of "Dot Leedle Boy of Mine." Surely "Benson was out-Bensoned." Come again at any early day.

S/ named teachers.

The Tribune proclaimed that "J.W. Riley is to-day the most popular person who has appeared before a Kokomo audi­ence for a year."

This entertainment was a real turning point in Riley's career. Much of the suc­cess came about through the ghost of the

"Leonainie" hoax. Other readings followed in places like Tipton and Noblesville.

Riley scheduled other appearances. He joined the Greenfield Literary Club in March of 1878 and read his poetry many times before this group. One of the recorded times was this same month when he read his poem "Fame" at Presbyterian Church meeting of the Greenfield Literary Club. He also lectured in Tipton and Noblesville this same month. Then he gave "Recitations" to the Indianapolis Literary Club on April 5th of the next month before Indianapolis civic and state leaders. In May, he performed at a "Complimentary Benefit by The Greenfield Literary Club at the Masonic

Riley, Henry W. Longfellow, John G. Whittier, James R. Lowell, and Walt Whitman, were the five poets honored with stamps in the 1940 "American Poets Issue" by the United States Post Office. Riley was the "ten center." The poets' hometowns were given great publicity. The "one cent" Longfellow stamp was issued in Portland, Main Feb. 16; the "two cent" John Greenleaf Whittier in Haverhill, Mass. Feb. 16; the "three cent" James Russell Lowell stamp was issued in Cambridge, Mass. Feb. 20: and the "five cent" Walt Whitman in Camden N.J. Feb. 20th; — before Greenfield, Indiana got its turn with a "First Day of Issue" of the Riley stamp on Feb. 24th. Shown are Arthur Downing on the left, President of the Riley Old Home Society and Greenfield Postmaster Marshall Winslow on the right. The stamps went on sale nationally two days later. At the time, stamp collecting was a very popular hobby and there were said to be 10 million stamp collectors in the United States alone waiting for such philately. A special machine was installed in the Greenfield Post Office which could cancel 900 letters a minute and the post office did not close until after midnight.

MR. BRYCE • 509

Hall. The next month, May, he recited poetry in New Castle. One of his big­ger "breaks" came on Memorial Day when Riley was asked to read one of his poems at Decoration Day at Indianapolis. On this date, May 30th, 1878, Riley met Myron Reed, Pastor of the Indianapolis First Presbyterian Church who became Riley's closest friend in his life. Myron Reed is listed for the first time in the Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA in 1878. The last time he was listed was 1883. These dates bracket Rev. Reed's ministry in Indianapolis as Pastor of the 1st Presbyterian Church. The appearance of Myron Winslow Reed into the life of James Whitcomb Riley was nothing short of being providential.

In August, Riley was picked up by the Western Lecture Bureau for spon­sorship for lyceum touring for the next year.

In this same August, Riley sent to and had published in the August 24th Saturday HERALD his "The Flying Islands of the Night in his Buzz Club series.

The year continued to be busy. In October, Riley appeared with Sarah Bolton, "the grand lady of Hoosier poetry," at a meeting of the Pioneer Association of Indiana at the State Fair. The poem he delivered, "Old Cabin," was published in the Annual Report of the Indiana State Board of Agriculture and became his first poem published in a book. He then read at the Indianapolis "Old Settlers Meeting" also held during State Fair time on Oct. 3, 1878. We know of Riley reciting at an Old Settler's Reunion at Oaklandon in November and many other programs around the state. Then in December, Riley read at Tipton, Noblesville, and gave a reading at the Greenfield Masonic Hall for the benefit of a Miss Sproule. At some point along in here, Greenfield started becoming known around the state as the birthplace of James Whitcomb Riley, the lecturer.

Riley's need for money to support himself and his alcoholism drove him into great despondency. He was writing but was earning very little. His plat­form career found him getting invitations but the rewards were little enough. Sign painting was being avoided because it simply took up too much time. The straits of Riley's finances are revealed in the following letter sent to col­lect a debt:

To Samuel Richards of the Anderson Presbyterian Church, Riley wrote on Feb. 16, 1879 a "confidential letter" asking help in getting the church to reimburse him for the $5 expenses he had been promised for giving a lec­ture there. Riley detailed he had borrowed the money to go up to Anderson to give the program but never got reimbursed by the church. He said "I can't

51 0 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

complain, either, because it don't (sic) amount to much- it's little - very lit­tle - but when a fellow hasn't anything, it's a big thing for him to lose."

James Whitcomb Riley's platform appearances were just as much in the tradition of the early Hoosier Circuit riding preachers as in other traditions. Yes, his lectures were noted for their humor and entertainment but they also spread the humanistic message of Riley's poetry concerning humility, neighborliness, faith and accommodation to the needs of others. Just prior to his years on the platform, Riley apprenticed in the platform by accompany­ing the temperance Christian circuit riding speaker Luther Benson. The Hoosier tradition of traveling with a message for folk goes back to the days of frontier circuit riding preachers. A circuit rider was the only preacher that the early settlers had contact with. He would travel from one settlement to another on horseback.

