It was called simply Indiana Writes. It was a literary journal founded on the radical but admirable belief that there were talented writers throughout the Hoosier State, and that it would find their work and publish it.
This was back in the 1970s, and although it appeared for only a few years, the magazine set the standard for an open, democratic approach to contemporary writing in Indiana that has not been matched since.
I wrote for it, as did many other aspiring poets and writers in Indiana at the time. We loved its high-quality graphics, its boxy trim size (8 1/2” x 8 1/2”), and its enthusiastic young editors, who were too young to have served in Vietnam or been active in the anti-war movement, but still old enough to have become enthused about grassroots egalitarianism and participatory democracy during their high-school years in the late 60s.
Nominally, it was based on a campus, but it went roaming through the state, and its special 1979 issue devoted to “Writing from the Prisons” has to my knowledge never been duplicated or even attempted by its successors or epigones.
Early on, as the editors looked for material, one of the things they picked up was that readers around the state still wanted to hear about James Whitcomb Riley. This at a time when even the possibility of a U.S. state having a literature or a community of viable writers was inconceivable to the various advocates of structuralism, deconstructionism, and other forms of Continental “theory” who were then riding high in the universities.
A freelance, unbeholden to any school or faction, I was asked to do a piece on Riley for Indiana Writes, and that essay follows below. With a few minor corrections and some added subheads, it appears as it did in 1977.
It was intended as a sober appraisal of this most stereotyped – and frequently mocked – of homespun American poets. Fortunately, having grown up in Indiana, I had known his verse since childhood. In the intervening years since this essay first appeared, my opinion of Riley has not changed, while my understanding of his accomplishment has increased.
The piece was originally entitled “Defrosting the Punkin: Another Look at Riley.” By the time Indiana Writes decided a reassessment of Riley was due, he had become pretty much of a sacred cow – invariably invoked, seldom if ever read or quoted except in superficial ways. It seemed reasonable, sixty years after his death, to try to defrost the punkin. Alas, our timing may have been off.
More biographies of Riley have appeared during the last thirty-five years, more Riley impersonators have come and gone after doing their shtick in front of countless bands of captive schoolchildren. and yet all this time Riley has remained the Cigar Store Indian of his state’s literature – a wooden figure mantled with dust, holding out his cheroots, but still pushed to the front of the antique store. It does not seem likely that this will change.
What have I learned about Riley and his example – a variation on the admonition “Be careful what you wish for” – in the intervening years? For one thing, I have come to appreciate his craftsmanship more than ever. And his savvy. He was far from being a backwoods versifier.
A few years ago I published a collection of villanelles – a rigorously rhymed, traditional poem of nineteen lines that was originally developed by the French. During my researches into the form I noticed that the first villanelle published in English in the United States did not appear until 1871.
Its author was James Whitcomb Riley, who was then twenty-two years old. That’s no small accomplishment for a small-town boy from Greenfield, Indiana, and it shows that during his formative years, Riley knew what was happening in the world of poetry, not only nationally but also internationally.
He’s still worth studying, then. But you must read carefully, and critically, while overlooking the Chamber of Commerce ballyhoo, the thinly-veiled press agentry of the Sunday supplements, and the knowing nods of the librarians. Their contemporary equivalents, the ax-grinding blog and the PBS special, should also be viewed skeptically.
The essay that follows may provide, even now, some perspective.
Defrosting the Punkin: Another Look at Riley
A hundred years ago an obscure young Hoosier newspaperman in Anderson passed off one of his poems as a long-lost work by Edgar Allan Poe. He proved his point to the friends who helped him – that in getting something published a famous name is more important than literary quality. And they all had the fun of hoaxing several big-city dailies and even a few literary critics.
But when the ruse was discovered, James Whitcomb Riley, then 28, lost his job on the Anderson Democrat. Two years later Riley drifted to Indianapolis to take a position with the Indianapolis Journal.
A century later, anyone who can provide first and last names of other public figures living in the city at that time is probably an Indiana history buff. But ask most Hoosiers about the last quarter of the nineteenth century in their capital city and invariably they’ll mention Riley.
There are names more logically associated with the city – Fletcher and Lilly, Lieber and Frenzel – but none more magical. Riley’s is probably the best-known name in the entire state for a period that produced a president, three vice-presidents, and several best-selling novelists. His name is also well known outside Indiana.
During the bicentennial year CBS television sent roving reporter Charles Kuralt out to report on something special about each of the fifty states. When he arrived in Indiana Kuralt might have chosen the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, Indiana University’s NCAA championship basketball team, or the modern architecture at Columbus – all newsworthy phenomena which have attracted national attention to the state. Instead he chose Riley.
