The humanizing work of James Whitcomb Riley has caused him to be honored as has no other American poet. But what of his life?
A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF AMERICA'S CHILDREN'S POET
By Thomas E. Q. Williams, his biographer.
Children honor Riley on Riley Day, 1913. Lester Nagley photo. Courtesy of Riley Old Home Society, Greenfield, Indiana.
James Whitcomb Riley was born in a log cabin on October 7, 1849 in the little village of Greenfield, fast in the lap of Indiana's farmland but then still hidden in primitive oak and poplar forest. The Main Street of the village was the planked National Road; a highway that lured American pioneers along its fennel rimmed way towards California and the West. Riley's father was a frontier lawyer and politician who named his second son after an Indiana governor, James Whitcomb. His mother wrote poetry as well as baked in a hearth oven and raised a growing nest of children. Riley grew up among simple living, kindly people.
As a boy Riley was slender and retiring noted mainly for his ingenuity and pranks. Early in his youth, his log cabin home was replaced by a large two-storied house with bright green shutters. This home is now the shrine operated by Greenfield's Riley Old Home Society open to visitors from throughout the world.
Riley's parents feared he was not going to amount to anything. He simply could not learn history or mathematics. Once when a childhood teacher asked him where Christopher Columbus sailed on his second voyage, Riley answered he didn't know where he went on the first one. A teacher once moaned, "He doesn't know which is more -twice ten or twice eternity."
Riley's best poems recollect his childhood and youth in Greenfield. He was a singer in words of these subjects...He was drawn to Hoosier characters such as "The Raggedy Man," a hired hand who told the boy of the "Squidgicum-Squees 'at swallers the'selves." He and his brother trailed the country dirt roads "Out to Old Aunt Mary's." The little village was a melting pot of American folks from many national homelands. Riley's own parents had Hoosier Deutsch blood and out of the depth of sorrow Riley could speak their dialect to mourn "Dot Leetle Boy of Mine." Riley was sometimes called a "dialect singer" because he mastered the most telling expressions of those he heard. "Orphant Annie" told him tales he remembered all his life about wunks who lived in the ground and came out at night to take on innumerable forms, goblins who could interchange their bodily limbs, and fairies who lived under the stairs and left to make snowflakes and such.
Riley attempted to study the law and become a lawyer as his father wished but he could not apply himself to law books. His mind was a-flutter with romance with Nellie Millikan and activities of the youth of his hometown. In his mind came the words of "An Old Sweetheart of Mine." Then he wandered the American Middle West as a sign painter.
He simply could not settle down. Sometimes he traveled with a "Miracle Medicine Show" and garnered crowds for a talk by a medicine hawker with songs played on violin, banjo or guitar. Drama was another of his interests. He often played roles of those he had seen in his travels and mimicked their speech.
Entertainment proved to be his forte. Riley's first published poems were written for newspapers. Although Riley's pieces were picked up from one newspaper to the next and were much copied around the country, Riley felt his reputation as a poet had no chance because he came from the American "frontier" Midwest and not the East. To prove his point Riley wrote a hoax poem called "Leonanie" said to have been written by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem was immediately reproduced in newspapers with great fanfare. His point was made when James Whitcomb Riley was exposed as the author. Then Riley became very adept at presenting his poems on stage. In fact Riley's great popularity first arose from his performances on the Lyceum Circuit. Here he traveled around the country in every large metropolis reciting his increasingly popular poems reflecting his Hoosier youth.
Later in life Riley's poems were reproduced in beautifully illustrated books which attracted national and international readership. The royalties from these books enriched Riley to the point where he became the wealthiest writer of his time. Riley became not only :The Hoosier Poet" but also America's "Children's Poet." The child in us all was reflected in his work. In his fifties Riley suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side and he kept mostly to his Indianapolis "Lockerbie Street" home. His life drew to a close a week after his last visit to his hometown of Greenfield. He had returned there for the funeral of a boyhood friend, Almond Keefer, and had commented "It will not be long until the rest of the old crowd will be sleeping beside him." His own death of a stroke fell on July 22d. 1916.
President Woodrow Wilson sent a note of sorrow to Riley's family upon his death which expressed the feeling of the whole country : "With his departure a notable figure passes out of the nation's life; a man who imparted joyful pleasure and a thoughtful view of many things that other men would have missed."
This is the poet whose 150th birthday is honored this year of 1999.
BUT WHAT DID THE CRITICS SAY OF RILEY'S POETRY? LET'S READ WHAT AMERICA'S GREATEST CRITIC OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HAMLIN GARLAND, HAD TO SAY OF HIM IN A RECOLLECTION FOR THE NEW YORK BASED AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND LETTERS (1922)(Of which Riley was a charter member).
JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY
by Hamlin Garland
One day in 1885, while calling upon my friend Charles E. Hurd, the Literary Editor of the Boston Transcript, I noticed upon his desk a curious little volume bound in parchment entitled The Old Swimmin' Hole and `Leven More Poems, by Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone.
Hurd, observing my interest, handed the book to me, saying, "Here is a man you should be interested in. He comes from out your way."