An example of such a traveling public performer was the Elder of the Methodist Church, Reuben D. Robinson, who was a circuit rider inter­viewed in a Fort Wayne newspaper, the SENTINEL, of Dec. 28, 1880 when he was head of the Kokomo Conference. He related his career of travel. After Elder Robinson graduated from the university at Greencastle, (now Depauw University), he was going to be a medical doctor but he changed his mind and decided to concern himself with spiritual rather than physical ills of people. In 1845, he was given a license to become a Methodist minister. The first circuit he had included Tipton County and parts of Howard, Carroll, Clinton, and Boone counties. The settlements were only connected by blazed trails. He kept a journal of those experiences.

The salary of a Methodist minister was one hundred dollars a year. That was what it was supposed to be but he was lucky to collect most of it. The salary did not so much matter because he had no expenses and was given a home wherever he went. In fact, the people he served had everything except money. Money was something they didn't have much use for. The streams had fish, the forest had game, wild fruit was for the picking and bees gave an abundance of honey. He remembers Hoosier life as being very primitive until the railroads came. Every woman knew how to use a spinning wheel and hand looms for making cloth were in every thrifty household.

There were no church buildings in his circuit. He held services in the var­ious houses of the people of a settlement neighborhood. He remembered preaching in houses standing in a chimney corner with the only light com­ing from the roof. Many houses had no windows or doors. When he had a service, the congregation was always very large. He says people came from

MR. BRYCE • 5 1 1

ten miles every direction in those days. It was not uncommon for a Hoosier to walk up to four miles for even common needs.

Indoor services were only held in the winters. In the summers the woods were better places. He said that "Groves have been the scenes of the strongest religious meetings ever conducted. Much of Wesley's and Whitefield's success may properly be attributed to the fact that they spoke in the open air."

People expected the minister of that era to carry news. There were no newspapers in the areas of circuit riders. The only source of information to the early settlers was the preacher and the school teacher.

Kokomo, which was in his circuit, had a remnant of an Indian village nearby. The Elder visited this village by a blazed trail. As soon as the chief was persuaded he wasn't there to buy or sell, the circuit rider was treated with great hospitality. The chief's name was Sharpandorsh. They had just returned from a visit to the far west, but the chief did not like that country. He had visited an Osage tribe. When the circuit rider asked him what he though of the Osage, he answered, "Him heap ugly."

There is much more, but generally I was interested in the testimony of this man of God about the tradition of public lecturing in Indiana because Mr. Bryce chose to join it. Mr. Bryce became a circuit rider too. He just did it a little more on the sly as a "Jucklet clone" would be likely to do such a thing.

At about the time of the writing of "The Flying Islands of the Night," Riley most seriously considered the life of a platform lecturer. While enter­taining during medicine show performances and other acts of minstrelcy, Riley played around with entertaining people with stories and verses from others. And so he sang and played music on his guitar and banjo and told stories through Indiana and Ohio. Riley's early efforts were not headline events. Becoming Mr. Bryce was a major effort since no one had ever taken the frontier Hoosier dialect on a lyceum circuit stage before.

We remember that Dickens was Riley's most influential source of inspi­ration and Riley wished to do what his idol Dickens had done by way of public platform lecturing. He saw many others do the same. It is the human­ist impulse such as possessed by both Dickens and Riley to want to embrace humanity in person.

As an older man, Riley gave the following information to his nephew Edmund Eitel for inclusion in his Biographical Edition about his public plat­form career.

51 2 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

"In boyhood I had been vividly impressed with Dickens' success in read­ing from his own works and dreamed that some day I might follow his example. At first I read at Sunday- school entertain­ments and later, on special occasions such as Memorial Days and Fourth of July's. At last I mustered up sufficient courage to read in a city theater, where, despite the conspiracy of a rainy night and a circus, I got encouragement enough to lead me to extend my efforts. And so, my native state and then the country at large were called upon to bear with me and I think I visited every sequestered spot north or south par­ticularly distinguished for poor railroad connections. At different times, I shared the program with Mark Twain, Robert J. Burdette and George Cable, and for a while my gentlest and cheeriest of friends, Bill Nye, joined with me and made the dusty detested travel almost a delight. We were constantly playing practical jokes on

each other or indulging in some mischievous banter before the audience. On one occasion, Mr Nye, coming before the footlights for a word of general introduction, said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the entertainment to-night is of a dual nature. Mr. Riley and I will speak alternately. First I come out and talk until I get tired, then Mr. Riley comes out and talks until you get tired!' And thus the trips went merrily enough at times and besides I learned to know in Bill Nye a man blessed with as noble and heroic a heart as ever beat. But the making of trains, which were all in conspiracy to outwit me, schedule or no schedule, and the rush and tyrannical pressure of inviolable engagements, some hundred to a season and from Boston to San Francisco, were a distress to my soul. I am glad that's over with."