The name and the association with Indiana are instantly recognizable. But it is more difficult to define the achievement on which that recognition is based. Riley was a poet. His reputation is not firmly fixed and in fact has a schizophrenic quality about it. Actually there are two reputations, the literary and the popular, and they have nodded to each other only occasionally during the sixty-one years since Riley’s death in 1916.
The Two Rileys
On the one hand, for contemporary students of American literature, Riley is a footnote – regarded by some as a mere versifier, by others as a minor nineteenth-century regionalist and writer of dialect verse, at best a children’s poet with two or three anthology pieces to his credit. In the universities, where modern American poetry begins with Whitman and Dickinson, Riley is considered to be out of the mainstream.
On the other hand, for “the man in the street” in Indiana and elsewhere who likes poetry, Riley is important. He is venerated as a poet of nature, of rural life, of the “old-fashioned” virtues. A simple man, according to this interpretation, he loved children and would set them on his knee while he recited “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie” and other delightful poems. In addition he was very successful in his day. His books and lecture-hall appearances brought him considerable wealth; he was invited to dine with statesmen and presidents. Above all he is remembered as the laureate of his native state, in many ways its most typical representative – a mellow, rustic philosopher, unlettered but gifted with an earthy shrewdness and a heart of gold. In short, the quintessential Hoosier.
There is a certain amount of truth to these interpretations, but each tends to exclude the other and to discourage further investigation of the poet and his work. Many readers today tend to dismiss the popular acclaim for Riley, who obviously wrote a great deal of mediocre verse. Riley devotees, in turn, refuse to acknowledge any weakness in their hero, insisting instead that the “highbrows” are out of touch with “real” poetry. On closer examination the two groups seem to be stalemated not by each other but by what might be labeled “the Riley legend.”
However charming, Riley’s few poems that are still remembered are not of sufficient merit to account for the persistence of his popularity. When a fan asserts that “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s” or “When the Frost Is on the Punkin” are “great” or “real” poetry, something more than poetry is being championed. For many of his followers what the Hoosier Poet has come to represent is perhaps more important than what he wrote.
Riley received the mixed blessing of becoming an institution while he was still alive. After his death, elements of his career were elaborated into a legend in which the “folk” edged out the “literary.” This evolution was gradual, nonconspiratorial, and benign. No one planned it and no one should regret or bemoan its development. What has emerged, however, is still a legend. Those who defend it without questioning perform the poet the disservice of neglecting important details of his life. Those who reject it out of hand overlook a potentially useful tool that can provide today’s readers with fresh perspectives on the poet’s work.
An Archetypal Career
Riley’s poetic career – the “stuff” from which legend is made – was, admittedly, almost archetypal. Within a few years after his birth in 1849, Riley began to fulfill every imaginable requirement that Horatio Alger might have set for a successful poet. There was the conventional small-town upbringing, the early interest in writing, the inevitable clash with parents who urged something more “practical.”
Next follow the obligatory series of odd jobs, the years of late-adolescent wandering and indecision, the merrymaking and the wooing. As the young dreamer’s poems begin to be published, as he attracts the notice of more established writers such as Longfellow and Howells, he practices his considerable gifts as a mimic and impersonator by reciting his work before small groups throughout the state.
In 1883 a friend on the Journal publishes his first book privately – “The Old Swimmin’-Hole” and ‘Leven More Poems – and when an Indianapolis publishing house decides to reprint the modest little volume, it sells five hundred thousand copies in the first ten years. On the lecture circuit in the 1880s the poet entertains large, enthusiastic audiences for as much as $500 a week – in a time when a quarter buys a full meal and a glass of beer.
New books of verse roll off his publisher’s presses. By the end of the century he has shared platforms in Boston, New York, and other major cities with some of the most popular literary figures of the day. He corresponds with important authors in this country and abroad, and gathers around him the best writers of Indiana’s Golden Age of Letters, who acknowledge him their dean.
In 1893 he takes up residence in a tall Italianate brick home on Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis and remains there until the end of his life, entertaining friends, supervising new editions of his poetry, receiving the homage of admiring readers everywhere. He is invited to dine at the White House; Sargent paints his portrait; Sousa sets his verse to music.
As his health begins to fail, colleges and universities confer honorary degrees, prestigious learned societies elect him to membership, his last two birthdays are celebrated by schoolchildren nationwide. The world notes his passing. His body lies in state under the dome of the capitol building in Indianapolis, then is placed in an impressive marble tomb at the summit of the highest hill in the city.
