In western civilization, poetry has long been considered the most artful form of the written word. As classical educators, there’s very little we can do that deepens our appreciation of words and their power more than dedication to great poetry and poets. The “Know Your Poets” series will tell the life story of various poets while also introducing the nature and themes of their work.
Onc’t they was a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers,–
So when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wasn’t there at all!“Little Orphant Annie”
James Whitcomb Riley
James Whitcomb Riley, born in Greenfield, Indiana in 1849, displayed little talent in his early years. He didn’t particularly excel in school or achieve any early fame. After his school years, he escaped from home by joining a traveling medicine show. He played the snare while the master of the troupe delivered that particular show’s miracle. Afterwards, he amused audiences with chalk drawings, the firstfruits of his artistic spirit. He returned to Greenfield after a hard year of traveling and banded with some friends to make a sign painting outfit called, “the Graphics.” When Riley’s friends remembered him after his death, they delighted in stories of his misadventures and mischievous doings during the sign painting phase. During these early years, literary achievement appeared distant, but two primary aspects of Riley’s personality were fixed; none of his adventures lessened his zeal for poetry, which he wrote constantly on the road, and he refused to disavow his childish sense of humor.
This childish sense of humor is what finally launched his literary career. After settling down from “the Graphics,” Riley began working for $10 a day as a reporter while still anonymously publishing poetry. One editor, who worked for a newspaper called the Dispatch, noticed a couple of poems that Riley wrote and published them. Aside from this one publication, Riley had never been recognized for his poetry. Riley reached out to this editor and explained that he had never been noticed because he lacked notoriety. So, he decided to write a poem and attach the name of a famous poet to it. The editor of the Dispatch agreed and published the poem claiming he had discovered the last poem of Edgar Allan Poe. The poem entitled “Leonainie” convinced the public and many critics of its authenticity, and it became a national sensation. The hoax went so far that Poe’s biographer requested the manuscript, and the editor of the Dispatch hired a local artist to make a convincing facsimile. Eventually, a local opponent of the Dispatch learned about the secret and published the author’s actual name, James Whitcomb Riley. The hoax achieved for Riley the notoriety he hoped, but he had not anticipated one unintended consequence, being fired from his paper.
Riley’s skill, however, was now nationally known and he started publishing dialect poems like “The Raggedy Man,” “Little Orphant Annie,” “The Old Swimmin’ -Hole,” and “When the Frost Is on the Punkin” which achieved great success. Despite the loss of his job, he grew in popularity until the people of Indiana awarded him the nickname “The Hoosier Poet” and at one point, he even became the wealthiest poet in America.
Riley’s simple style and homegrown language didn’t impress everyone. One notable critic, Ambrose Bierce, said of Riley, “Mr. Riley is one of a pignoramous crew of malinguists, cacophonologists, and apostrophographers who think they get close to nature by depicting the sterile lives and limited emotions of the gawks and sod-hoppers that speak only to tangle their tongues and move only to fall over their own feet.” Bierce’s criticism acerbically illustrates the antithesis of Riley; Bierce respected the elite and the esoteric. Riley simply wrote about the joyful, innocent, and plain. But Riley’s poetic accounts of so-called “sterile lives and limited emotions” charmed the midwest and pleased the nation.
Riley’s nostalgic and rural voice appealed to a broad section of the population, but although appreciated nationally, he was primarily a regional poet. His poems about childhood and innocence celebrated the everyday, the normal, and the mundane. Riley defended this focus in his poetry by appealing to what he saw as the democratic spirit of the nation. Any person could achieve literary greatness or scientific excellence, even a Midwesterner from the lowly state of Indiana. Not only did he promote this idea, but he proved it to be true by his own writing in the dialect of the Midwest which not only resonated with fellow Midwesterners but gave them an awareness of their uniqueness as a people; a uniqueness that didn’t limit them, but gave them meaning. In Riley’s adolescence, Greenfield, Indiana lay way out West, but when he died, it was in the heart of the Midwest, a region now identifiable and with a unique voice, a voice which Riley had given them.
In an interview late in Riley’s life, he reflected on what heaven would be like. Riley thought that in heaven the great yearnings of the imagination would be realized. He supposed he might see Robert Burns in his eternal youthful image, he might sit in a large banquet hall surrounded by his friends and hearing the favorite tunes of his childhood just behind the jokes and conversations of friends and family, or he might be able to relive one day from his life, and Riley, of course, would choose to relive a day from his childhood: barefoot, carefree, innocent, and playful. This seemingly innocuous reflection actually offers poignant insight into Riley’s artistry. Like the famous Romanticists, Riley fixated on youth, nostalgia, and loss of innocence, but Riley, an early Realist, turned this poetic paradigm upside down. Rather than writing poetry which mourned the loss of childhood, he celebrated childhood, both its playfulness and innocence. Appropriately the monument built in Riley’s honor, Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University, still stands in Indianapolis, Indiana today in honor of, and furthering his legacy of love for children.