We return to Riley's early twenties. Hearing both Bret Harte-who used dialectical materials- and Robert Ingersoll perform on lecture platforms in 1883 were key events in Riley's life. Here were two prime "stars" of the stage. Riley wanted the fame of similar conquest.

The ''Tower of Flowers" erected at Greenfield. Indiana's courthouse for the October 1949 James Whitcomb Riley Birthday Centennial. The under­girdingwas of steel. School children contributed a majority of the flowers many of which were mailed to Greenfield from around the country. To the right was a huge portrait of Riley and specta­tors can he seen in the front of a stage where hourly performances were scheduled.

MR. BRYCE • 5 1 3

Riley worked at recital numbers while with traveling medicine shows. Riley did not come to be a humorist easily. He practiced every day. As an example, "The Bear Story," a Riley favorite was the product of recitations for many years from almost the first of his "medicine show" career. Although this was a year after Riley had left Doc. Townsend, Mack wrote Riley in Dec. 1 876, that Doc was still trying to say Riley's "Bear Story," but always got it mixed up.

Lyceum poets and lecturers were professional stage people among their other talents. Those that were poets often talked of the need to read formal verse with a "good ear" which is to say a poem is open to many readings and often depends upon the skill of the reader. For Riley to succeed as a platform lecturer, he needed a good "ear" but also "readable" material. As a fron­tiersman born in a log cabin, he was most comfortable with the Hoosier dialect. Reading in dialect requires a particular "good ear." Each dialect, of course, imposes on verse a regular recurrence of durations, stresses, and voweled syllables intended to parcel a line into equal divisions of time. There was, however, little literature within this body of dialect. The Hoosier dialect's foot bears a different temporal period than any other dialect. Its "fit" into meter required a special metrical scheme of regularity. For Riley, this was no problem, because his poetry was based upon frontier song and doggerel anyway. The combination into oral performance was something which was however unique when heard outside of his own native region. The effort on Riley's part, however, was very draining since it became nec­essary for Riley to produce his own material if he wished to succeed as a dialectical reader. Much depends upon dialectical meter which is nothing but regional rhythms of speech learned from birth and formally organized. Because of Riley's poetic approach this product had also a musical quality as well as formal dialectical versification.

Riley learned to assume roles in his life as on stage. Not every play char­acter Riley dreamed up worked. Riley assumed only a few roles and played them well. One play character he needed to survive was Mr. Bryce, the plat­form lecturer. Whatever else he did, he gave time to perfecting this role.

Let us try to figure a birthdate of Mr. Bryce.

Perhaps Mr. Bryce was born in Spring 1874 when Riley went to visit in Mooresville to paint signs and live with Aunt Ann and Uncle Jim Marine. Riley decided, while there, to go to Monrovia for a first stage performance. He was twenty- five but willing to try his hand on the platform. Arriving at Monrovia on a Tuesday, he engaged a church for his performance and pre‑

5 1 4 THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

pared and hung posters around the town indicating he was a "Comedian." Shortly before the performance the trustees of the church cancelled him say­ing they didn't know he was a comedian when they agreed to let him use their premises for a show. Then he engaged the local school house for Thursday night and had to wait. In the meantime, a town official came to him and said he had to buy a license if he intended to sell tickets. Having no money, Riley was forced to explain he was having a "free show" to get around this obstacle. The night of the show, Riley rendered "Tradin' Joe" and "Farmer Whipple" and sang such songs as "Silver Thistle" and "Kathleen Mavourneen." He got cat calls when he tried to sing "The Mocking Bird" in his own variation. At the end of the show, the village blacksmith got up and said, "You fellows have had your fun with this young man and I think you've hurt his feelings. He has done his best to please you, and he has given us a pretty good show. I move we pass the hat.- After doing so, the hat contained beans and pebbles, nails and screws, tobacco quids, buttons, pieces of a door-knob and a wish-bone and forty-eight cents. Then he tried a program at Charlottesville, Indiana after returning back home. Both flopped.

Late September in 1874, Riley was asked to go to Roberts Park Methodist Church in Indianapolis to entertain children at a "sociable." He told "The Bear Story.- We find Riley, late in 1874 contributing poems and stories and news items without pay to the Greenfield NEWS, but at the same time trav­eling with his friend, Will Othell, for other little entertainments. On Christmas Eve he appeared at a social entertainment at the Indianapolis Third Presbyterian Church and read "Dot Leedle Boy."

DOT LEEDLE BOY (1874)

Ot's a leedle Gristmas story

Dot I told der leedle folks
Und I vant you stop dot laughin'

Und grackin' funny jokes! -So help me Peter-Moses!

Ot's no time for monkey-shine, Ober I vast told you somedings Of dot leddle boy of mine!

Ot vas von cold Vinter vedder,

MR. BRYCE • 51 5

Ven der snow vas all about -

Dit you have to chop der hatchet
Eef you got der sauerkraut!