All of this actually happened to Riley. None of it is myth except in the sense that such a life has seemed a myth to all but a fraction of the poets who have ever lived. During this same period both Melville and Whitman died impoverished and in near obscurity. During the last twenty-five years of his life Riley lived handsomely, treated his friends and family generously, and made sizeable philanthropic bequests.
When one first surveys such a career, the reasons for the success and the kind of verse produced do not seem as important as the simple fact that it happened at all, and that it was done with writing alone. Riley received little help from his family, held no government sinecure or teaching position, courted no patrons. Instead, he had many friends and a wide following. Such a life may not be the greatest achievement a poet might hope for; but it is no small accomplishment in any age.
Perhaps because Riley’s career seemed so perfect it was easier for his supporters to go on cherishing his memory than to ask themselves how it had all come about or if his poetry was of lasting significance. Perhaps it was simpler to idolize what seemed to be a “safe” reputation than to turn to other, younger writers in Indiana still struggling for recognition. Perhaps the answers lie deeper. Regardless, after his death, the people of Indiana took Riley to their bosoms in a variety of predictable and not-so-predictable ways.
Beatification and Enshrinement
His circle of friends in Indianapolis immediately formed a memorial association in his name. Their first project was to purchase the Niccum-Holstein house on Lockerbie Street where the poet had lived as a paying guest for the last twenty-three years of his life. The home was opened as a museum in 1922 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963. Visited by thousands each year, it has never been restored; rather, it has been preserved virtually unchanged since 1916. Riley’s bedroom on the second floor contains “relics” of his life – his Victrola, his beaver top-hat, a painting by Wayman Adams of the poet’s pet poodle, Lockerbie.
The Riley Homestead, forty miles east on US 40 in Greenfield, the poet’s birthplace, was converted to a museum by citizens of the town in 1936. It exhibits a large collection of Riley memorabilia. The visitor is shown the rafter-room, cubby-hole, openings to either side of the “chimbly-flue,” and a “press” or freestanding wardrobe – models of the places which were presumably searched to no avail for the remains of the little boy who wouldn’t say his prayers in “Little Orphant Annie.”
In Indianapolis the memorial association collected funds for a second tribute to the Hoosier Poet. Building on his reputation as a lover of children, in 1924 the group opened the doors to the new James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children, which the association manages today in conjunction with the Indiana University Medical Center. With Indiana University the association also operates Camp Riley at Bradford Woods in Morgan County, a summer camp especially equipped for physically handicapped children.
In the 1920s, while the Sunday-supplement writers were dredging up a succession of claimants to friendship with the poet (“He Swam in Riley’s Old Swimmin’ Hole,” “Is Certain She’s Original ‘Orphant Annie’”), schools, parks, and streets around the state were named after him. The nation’s schoolchildren contributed their pennies to erect his statue on the Greenfield Courthouse lawn. One “Riley Room” restaurant opened in a downtown Indianapolis department store, another in a prominent hotel (since demolished). Riley Towers, a trio of posh high- rise apartments erected in the 1960s on the city’s near northside, for a time featured a “Riley Station” restaurant.
Gradually the luster began to dim. “The James Whitcomb Riley,” once a crack passenger train operating daily between Cincinnati and Chicago, now no longer even passes through Indianapolis due to deteriorated right-of-way, but instead goes through to the east, in the Muncie-Richmond area. Amtrak, the federal corporation responsible for the train, announced late in 1977 that The James Whitcomb Riley would be renamed The Cardinal. Amtrak officials were reported to have decided that “nobody knows who . . . Riley was anymore.”
“Hoosier Poet” canned goods, produced by a local firm, ceased distribution in the 1950s. High up on the interior walls of the main reference room of the Indiana State Library, completed in 1934, the names of forty-eight illustrious world citizens, from Thucydides to Edison, are inscribed in stone. There are six poets; Riley’s name keeps company with those of Homer, Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, and Tennyson.
One of the most touching remembrances is observed at Crown Hill Cemetery each year on the Saturday morning nearest Riley’s birthday, October 7. “The Poets’ Corner,” an organization of poets and literary-minded persons, have conducted “Riley Red Rose Day” for the past thirty-five years. At the end of their pilgrimage to the top of the hill they place roses on Riley’s tomb, offer musical selections, and listen to speakers invited from around the state. Those attending may be treated to a recording of Riley’s voice, made late in his life, reciting one of his poems.
