Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Will David Howe (1873–1946)
JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY was born in Greenfield, Indiana, in 1849. His father, Reuben A. Riley, a native of Pennsylvania, was a lawyer of ability and was considered one of the most effective political speakers of his community. In the Civil War he became captain of cavalry and then achieved distinction as a citizen in the little county-seat during the years following the war. Young Riley seems to have been exceptionally fortunate in his earliest education. The schools of his town were notably good, his teacher was, as he says, “a little old woman rosy and roly-poly who looked as though she might have come tumbling out of a fairy story, so lovable was she and so jolly and so amiable.” Then later he came under the direction of Lee O. Harris, himself a poet who “had ever the sweet spirit of a companion rather than the manner of an instructor.” Harris introduced him to some of the best poetry and encouraged him to commit to memory and to recite pieces that he liked. Most of the work at school was irksome to him.
          “There was but one book at school in which I found the slightest interest—McGuffey’s old leather-bound reader. It was the tallest book known, and to the boys of my size it was a matter of eternal wonder how I could belong to the big class in that reader.”
One of the first books which he bought was ‘The Divine Emblems’ by Quarles.
  The regular curriculum of the schools of those days, even when adapted by such a sympathetic teacher as Harris, and of the colleges not far from Greenfield, was not for him, so in his sixteenth year he gave it up altogether and went out into the world to see with his own eyes and to find out what it all meant. He began to write verses not because he wished to be a poet or because he desired to live in a literary atmosphere, but because that was the way he must express himself about what he saw and felt. Regarding his facility in versifying he wrote afterwards:
          “After long labor at verse, you will find there comes a time when everything you see or hear, touch, taste, or smell, resolves itself into rhyme, and rattles away till you can’t rest. I mean this literally. The people you meet upon the streets are so many disarranged rhymes, and only need proper coupling. The boulders in the side-walks are jangled words. The crowd of corner loungers is a mangled sonnet with a few lines lacking; the farmer and his teams an idyl of the road, perfected and complete when he stops at the picture of a grocery and hitches to an exclamation point.”
  Everywhere he saw the interesting panorama of life, at the courthouse whither he went with his father to sessions of the county court, in the print shop, the political meetings, besides the adjoining towns and counties which he invaded in the rôle of a traveling sign painter, musician, and story-teller. The people of a typical Indiana county seat on the great thoroughfare, The National Road, were the originals for all his subsequent efforts in verse and nourished his imagination and memory throughout his life.  3
  Riley’s first verses to be printed appeared in the Indianapolis Mirror, The Danbury News, Hearth and Home, and the Indianapolis Herald. Later he found employment on the Anderson Democrat and finally on the Indianapolis Journal from 1877 to 1885. While he was associated with the Anderson Democrat he wrote ‘Leonainie’ and passed it off as a recently discovered poem by Poe. The hoax was so successful that it deceived some of the best American critics, much to the discomfort of the author. Recognition which was not local followed the publication of a series of letters which appeared in the Journal signed Benj. F. Johnson of Boone, consisting of dialect verses introduced with the editorial comment of a Boone County farmer and printed as the old farmer is supposed to have written them. Although these verses were well received and newspapers everywhere copied them, young Riley had his days of gloom. At the instigation of his former teacher, Lee Harris, he sent some of his recent poems to Longfellow who, as Riley afterwards wrote, “replied in his kind and gentle manner with the substantial encouragement for which I had long thirsted.” A few of these early poems were put together and published in 1883 under the title, ‘The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ’Leven More Poems’ by Benj. F. Johnson of Boone. This was the first of a number of volumes, the best known of which are the following, besides many selections of his poems and several large editions.  4
  ‘Afterwhiles’ (1888); ‘Pipes O’Pan at Zekesbury’ (1889); ‘Old-Fashioned Roses’ (1888); ‘Rhymes of Childhood’ (1801); ‘Green Fields and Running Brooks’ (1893); ‘Poems at Home’ (1893); ‘Armazindy’ (1894); ‘Rubaiyat of Doc Sifers’ (1897); ‘Home Folks’ (1900).  5
  Fame came to him quickly and while he was yet young. In 1887 he was invited to New York to take part in an authors’ reading and was introduced by James Russell Lowell as “the voice of a true poet.” Then came an urgent call for him to read from his own poems, so insistent that his natural shyness yielded and quickly he became one of the most successful popular readers in America. The discomfort of going about over the country, which annoyed him, was in part relieved by association with such men as Mark Twain, Robert J. Burdette, George Cable, Eugene Field, and “Bill Nye.” The years after 1883 brought him continuous applause so that at the time of his death he was probably the most popular poet of his time, widely read in this country and in England. In his own State he was the most beloved citizen, idolized by men of all classes and children of all ages. He received honorary degrees from Yale, Wabash, University of Pennsylvania and Indiana, and in 1912 was awarded the gold medal for poetry by the Academy of Arts and Letters. He died on July 22d, 1916, in Indianapolis which had been his home for many years.
          “I was always trying to write of the kind of people I knew and especially to write verse that I could read just as if it were being spoken for the first time.”
  This was the ideal of Riley. He never touched anything he did not know intimately, better indeed than anybody else—the whimsical character, the boys of the town, the little village of a few houses such as Griggsby’s Station or the Little Town of Tailholt. He has few references to the classic authors or to mythology.
  “I never run to Hellicon ner writ about ‘Pernassus’.”
His reading included the masters of pure speech and classic verse in English, such as Shakespeare, Herrick, Tennyson, Keats, Longfellow, and his study of their verse brought to him a real conception of the variety and technique of English poetry. In conversation he displayed a deep interest in the problems of versifying and a sincere respect for the master poets.