Und der cheekens on der hind leg
Vas standin' in der shine

Der sun shmile out dot morning
On dot leedle boy of mine,

He vas yoost a leedle baby

Not bigger as a doll

Dot time I got acquaintet -

Ach! you ought to heard 'im squall! ‑

I grackys! dot's der moosic Ot make me feel so fine

Ven first I vas been marriet -Oh, dot leedle boy of mine!

He look yoost like his fader! ‑

So, ven der vimmen said, "Vot a purty leedle baby!"

Katrina shake der head... I dink she must 'a' notice

Dot der baby vas a-gryin', Und she cover up der blankets

Of dot leedle boy of mine.

The cradle of James Whitcomb Riley with home-made rattle at the Riley birthplace. Greenfield. Indiana.

Vel, yen he vas got bigger,

Dot he grawl and hump his nose, Und make der table over,

Und molasses on his glothes -Dot make 'im all der sveeter, -So I say to my Katrine,

"Better you vas quit a-shpankin'
Dot leedle boy of mine!"

No more he vas older

As about a dozen months
He speak der English language

5 1 6 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

Und der German - bote at vonce! Und he dringk his glass of lager

Like a Londsman fon der Rhine -Und I klingk my glass togeder

Mit dot leedle boy of mine!

From the author's Ora Myers glass negative collection of Hancock County, Indiana subjects

I vish you could 'a' seen id ‑

Ven he glimb up on der chair Und shmash der lookin'-glasses

Ven he try to comb is hair Mit a hammer! - Und Katrina

Say, "Dot's an ugly sign!"
But I laugh und vink my fingers

At dot leedle boy of mine.

But vonce, dot Vinter morning,

He shlip out in der snow Mitout no stockin's on 'im. ‑

He say he "vant to go

Und fly some mit der birdies!"

Und ve give 'im medi-cine, Ven he catch der "parrygoric" ‑

Dot leedleboy of mine!

Und so I set und nurse 'im,

Vile der Gristmas vas come roun', Und I told 'im 'bout "Kriss Kringle,"

How he come der chimbly down: Und I ask 'im eef he love 'im

Eef he bring 'im someding fine? "Nicht besser as mein fader,"

Say dot leedle boy of mine. -

Und lie put his arms aroun me Und hug so close and light, I hear der gclock a-tickin'

All der balance of der night!... Someding make me feel so funny

MR. BRYCE • 517

Ven I say to my Katrine, "Let us go und fill der stockin's Of dot leedle boy of mine."

Vell - Ve buyed a leedle horses

Dot you pull        mit a shtring, Und a leedle fancy jay-bird -

Eef you vant to hear       sing You took 'im by der topknot

Und yoost blow in behine -Und dot make much spectakel

For dot leedle boy of mine!

Und gandies, nuts und raizens ‑
Und I buy a leedle drum

Dot I vant to hear 'im rattle

Ven der Gristmas morning come! Und a leedle shinall tin rooster

Dot vould crow so loud und fine Veil he sqveeze      in der morning,

Dot leedle boy of mine!

Und - vile ve vas a-fixin' ‑

Dot leedle boy vake out! I t'ought he been a-dreamin'

"Kriss Krinle" vas about, ‑

For he say - "Dot's him! - I see 'im

Mit der shtars dot make der shine!" Und he yoost keep on a-grying' ‑

Dot leedle boy of mine, -

Und gottin' vorse Lind vorser ‑

Und tumble on der bed! So- yen der doctor seen id,

He kindo' shake his head,
Und feel his pulse - and visper,

"Der boy is a-dyin."

You dink I could believe id? -

From the author's Ora Myers glass negative col­lection of Hancock County. Indiana subjects

5 1 8 THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

Dot leedle boy of mine?

 

1- told you, friends - dot's someding, Der last time dot he speak

Und say, "coot-by, Kriss Kringle!"

- dot make me feel so veak
0 yoost kneel down und drimble,

Und bur-sed out a-gryin',

"Mein Gott, mein Gott in Himmel! -Dot leedle boy of mine!"

 

Der sun don't shine dot Gristmas!

...Eef dot leedle boy vould liff'd -No deefer-in! for Heaven vas

His leedle Gristmas gift!
Und der rooster, und der gandy,

Und me - und my Katrine -Und der jay-bird - is a-vaiting

For dot leedle boy of mine.

From the author's Ora Myers glass negative col­lection of Hancock County. Indiana subjects

 

This was an early Riley poem. The poem was nevertheless one written to perform not to be written out. Riley needed dialectical poetry because he felt audiences wanted it. He used it often on stage.

Many of these early entertainments were church related. In some respects, Riley was trained as an entertainer for Godly work by his Methodist Church. From his earliest manhood, he went to Sunday School at the Methodist Church in his hometown and illustrated lessons for the chil­dren in bright-colored chalk. In Spring 1875, Riley served as temporary sec­retary of the Sunday School of Greenfield's Bradley Methodist Church of which he became a probationary member one Sunday morning at regular church service. On May 8 he was still on the rolls but later came the mar­ginal note. "Dropped. Never received into full connection." Nevertheless Riley's first entertainments were almost entirely church related.