Canonization and Its Discontents
What to make of all this? No one begrudges it, surely, not even the almost tongue-in-cheek bracketing of Riley’s name with those of Shakespeare and Dante on the walls of the state library (which was probably the work of a legislative subcommittee rather than anyone remotely familiar with great literature). But, except for the children’s hospital and Camp Riley, there seems little substance to such commemoration. Particularly disappointing is the fact that no individual or organization saw fit to honor Riley by setting up a program to assist or reward the poets who followed him.
In the foreword to his edition of Riley’s letters, Yale professor William Lyon Phelps noted that he had known the poet intimately for twenty years. “He cared only for poetry.” Phelps observed, “never talked about anything else.” Riley was an early member of the Western Association of Writers, formed in Indiana in 1886 to encourage the development of regional literature. He attended annual meetings and was enthusiastic in his support of fellow Midwestern writers. In his letters he constantly praised and encouraged his literary colleagues and wrote thoughtful, careful replies to young writers who applied to him for encouragement.
All that remains today to memorialize Riley’s passionate concern for poetry is a James Whitcomb Riley Chair of English Literature at DePauw University. There is nothing done in his name for contemporary poetry in Indiana – no prize competitions, no residencies or fellowships, no visiting poets invited to speak, no publishing programs.
The bulk of Riley’s manuscripts was purchased by J. K. Lilly and deposited in the Lilly Library at Indiana University in 1956, where they are seldom consulted. No major biographical or critical study of Riley has been undertaken since their arrival and there are no funds available to support scholarly research of the material.
Despite all the street signs and dining rooms and letters in marble it would seem that those interested in perpetuating Riley’s memory have tended to neglect the very fact that he was a poet. It is as though many individuals and organizations, with the best of intentions, concluded that the best way to remember the punkin – to borrow one of the poet’s most familiar images – was to leave it in the patch, wait for it to freeze, and cover it with cake-frosting. Riley himself would surely have been more concerned about making pies, saving the seeds, and planting next year’s crop.
The Punkin Defrosted
Even after all the icing of the popular legend has been scraped away, the punkin must still be defrosted. During the last sixty years one could not say that the human side of Riley has been suppressed; rather, it has been conveniently overlooked, despite the work of two capable biographers, Marcus Dickey and Richard Crowder. Their studies indicate that Riley, like many artists, was a complex blend of admirable strengths and familiar failings. A review of some of the less attractive failings indicates that the compensating strengths may have been more admirable than anyone has supposed.
Certain aspects of Riley’s life are not widely known, not willingly acknowledged by his supporters, and above all not mentioned to the schoolchildren and literary club members of Indiana, who often devote programs to his work each fall at the time of his birthday.
Riley was an alcoholic, for example. He drank to reduce the anxiety brought on by the untimely deaths of members of his immediate family; he drank to forget the embarrassment of the Poe hoax; he drank to help withstand the loneliness, uncertainty, and plain boredom of his early years on the lecture circuit; he drank, perhaps, for reasons not yet understood or acknowledged. Stories about his drinking are legion.
One account – perhaps apocryphal but “filled with the necessary elements of poetic truth,” according to critic Horace Gregory – has Riley touring with Mark Twain, who allegedly was having great difficulty keeping his partner sober enough to stand upright on the speaker’s platform. When they arrived in one city, Twain in desperation locked Riley in his hotel room and gave orders that he was not to be released until an hour before their appearance on stage. On his return that evening Twain unlocked the door and found Riley drunk as a lord. The poet had bribed a bellboy to put a straw in a bottle of whiskey and stick the straw through the keyhole.
Riley was also extremely profane in his everyday speech – although those who knew him hastened to assure his biographers that it was all in fun and that, somehow, he was really neither vulgar or obscene. “His profanity,” explained William Lyons Phelps, “was lyrical.” Neat or watered down, Riley’s foul tongue seems to have flowed freely with his sharp wit. Another anecdote demonstrates both tendencies. Two Purdue professors were dragging a rather uninterested Riley around the Tippecanoe Battle Ground, near Lafayette, as they described the struggle that occurred early in Indiana’s history. At the end of the inspection one of the academic guides asked if the poet had any questions. In his slow, nasal drawl, Riley asked: “How in the hell did those damn Indians get over that iron fence?”