This was my introduction to "The Hoosier Poet." I read in this booklet When the Frost is on the Punkin, My Fiddle, and other of the pieces which later became familiar through Riley's readings on the platform, and I tasted in them a homely flavor which no other American poet had given me. I became almost at once an advocate of the man and the book. I wrote to the author and thereafter read every line of his writings so far as I could obtain them. I felt that in James Whitcomb Riley America had a writer who voiced as no one else had voiced the outlook of the Middle Western farmer.
Year by year Riley grew in reputation and appeal. He published Afterwhiles, Pipes o' Pan, and other volumes of mingled verse and prose, partly in the Hoosier vernacular , partly in an English which was touched with the same quaint, individual quality. The magazines soon began to publish his poems, but in truth his success did not come so much in print as through his own reading of his lines from the platform. He had in him something of the minstrel. He possessed notable power to charm and move an audience and everywhere he spoke he left a throng of friends. To hear him read - or recite - A Song of the Arly Days was to be moved in a new and unforgettable way. His vibrant individual voice, his flexile lips, his droll glance, united to make him at once poet and comedian - comedian in the sense in which makes for tears as well as for laughter.
Year by year his popularity increased, until his royalties surpassed those of event he greatest of American novelists. He appealed with singular power to the people of his own State, but he also appealed to the readers in Eastern States. He expressed something of the wistful sadness of the middle-aged man who is looking back on the sunlit streams of his boyhood, and he voiced also with notable fidelity the emotions of children in the wonder-world of the present. In all this work of the homely American Hoosier type his pen was adequate. He was recognized at last as the chief singer in the rural vernacular.
In 1892 I visited Riley at his native town of Greenfield, Indiana, and the town and country gave moving evidence of the wonder-working power of the poet. To my eyes it was the most unpromising field for art, especially for the art of verse. The landscape had no hills, no lakes, no streams of any movement or beauty. Ragged fence-rows, flat and dusty roads, fields of wheat alternating with clumps of trees - these were the features of a country which to me was utterly commonplace - and yet from this dusty, drab, unpromising environment Riley had been able to draw the honey of woodland poesy, a sweet in which a native fragrance as of basswood and buckwheat bloom mingled with hints of an English meadow and the tang of a Canada thistle.
In person Riley was as markedly individual as his verse. s He was short, square-shouldered, and very blond with a head which he was accustomed to speak of as "of the tack-hammer variety." His smoothly shaven face was large and extremely expressive, the face of a great actor. Though grim in repose it lighted up with the merriest smiles as he read or as he uttered some quaint jest. His diction when he wished it to be so was admirably clear and precise, but he loved to drop into the speech and drawl of his Hoosier characters, and to me this was a never-failing delight. I have never met a man save Mark Twain who had the same amazing flow of quaint conceits. He spoke "copy" all the time.
In his own proper person he was wise rather than learned. His speech had the charm of the proverb, the sententiousness of the homespun philosopher. Once he said to me, "I don't take no credit fer my ignorance - jest born that-a-way,." At another time he remarked with a touch of mysticism, "My work did itself. I'm only the willer bark through which the whistle comes."
His dialect verse is written in two ways, one in the fashion of the man of little schooling who is expressing himself on paper, and the other, as the same man (or his neighbor) might express in actual speech the feeling which impelled him to utterance. In each case the expression is indirect for Americans of his type are careful not to "slop over" as they call it. As Riley himself says, "I never represent people as the scholar thinks they ought to think and feel, - I never try to edit nature. Nature is good enough fer God, it's good enough fer me."
As he drew towards old age his health failed and the quality of his work declined in value. He repeated himself as Bret Harte did, and when he tried imaginative or formal verse he often failed. His genius was for the homely, the quaint, the pathetic and his best expression was the vernacular. It was in poems like Nothin' at All to Say and Griggsby's Station that he won his fame, and not in fanciful pieces like The Flying Islands of the Night. There are a hundred American poets who can write conventional sonnets, there are very few who can catch the charm that is in Kingry's Mill and Down Around the River.
Others get the phonetics of everyday speech, but Riley thought in dialect. Common speech is the bones of his verse. It cannot be translated. It is not, of course, actual speech, but it suggests it, epitomizes it. No one else has ever caught more deftly the lisp and stammer of childhood. Eugene Field wrote about children, Riley dramatized them. In all that he wrote he retained individuality - even in his more conventional verse he was never without his own savor.
He taught us once again the fundamental truth which we were long in learning here in America, that there is a poetry of common things as well as of epic deeds. His immense success with the common, non-literary public is to be counted for him and not against him. Either consciously or unconsciously his verses were wrought for the family. He never forced the erotic note. Surrounded by Americans, he wrote for Americans. To me his restraint is a fine and true distinction.
His verse sprang from a certain era of Mid-western development. It is a humble crop gathered from the corners of rail fences, from the vines which clamber upon the porches of small villages, and from the weedy side-walks of quiet towns far from the great markets of the world For the people who are his kindred Riley was a spokesman, and his verse will not die so long as those of us who came up through the same lands and by-ways live in the golden memories of the "Airly Days." The poets of to-day are writing of different America, varying their accent to meet the demands of their day, and this is their privilege and their duty, but in the midst of the tumult of "the New America " I take pleasure in paying tribute to a man who did so much to embody a world that is gone.
As he said of his brother, so I say of him:
"With a cheery word and a wave of the hand
He has wandered into a foreign land-
He is not dead, he is just away!"