The Greenfield schoolteacher, Cornelia Loder, notes Riley was already recognized as a platform entertainer when in 1877 she made "her home with (the Rileys) one week before school." She lodged at the home of the Rileys when she was hired to teach in the Greenfield grade schools under Superintendent John Binford in the summer of 1876. She recalled the

MR. BRYCE • 5 1 9

Greenfield Academy building which Reuben turned into a residence as a tall, old, dignified, block-shaped, frame structure with a flat roof and a cupo­la belfry. The home stood in a grove of trees. It was very imposing with pil­lar ornaments on the front giving it the impression of height and great dig­nity. The family called it the "Old Castle," or the "Castle in the Grove." James Whitcomb Riley went to school there to Lee 0. Harris in earlier years.

Loder recalls Riley entertained at the county's teacher's institute for free. She remembers that the teachers had requested James Whitcomb to give his ''Bear Story" at the institute. This "more serious" stage in which he planned a platform career required much time. Riley wrote that even a boy he was always "ready to declaim, and took natively to anything dramatic or theatri­cal." But now, at this period of his life in his mid-twenties he was in demand at local entertainments. He frequently went to school "last days" to enter­tain. These were the Friday afternoons at the end of the school week when parents were invited to come in and see what their children had accom­plished during the week. Riley was asked to come in as a guest for these events and read his own poems.

Riley was already recognized as a literary entertainer. Miss Loder recalled "making my home with them one week before school began in order to attend the teacher's institute. The teachers had requested James Whitcomb to give his Bear story at the institute, and Elva (the sister) said to me 'I wish Jim wouldn't do that. It sounds so silly." I had never heard it before and could see why everybody wanted to hear him tell it." She also commented hearing that Riley never told the story twice the same way.

Riley recited some other poems which were not original during this peri­od in his platform career. One was "The Lily Bud" by Anna Poe. Riley touched simple Christian emotions in his platform work from the earliest stage of his career and concentrated all of his creative effort on such evoca­tions. The story line of "The Lily Bud" has two brothers who live on adjoin­ing farms not speaking to each other for a long time. A little baby came into one of the homes. The other brother happens to be working near that home one day and cannot resist the desire to see the baby and steps through the back door up to the cradle. The brother/father sees him and steps to his side and peace is made between them. The story is a simple referent to the Matthean recollection whereby Jesus teaches it is not just murder but also anger toward a brother that must be resolved if one is to fulfill a life conso­nent with the law of Christian love. Mary Riley, the poet's sister, once rec­ollected the hours of labor that Riley devoted to getting his performance of

520 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

poetry right while residing with the family at the Greenfield

Academy          resi
dence.

She recalled, "It was his custom to shut himself up in his room at night, and work till 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, reading aloud to himself,

Riley on a 1904 "reading" tour at Portland, Indiana. His secretary, Marcus Dickey is over and over, the in the back seat with Elwood haynes, inventor. This was the first "Haynes" automo­recalcitrant lines of bile. Photo courtesy, Riley Museum, Greenfield, Indiana.

whatever poem he was at the time engaged in writing.

Even then, his voice had that strange arresting quality that so greatly moved audiences in his later years, when he read his poems from the lecture platform. However, if his voice occasionally woke me from sleep, it was to me merely the comforting tones of the voice I loved - the voice of a brother whose tender care of me had replaced the loss of our sweet mother. I imme­diately went back to sleep undisturbed by its sound.

The rest of the family was less enraptured, though, and I can remember my other brothers rising in righteous wrath, and tiptoeing to his door to protest in angry whispers. Jim would apologize, and, for awhile his voice would remain as low and droning as a bumble bee. But he'd forget again shortly and resume his absorbed and dramatic intonations in a normal voice, and then I'd hear our father (Reuben Riley) go to his door and remonstrate. The strongest expletive father ever used was 'By George," but the mildness of the expression was contradicted by the stern tone, and I quaked for Jim as I heard father say: 'By George, I want an end to this!'"

As a consequence of his "night activities," Riley often slept over at other places or at his paint shop, when he had that facility which he called 'The Morgue.'"

Out of what inspiration does one create a program of public readings? To what emotions of an audience does one seek to strike a sympathetic chord? My gut feeling is that the audience of every age bears its own agenda. A

MR. BRYCE • 521

speaker during Civil War times must have questioned what was the Civil War all about? Likewise, after that event, - when Riley took the stage at great public "lectures" - an audience must have questioned how the life of the United States should be re-ordered after the Civil War. Such questions are rarely put in direct terms. Signals about such things come from themes and hints of how people are posed as behaving. When Homer sang of the Trojan War to Helennistic audiences, he was subtly moulding the thoughts and highlighting appropriate behavior for the proud people that the Greeks became.