Then there is the question of whether Riley liked children, which is bound up with the additional question of whether or not he was a children’s poet. With regard to the latter, one should consult Jeannette Covert Nolan’s essay in Poet of the People, issued by Indiana University Press in 1951, and containing three of the best appraisals of Riley ever written. Mrs. Nolan argues persuasively that Riley wrote about children from an adult point of view and primarily for adults; that he never aspired to be thought of as a children’s poet; and that children have little interest in his work except for three or four most-anthologized poems.
Did children like Riley? His nephews and nieces did, surely, but one must exercise caution in assuming that the children who flocked around him in his later years arrived there voluntarily. The familiar photograph of Riley surrounded by little girls in white frocks and little boys in knee pants, with his pet poodle on his lap, was not taken on one of his birthdays, but is in fact a still shot from an Indiana Centennial movie (now apparently lost) commissioned by the governor in the summer of 1916.
Here Come the Brats
But did Riley himself like children? There are many stories to the contrary, especially during the last few years of his life. So many, in fact, that his friend and first publisher, George Hitt, thought it necessary to deliver a little speech entitled “Riley Loved Children” on the poet’s birthday in 1936. No doubt sincerely motivated, and upset by what he had been hearing, Hitt denounced one anecdote in particular and in so doing unwittingly perpetuated it, since the Indianapolis Library later published the speech and added the pamphlet to its Riley catalogue.
According to Hitt, Arthur Conan Doyle, who had known and respected Riley, talked in 1922 with an unidentified friend of the poet’s. “He never liked children,” this individual told Sir Arthur. “He could write verses about them, but he didn’t want to see them. But they would organize processions to the child-poet. Jim would look out of the window and cry, ‘My God! Here is a bunch of these brats coming after me again.’”
Rather than true dislike for children, perhaps Riley’s aversion for them in his final years masked a darker truth. They may have been painful reminders of a lifelong predicament. Riley never married and had no children. In a letter written in 1891, thanking his friend Hitt for news “of all the growth of good in your own prospects and the children.” he adds, wistfully, “Ah George! They’re the fellers for a man to anchor by! ‘F I had just one, even with the scallhead, or warts – I’d be a happier and I know a durn’ sight better citizen.” This does not sound like a man who disliked children, but rather, one who was somehow deprived of fathering them. The note of disappointment seems strange, since candidates for matrimony in Riley’s life were not wanting.
The Bachelor Years
Riley liked women and they in turn were flattered by his courtly manners. In 1877 he became acquainted with Clara Bottsford, a Greenfield schoolteacher, and shared her company frequently during the next few years. Although there was talk of marriage, the romance ended abruptly in 1883. One biographer speculates that Clara “was unwilling to take a chance with a man who drank heavily and who could not manage his money wisely.”
During the same period Riley fancied a relationship with a young “highly intellectual woman” named Ella Wheeler, who lived in Wisconsin and who had already published a volume of verse on temperance that Riley admired. He visited her once and they did not get along; after corresponding with her for a year, he broke off the relationship in 1880. They met only one more time, years later, in a poignant and telling incident.
In early 1898 Riley was sitting in the lobby of his New York hotel when a woman came up and introduced herself as Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Since their last meeting she had abandoned temperance and begun writing volumes of what one commentator calls “romantic, unctuous verse, distinguished by a sentimental approach to spiritualistic, metaphysical, and pseudo-erotic subjects.” Her popular reputation had been secured when her Poems of Passion was denounced for immorality in 1883.
The mature Mrs. Wilcox explained to Riley that she was living in New York and that she was entertaining several young ladies at a luncheon for another lady poet. The party was coming down on the next elevator. They would all be thrilled to meet him. Would he shake their hands and speak with them briefly? Riley refused, and, when asked again, stood his ground. “You are a very selfish man,” Mrs. Wilcox told him. “You do not deserve your success.” She walked away.
It was uncharacteristic of Riley to have refused to chat with a group of attractive young ladies, especially when poetry was the cause for their gathering. He compounded the ugliness of the incident by making unflattering remarks about Mrs. Wilcox which later appeared in print. She replied with a caustic letter but one senses that the real bitterness was all Riley’s and that it had little to do with her image as a literary femme fatale. Such notoriety should have bothered the worldly Riley no more than her temperance notions had curbed his drinking eighteen years earlier. The incident stands out because it was Riley who was hurt – not so much by the exchange but perhaps by the sudden experience of seeing her again, after so many years.