  His verse always describes the things he saw and knew. A list of some of his subjects and the things he writes about will convey a suggestion of the intimate nature of his realism and the apparent commonplaceness of the world in which he lives—the little bits of out of doors, the clover, the roses, the cherry tree, mulberry, willow, the little red apple tree, the watermelon, the honey dropping from the comb, the beetle, the bumble-bee, the June-bug, blue-bird, “old bob-white,” jay bird, katy-dids, “the doodle-bugs”, “mister hop-toad”; particular scenes such as Griggsby’s Station, Little Town of Tailholt, Lockerbie Street, Down on Wriggle Creek, Up and Down Old Brandywine, On the Banks of Deer Creek and the Old Swimmin’ Hole; such characters as The Boy on Our Farm, the Preacher’s Boy, the Runaway Boy, The Old Band, The Old Tramp, Uncle Mart, Uncle Sidney, Doc Sifers, Armazindy, Old Bee Fessler, The Raggedy Man, Old Aunt Mary. It is perhaps significant that the words most commonly found in his titles are little, old, and song.  8
  Riley writes with his eye on the character and has always in mind a real person. He has been criticized for using such words as resignated (resigned), competenter (more competent), ministratin’ (ministering), such phrases as “durin’ the army” and “when the army broke out.” He had probably heard them or something very like them from the lips of his characters for no person has more intimate knowledge of the speech of the people he described. It must be remembered that he writes of the odd character rather than of the common type of country man. He is not interested in recording the actual words from a scientific or comparative point of view. Regarding the use of dialect he once wrote:
          “Briefly summed, it would appear that dialect means something more than mere rude form of speech and action—that it must, in some righteous and substantial way, convey to us a positive force of soul, truth, dignity, beauty, grace, purity, and sweetness that may even touch us to the tenderness of tears.”
  His dialect poems do not pretend to describe exactly the type on the farm or at the cross-roads. Rather they are little pictures or sketches or dramas which suggest a character or scene just as he sees it. Humor is the one indispensable quality, always present, always simple and kindly, bringing out with no trace of irony or ridicule or satire, a gentle sympathy, a common-sense morality which he thought characterized the common man. Just beneath the surface is always a simple and natural pathos which is as manly as it is tender. In some cases this blending of humor and pathos is assisted by the dialect of the humble moralizing philosopher such as ‘The Raggedy Man,’ ‘Doc Sifers,’ ‘Squire Hawkins,’ ‘A Liz-town Humorist,’ ‘Old John Henry.’ Again it comes in the simplest of pure English in such poems as ‘A Life Lesson,’ ‘Away,’ ‘Let Something Good Be Said.’  10
  About children he has written some of his best verse. He had no praise for the merely conventional child in books or in life, but was interested in presenting real children. This aim he set down in the following words,
        “since the elegantly minded purveyors of Child Literature can not possibly tolerate the presence of any but refined children—the very proper children—the studiously thoughtful, poetic children;—and these must be kept safe from the contaminating touch of our rough-and-tumble little fellows in ‘hodden gray,’ with frously heads, begrimed but laughing faces, and such awful, awful vulgarities of naturalness, and crimes of simplicity and brazen faith and trust, and love of life and everybody in it. All other real people are getting into Literature; and without some real children along will they not soon be getting lonesome, too?”
  He liked to record the fun and play of child time, the objects and scenes in which children are interested, in short the world that the real boy or girl likes to think about or cry about or dream about. For the time he is one of them, not talking down to them, writing out their fairy tales, lisping as they lisp, eagerly watching the pictures of the apparently commonplace world made wonderful by the red letter days when it was time to go swimming or fishing or when the circus came to town. He had a child’s delight in coining words and phrases that haunt the memory of children, such as hik-tee-dik, old man whiskery-whee-kum-wheeze, oo-Rinkum-Jing, The Raggedy Man, Lizabuth Ann, Little Orphant Annie, The Goblens Will Get Ye. The attempt of the child to answer some of the questions about the big world find expression in many poems, such as, ‘When the World Busts Through,’ ‘No Boy Knows,’ ‘A Life Lesson.’ Perhaps his most permanent contribution to our literature has been this child world in which boys and girls are not simply children but something elfish and eerie.  12
  His dialect verse is best known and has caused innumerable imitations, especially among writers of newspaper verse. To Riley’s credit it may be said that his own verse suffers not at all by comparison with any of his successors in this particular field. With his popularity as a reader of his own poems, simultaneously his public increased that liked to read for themselves the poems which they had heard him so delightfully present. Although he wrote much in dialect, he studied the best models and wrote a large amount of verse in the purest English. Few have surpassed him in the ability to convey the mood as well as the idea in simple language.  13
  His joy in living, his frank acceptance of both happiness and sorrow, his resolve to see the bright side, his preference for the simple and natural, his self-restraint in merely suggesting the pathos that lies just beneath a whimsical exterior—these are the abounding characteristics of Riley the man as well as Riley the poet.  14
  Riley is perhaps not the poet for the academic critic. He was averse to the cultivation of the “art of poetry.” He did not crave to be a poet or merely to bask in the sunshine of poets. He wrote no distinguished blank verse, treated no subject of heroic proportion, touched no classic themes. Rather he relied upon the simple and sweet melodies of childhood. With little of the psychologist in his genius he searched not for the causes of sorrow, but was content to deal correctly and sincerely with characters and scenes which he knew more intimately than any one of his generation. Like the greater poets he had real limitations, like them he knew his field and worked in it with a manly sincerity that will entitle him to the high praise which Lowell graciously accorded to him, “the voice of a true poet.”  15

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