This is what happened when James Whitcomb Riley took the stage and began giving the American people kenotic poetry and heroic yet domestic character types to consider such as the vulnerable and humble Mahala Ashcrafts, William Leachmans, Herr Weisers, the Little Orphan Annies, Raggedy Men and the boy of Riley's famous "Bear Story." They were not however roles of fate such as the Helennists were given by Homer, but rather roles of dependence.

Many of Riley's early years on the stage were given over to accommo­dating what the platform stage and the needs of the audience permitted. Riley tried mimicry and it usually failed. His "Benson Out-Bensoned" - a caricature study on Riley's own great temperance counselor - was dropped. As to Riley's great capacity to imitate the style and oratorical manner of Robert Ingersoll on the stage, very little came of it. In fact, this imitation was a failure. Although Riley's imitation was amusing and true to its subject, audiences did not like it. Riley abandoned it and the subject matter that went along with it but was keenly disappointed because he thought he did a rather good imitation of the man.

The needs of making a living influenced his programs greatly. I don't mean he lectured to preach kenotic themes. They were simply his to say....and yet "I am simply compelled to ask a fair price," Riley wrote to a committee in 1879, "since it is through this means that I hope to gain a rev­enue sufficient to forward my literary studies." Committees were the agents who sponsored lectures in the entertainments halls of the nation.

In fact, Riley's platform material did not need to include such things as his Benson caricature or Ingersoll imitation. His popular lecture series beginning in 1879 left out all such things, and centered more on his own poetic expressions. Two of his more popular compositions on the "lecture circuit" for that year were "Farmer Whipple, Bachelor," and "An Old Sweetheart of Mine." These poems were magical as he performed them. It

522 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

was said that Riley made his audiences see, feel, touch and taste poetry. Riley himself was a magnet who radiated affection for his hearers. Many persons attending Riley lectures reacted with great emotion. Not uncom­monly were actual tears shed.

In this year of 1879, when Riley was thirty, he raised his entertainment contract from fifteen dollars to twenty five dollars for each performance around Indiana. Handbills were passed out before these performances call­ing Riley "the Poet Laureate of Indiana, - a feast of reason and a flow of soul," things like that. It was all for fun and entertainment but when one sums up what happened out of it one must reckon that Riley was praising sensitivity about life and values centered around strengthening the American home.

Many of Riley's first appearances were at church groups during his first years of platform lecturing. He called himself "a poet and delineator." In a handbill kept by a storekeep in Shirley, Indiana, in the possession of the Riley Old Home Society Museum in Greenfield, Indiana, there is the announcement of a two-night benefit supper and program sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in old "Bell's Hall" in Knightstown. James Whitcomb Riley was engaged into the program on the second night as a substitute for "Mrs. Jarley's Wax Works," a drama performed by Knightstown, Indiana, ladies assuming various roles. The advertisement does not indicate what share of the second night's income Riley got. The admission to the church supper on the second night- including the cost of the Riley recitation- was 15 cents on Feb. 12, 1880. The admission the first night with the "Mrs. Jarley's Wax Works" program was 35 cents. One suspects Riley came very cheap in those days. The recollection of Dr. Omar H. Barrett, then 80, of Knightstown in the Indianapolis STAR of September 3, 1939, was that the poet again appeared in Knightstown some time later with the audience pay­ing $1.50 each to hear him and the hall was sold out in advance.

Dec. 1880 ended another bad year financially for the elderly Captain Reuben Riley. In 1873 he was forced into court on a promissory note he had given earlier to tide the family through. The creditor, William C. Burdett, refused to wait any longer for the elderly Riley to pay him back. Unable to pay, a judgment for $605 was entered against Reuben Riley in the summer term of the Hancock Circuit Court with another $630 tacked on due on Christmas day of that year. The Captain did not pay on the judgment and the Riley family home, the Seminary, had to be sold at the courthouse door October 18, 1879 with John W. Campbell purchasing it by a judgment sale

MR. BRYCE • 523

subject to the right of the elderly Riley to pay it off and regain title and live in it in the meantime. Campbell paid the Sheriff $892 for this right and later the Sheriff conveyed his deed to Campbell on Dec. 28th, 1880. This year Reuben applied for a Civil War Veteran disability pension. The Riley fami­ly stayed in the home without title.

The family fortunes continued to ebb downward. The pressures on the alcoholically impaired James Whitcomb Riley must have seemed insur­mountable. The poet's elderly brother, John, was chronically and some­times critically unable to work much, and returned to Greenfield. Riley's equally alcoholically impaired brother, Hum, and sister, Mary, suffering from spinal meningitis and barely walking dragging her foot, were still needing food and shelter from the parent, Captain Riley, whose mental health was broken by the Civil War and whose law practice had fled. The ruinous and hopeless political campaign Reuben Riley had waged on behalf of the liberal National Greenback Party seeking election to Congress set the family back even further financially. There seemed no answer. Riley's reg­ular employment on the Indianapolis JOURNAL made him the only func­tional member of his family.