A Private Burden
Riley’s biographers do not explain why he never married. They do acknowledge periods of dejection, loneliness, and self-suspicion throughout his mature years. Add to these the drinking spells, the profanity, the unpredictable crankiness, and the impression is that of a man who is laboring under a very difficult – but very private – burden. The biographers also report that Riley was plagued by illness. The details are not explained except for passing references to “a bronchial infection,” “a large boil on his leg,” and “overwork.” During the last ten years of his life these intervals of poor health were intensified by a series of strokes that left him progressively more paralyzed.
A persistent rumor, one that has been most emphatically kept at bay by the poet’s admirers, is that he contracted syphilis as a young man. It would be difficult even to speculate when this might have happened or under what circumstances. The primary symptoms of syphilis are often overlooked or may seem to disappear with treatment before the secondary stage of the illness begins to manifest. Medicine of the Victorian era had no real cure for the dread disease. The best treatment, involving various forms of mercury, was painful, dangerous, required literally years of application, and often did not work.
An individual with secondary syphilis in the late nineteenth century would have been counseled to avoid all intimate contact with the opposite sex, never to marry, and to follow a restricted diet. Alcohol only retarded the prognosis. Riley’s move to Lockerbie Street in 1893, where there were servants to attend him, may have enabled this regimen to be followed more faithfully than in his previous bachelor quarters.
Tertiary syphilis, which may not appear until late middle age, was to remain irreversible until the discovery of penicillin’s effectiveness in 1941. Prior to that discovery, the third stage of syphilis, generally referred to as paresis, brought gradual deterioration of many parts of the body, circulation difficulties, partial paralysis, and impaired mental faculties. Baudelaire had been reduced to a vegetable state by the time he died of syphilis in 1867 at the age of forty-six.
The times were Victorian. Riley could no more have acknowledged such an illness publicly than could Ibsen’s Mrs. Alving. If such was Riley’s fate – in the 1960s at least one Indianapolis physician was reported to have treated the poet for syphilis – it would seem to be long past the time when the condition could be discussed openly, without embarrassment or condemnation, and with compassion for the sufferer. One thinks not less of Riley but perhaps more. The cheerful letters, the pranks and practical jokes, the “sunny” personality shown to his friends, the optimistic homespun philosophy in much of his poetry – all this may have required immense courage in the face of such personal adversity.
Determining the exact nature of Riley’s long illness may have to await further research of his papers in the Lilly Library. Even if it can be defined, knowing what killed him may not add greatly to an understanding of his life. But it may draw attention to the social conventions of the period in which he worked and their restrictive effect on the development of his verse. Venereal disease was not the only unmentionable topic of the Victorian era. There were many others, and Riley possessed a shrewd sense of how to avoid them. Yet even though he stayed within the conventions, much of his work can be seen as a calculated attempt to give the readers of his day not only what they wanted but more precisely what they needed.
Remembrance of Things Past
Riley did not invent any of the forms he used. Dialect verse dates back at least to Burns, and in the nineteenth century Tennyson, Longfellow, and Whittier all wrote in dialect with considerable success. Riley inherited this tradition. According to Horace Gregory, in Poet of the People, “no maker of verses ever wrote more completely within the currently established rules of popular verse.” While obeying those rules, Riley nevertheless found room to create. Mrs. Nolan believes that, in fact, “Riley invented the typical Hoosier. . . . there is little to indicate that Riley wrote of the people around him exactly as he saw them, actually as they were, or ever had been. Instead, he altered and adapted them to suit his purpose. . . . Riley came first; the typical Hoosier has come afterward.”
To assert this is not to criticize the poet. “His mission,” Richard Crowder writes, “was to give the ordinary person – the common man – what he wanted to read and hear. To write above the heads of the masses was to defeat his purpose. . . .” Riley gave his early readers in Indiana something they wanted – an identity. Moreover, he gave them something they needed to legitimize that identity – a sense of the past.
Early in his career he is offering poems with titles such as “A Backward Look,” “The Old Times Were the Best,” “An Old Sweetheart of Mine.” In 1878 he attends “an Old Settlers’ Meeting at Oakland, Indiana” and delivers a long, sentimentalized paean to the labor-worn grandparents who had cleared the land, tilled the soil, and raised the babes. His audience was hungry to have that past celebrated. Literally dozens of his titles contain the word “old” – “old-fashioned,” “old chums,” “old haymow,” “old swimmin’-hole,” and so on. Dozens more contain the adjective “little,” as though the act of looking back through time was like looking into the wrong end of a telescope.
In the third essay in Poet of the People novelist James T. Farrell notes that an overpowering need of “the common man” in the 1880 s and 1890s was for security; and that Riley’s verse gave this need almost “endless expression.”