The answer to the problems of the poet was - at least in part - more income. Riley looked to going on the platform stage in the lyceum circuit as

a means of earning enough money to           ,711.•et....

live on for him and his beleaguered family. Riley did, eventually, become very wealthy, but the going was slow and the large incomes of the poet did not arrive until his book publishing days in the 1890's and thereafter. Eventually audiences would pay $1,000 a performance to hear Riley,

but these days were far in the future as Riley began his act of Mr. Bryce.

Describing the Riley of the 1880's and 1890's Riley's friend, Booth Tarkington in a Saturday Evening Post article of August 2, 1941, spoke of "the eloquence of his large nose and comedian's long upper lip...That was when we saw him on the stage of a theater and he gave 'readings' from his

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524 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

poems. Then he turned himself into other people — a middle-aged Indiana farmer, an old Civil War veteran, half a dozen different types of children —and cast a spell of such moving reality upon the transformations that the artist himself was utterly forgotten, though we, his audience, sat roaring with laughter, or weeping, at his will. Never in a life somewhat experienced in such spectacles have I seen any other comedian or tragedian so accurately lead an audience where he would.-

RILEY ON THE LYCEUM CIRCUIT: A RILEY ENTERTAINMENT OF 1880

Now let us enquire about this lyceum business that brought Riley such great fame.

The greatest promoter of Riley was Major James B. Pond who - with George Hathaway - bought out the Redpath Bureau in Boston owned by James Redpath. The two ran the Redpath Lyceum Bureau for four years and then Major Pond moved on to New York. The bureau sponsored lectures. Repertoires of the speakers was very diverse: travel, science, current poli­tics, reform, labor, anti-slavery, education, legal topics, foreign matters, biography religion. The engagements bore titles such as those of the lectur­er, Wendell Phillips, "Street Life in Europe," "The Lost Arts," "The Times, or a Lesson of the Hours," "Temperance," "Woman," "The Indian" or "In Early Days," etc. etc. Promoting such lectures was a substantial business in this pre-radio and pre-television era. The traveling entertainers of the plat­form provided the great entertainments for the country in the 1880's when Riley took the stage.

What was Riley's entry card into this business?

The answer is found in Riley's friendship with an entertainer already on the Redpath Agency list. This was Robert Burdette who was billed as "The Hawkeye Man" because he was the Editor of the Burlington (Iowa) HAWK-EYE newspaper.

Riley met Burdette in Spencer, Indiana when the two were between plat­form appearances in December, 1879. Riley had just appeared at Bloomington, Indiana and Burdette, the more established platform speaker, had just completed an engagement with a lecture on "The Rise and Fall of the Mustache" at Spencer. They struck up an instant friendship. Both began comforting each other over their meager audiences of the night. Riley's at Bloomington, he said, was no more than the janitor. Burdette said there was not a lady in the house when he performed. Soon the two decided to take the

MR. BRYCE • 525

same train to Indianapolis the next day. At Indianapolis, Burdette made the first of annual visits to Riley.

The common gossip was that Burdette and Riley encouraged each other into great bouts of intoxication. Lotta Cooper recalled in her book CLARA LOUISE that "Robert J. Burdette was equally brilliant and equally sub­mersible, so that either of them, when it came time to "take the platform." were likely to be found incapacitated for public appearance and their man­agers were in despair."

There are "wild" accounts of the two together.

The two grown men played like children when they got together. A record of one of these visits survives. Riley recorded in a letter that Burdette came to visit him in April, 1881 and seemed to go stark raving mad. Riley took the bait and went mad too. Soon they started playing circus. Burdette became the master of the arena and rode chairs around the room and did con­tortion acts and feats of strength. Soon Burdette became an elephant and Riley was urged to be his animal trainer and exhibitor, steering Burdette (the elephant) around the room as in a ring, planting him on his hind legs and spinning him around and around, and finally allowing his "master" to put his leg almost on him as Riley lay on the floor confidently he was not trampled.

The two also romped around Indianapolis together on Burdette visits. They claimed they were "hunting material" or were making "character stud­ies." Really they were just having fun loitering together, drinking together and enjoying each other's company. On one occasion, Burdette heard Riley give "The Object Lesson" to friends at the JOURNAL office, became con­vinced Riley could succeed with his own lyceum bureau, the famous James Redpath agency of Boston, and with this conviction wrote them a letter from June 7th, 1881 with an accompanying letter to Riley as follows:

"My dear Riley, I have closed a letter to the "Redpath Lyceum Bureau" No. 36 Bromfield street, Boston, and you are the subject of the letter. I told them I would write you and have you send on your press notices. Now, my dear frater, sit down and write them a nice little letter, and send them every good thing that has been printed about you, and see if we can't work into the "Redpath" lists. I told them I would only lecture 3 months next winter, and recommended you as the rising star on the humorous platform. Good bye, my dear boy, and God bless you. I'm awfully busy or I'd write a longer let­ter. Ever yours."

Riley became a Redpath lecturer through this recommendation by Robert Burdette.

526 • THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

Mr. Bryce needed nurturing and the play character's maturity came slow­ly. There is a joyous letter sent to Elizabeth Kahle from Riley on August 9, 1881 in which he says, "I have just received word from the Redpath Lyceum Bureau that my name will be on their lists, and for me to at once prepare my circular, and send a circular containing my programme, press-anities and personal letters of favor and compliment from such celebrities as Governors, Senators, Authros, etc.. as I may be able to interest in my behalf. These will be headed by one from Mr. Burdette, of the Hawkeye, who has already been of vast service to me, and of whose friendship I am assured for many rea­sons.

In 1881, Riley became a regular lecturer for the Redpath Bureau of Boston. He developed into a veteran. Riley's friend Henry S. Miller said Riley told him he always felt stage fright when he first arose to give read­ings but if he lay both his hands down on a table he got assurance. He need­ed to do that for sure on his first big trip to the East Coast from frontier Indiana. A famous Riley trip to see his youthful mentor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was planned. On his first lecture in Boston, Riley was bashful and probably would not have visited Longfellow except that General "Dan" Macaulay, one-time Mayor of Indianapolis and believer in Riley took him in hand and literally took charge of him. He drove him out to see Longfellow. The visit was short due to Longfellow's health but warm. Longfellow remembered Riley and the two talked of poetry.

The Boston engagement is fully described in Riley's hometown newspa­per, the Hancock DEMOCRAT of February 9, 1882.

"J.W. Riley, the young Hoosier poet, has returned to Indianapolis crowned with laurels."

The article recounts that at one of his Boston stage presentations, the audi­ence was 2,500, an astonishing number of people to gather for a literary per­formance in those days. James Whitcomb Riley was 32 at the time and was active on the entertainment circuits of first Indiana and then the rest of the country. When he tackled Boston, James Whitcomb Riley was welcomed there by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and was given a reception at the Papyrus Club of that city which had the reputation of being a very ritzy place where snobby writers and intellectuals went.

A current publication, THE WESTERN WORLD, contained a biogra­phy of the young Greenfieldian which was quoted in this front page article as follows:

"When contemporaneous writers speak well of a brother, the world may

MR. BRYCE • 527

pretty safely conclude that he has merit. Maurice Thompson says of the sub­ject of this sketch: "Riley is a rare bird. He has genius and among the young writers is far the ablest. If the fruit holds the flower and beauty of the blossom, Riley will not be unnumbered among the national celebrities." Speaking of one of the poems, another brother poet, B.S. Parker, says, "It is full of delicate creations of the most sensitive genius. Longfellow, Trowbridge, and Marvel, and other stars in American iterature, wrote com­plimentary things of him and sent him encouraging letters. Hence it is fair to infer that his position in the future will be one of eminence.

James Whitcomb Riley, poet, humorist, and dialect reader, is purely a Hoosier production, born in the interior of Indiana, in the town of Greenfield, which until with the last three years, has been his home. His father is still a resident lawyer of that place. Riley tells the story of his early schooling in the following quaint style. "My first teacher was a fat old lady with kind spectacles, who taught twenty scholars in one room of her little dwelling and kept house and her blind husband in the other. And just back of the cool dim room was a little Dame-Trot-kitchen where she invariably took me after a whipping and gave me two great white slabs of bread, cemented together with layers of butter and jam and as she always whipped me with the same slender switch as she used for a -pointer," and cried every lick herself, you've no idea how much punishment I could stand. When old enough to be lifted by the ears, that office was performed by a pedagogue whom I promised to whip, sure, if he'd just wait till I got big enough and he is still waiting. There was but one book at the school in which I found a sin­gle interest - McGuffey's old leather bound fourth reader. It was the tallest book known and to boys of my size, it was a matter of eternal wonder how I could belong to the big class in the fourth reader. At sixteen I couldn't repeat the simplest school-boy 'speech' without breaking down, and rather than undertake it deliberately chose to take a whipping"

This was how Riley described what his Greenfield education was.

The Boston trip was one arranged for by Riley's new agent for booking platform entertainments, the Redpath Bureau of Boston. Riley signed with them the prior year, in August, 1881. Then his brother, Hum, died in Greenfield. Riley was despondent and thinking constantly of death. No one in his family had decent health. His mother was dead and his father was not the same since his Civil War service. James Whitcomb Riley kept up his employment at the Indianapolis JOURNAL newspaper and took the Redpath booking for a reading at Boston as a means of climbing out of the

528 THE POET AS FLYING ISLANDS OF THE NIGHT

doldrums of his lonely life. The prospect of speaking at the Tremont Temple in Boston, where Dickens had recently read, gave him something to look forward to and he poured his energy into preparing for this performance. He needed this suc­cess and got it.

Years of travel and lecturing followed with national fame growing. Riley came to rely more and more upon alcohol to relieve his loneliness and depression. Riley performed on the stage beautifully but between performances he found the travel to be draining and depressing.

 

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