Farrell cites historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis, first announced at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, that the American frontier had disappeared. Turner called attention to an undeniable shift in American life at the turn of the century. The future belonged to the city; the United States was no longer a land of villages and farms.
It was not simply that the nation had turned the corner overnight from an agrarian to an industrialized way of life. The trend had begun with the Civil War. Americans – Riley and everyone else – had been living through the transition, and they had not had an easy time of it. The war, which left deep emotional and social scars, was followed by a time of droughts, panics, and economic depressions. Presidential administrations were corrupted and national elections manipulated. Farmers suffered, workingmen protested, anarchists were executed, Native Americans fought back courageously. In all, the period from 1865 to 1900 was troubling and difficult for everyone, yet this was Riley’s most productive period, when he secured the immense popular following which was to last until the First World War.
A Version of Pastoral
In Riley’s poetry the common man could find a clear pastoral vision, a recollection of the allegedly “happy times” before Cold Harbor and Chickamauga, before the assassination of three presidents, before Coxey’s Army and the “Splendid Little War” and all the other horrors which heralded the nation’s entrance into the twentieth century. Whether that time before the Civil War was really a pastoral prelude is beside the question. Riley portrayed it in that manner, and his contemporaries bought it. His own life mirrored the changes the nation was undergoing: from bucolic Greenfield to urbanized Indianapolis, from fiddle to player piano, gaslight to electricity, outhouse to indoor plumbing. By implication, much of his poetry denied that any of this had ever happened. But not all of it.
It is common to downgrade Riley’s achievement because he failed to confront the implications of urbanization and industrialization head-on. Two other near-contemporary Hoosiers – Theodore Dreiser and David Graham Phillips – found themselves exiled from their native state for having the courage and insight to do so. But it is not true that Riley, who remained in Indiana, did not know what was happening. In 1895, still working within the conventions that had brought him popular success, he published the haunting dialect poem, “My Dancin’-Days Is Over.”
The persona, an old farmer, stops his load of hay in the middle of a crowded city street, thronged with magnetic cars and fire engines, to listen to a blind fiddler on the sidewalk sawing away at “Gray Eagle,” one of the old-time fiddle tunes. What is significant about this poem is not the almost routine but still poignant flashback with which the persona escapes into a nostalgic reverie of his youth, but the fact that he is awakened out of it by a policeman yelling at him to quit blocking the busy street. The urban reality forces in rudely on the pastoral dream.
Horace Gregory implies that Riley failed as a social critic. Despite the poet’s comic gift and mastery of light verse, “he too often, for the sake of a convention he held before his eyes, betrayed his gifts by a serious moral flaw,” Gregory observes. “The mere conventions of Victorian morality, the vice of mere respectability, proved too inflexible for the insights of Riley’s brain and heart.” But rather than a failure of nerve, of which there seems to have been no lack in the poet’s make-up, by this point in his career, circa 1900, something else may have been holding him back. In the age of child labor, monopolistic trusts, and industrial pollution, Riley simply could not afford to speak openly. He had begun to cater to a new Hoosier need – cultural respectability – and by the end of his life it had very nearly swallowed him.
The Gilded Age
The new age had been approaching since the Civil War, but Indiana’s industrial development actually lagged behind that of the rest of the North and especially that of its sister states to either side, Illinois and Ohio. The Hoosier State’s “take-off” from a traditional, primarily agricultural economy into a modern, industrial one came relatively late in the century. But when it came, it came with a bang. In 1886 the successful drilling of several natural-gas wells north and east of Indianapolis suddenly revealed a cheap and seemingly inexhaustible source of industrial power.
The “gas boom” changed everything in the state – economically, socially, culturally. A single set of figures indicates the dimensions of this change. In 1880, shortly after Riley came to Indianapolis, the total assets of the state’s 92 banks was $51 million. Four years after his death, in 1920, there were 250 banks with assets of $432 million. Much of this new money was concentrated in Indianapolis, where a great deal of it was conspicuously consumed in the pursuit of “culture.”
In The End of American Innocence social historian Henry F. May explains that by the turn of the century Indianapolis had become the center of Midwestern literary culture – a veritable font of “the Midwest’s conception of itself: a rival of the East in culture, and superior in morality and progress. Western and particularly agrarian superiority went far back of the political speeches; it lay deep in the whole inheritance of this generation.” In his early work Riley had contributed heavily to that inheritance.
More eagerly than other Midwesterners, May observes, Hoosiers “had always flocked to hear visiting authors, from Matthew Arnold to Arnold Bennett. When Howells visited Indianapolis in 1899, he was welcomed by a half-dozen literary clubs and only the social elite could get tickets to his lecture.” But at that time it would have seemed that the cultural bubble, paralleling the industrial one, was only beginning to swell. For a literary capital truly to come of age it would have to stop importing authors and start exporting them. It would have to produce a native son who could go out to Boston and charm the Brahmins, play to packed houses in New York and Philadelphia, and come back home with a hatful of adulatory reviews and honorary degrees. Riley, who had already given the state an identity and a past, proved equal to the task. The bubble was still rising in Indianapolis, and he was on top of it.
What had begun as a mission to write for the common man had ended as a part to be played out before the nouveau riche and the governor’s cameramen. “His whole role must have grated on him a little,” May suggests. “We know that he carried on a long and brave struggle against compulsive drinking. But the public of 1912 suspected no cracks; Riley was the incarnation of home on the farm.” To have spoken out, as Crane, Dreiser, Norris, and London had already done, would have been to risk everything. Riley could not do it. But neither could he always succeed in masking his feelings in his later work.
The Dark Side
The poet of rural life and nature, the chronicler of the “old days.” the lover of children, the toast of the banquet years along North Meridian Street in Indianapolis – this is the Riley who is still cherished by his admirers, the Riley of the popular legend and the red roses. The other, darker side of this very complex man is seldom discerned or even looked for in his writings.
“Little Orphant Annie,” one of Riley’s best poems, certainly a perennial favorite, contains all the elements that brought him success: the evocation of childhood in an earlier time, the appealing dialect, the outright moralizing (“You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear”); plus the unfailing eye for natural detail:
An’ little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away . . .
In addition the poem exhibits other characteristics, not so noticeable at first, that crop up repeatedly in Riley’s work.
First among these is a genuine lyricism – “An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray. . .” Although he rarely sustained it through an entire poem, Riley was capable of writing passages of intense lyric beauty: “Vast overhanging meadowlands of grain” and “Along the river’s shady margin heard, / A harmony of noise. . . .” Sometimes the lyricism is plainly autobiographical:
. . . As one who wades, alone,
Deep in the dusk, and hears the minor talk
Of distant melody, and finds the tone,
In some weird way compelling him to stalk
The paths of childhood over, – so I moan
And like a troubled sleeper, groping, walk.
There are several such passages that, although they lack the irony, remind one of Hardy’s lyrics. There are many similarities in the rural settings described by the two poets. Like Hardy, too, Riley wrote a number of supernatural poems. Most are humorous, but in each a certain chilling quality comes through.
The fate of the two recalcitrant children in “Little Orphant Annie” is well known. Alongside that poem may be placed the grotesque antics of the “Nine Little Goblins” (“And you shan’t wake up till you’re clean plum dead!”), the disturbing Victorian melodrama of “The Werewife” (“Her sharp teeth sheathed in the flesh of me, / And her dripping lips. . .”), and the terrifying humor of “The Jolly Miller,” whose victim, a flea, returns for revenge in the middle of the night:
And “Oh!” cried she, “it is the Flea,
All white and pale and wann –
He’s got you in his clutches, and
He’s bigger than a man!”
Many of these tales are told by characters who are economically or socially marginal – Little Orphant Annie, Ringworm Frank, Ponchus Pilate, Coon-Dog Wess. various cripples, itinerants, tramps. hired help, and, of course, the Raggedy Man. No innocent shepherds, they are without antecedents or prospects and have no permanent place in the countryside from which they speak. In Riley’s day their real-life counterparts were being squeezed off the farms by new labor-saving machinery and new and sometimes dubious ways of organizing capital. His characters are first cousins to Carrie Meeber. Jennie Gerhardt. and others who had already set out for the city.
Riley must have known what awaited them there, but at the end of his career he could not risk describing it explicitly. Yet he could still take the restrictive forms and conventions within which he had worked all his life and speak through them in ways so subtle that the allegory seems to have escaped detection by both his admirers and his critics.
The Last Poems
In one of his last, most perfectly realized dialect poems, “The Hired Man’s Dog-Story,” published in 1907, the faithful raggedy philosopher, musing on the canine character, describes an incident in which two dogs, one from the country, the other from the town, carefully plot to rip out the throats of a herd of fifty sheep. Neither is caught or betrays the other. The characterization of the two killers is so brilliant, their dialogue so evasive and sinister, that one almost misses the religious irreverence, the savage contempt for the ways of humans, the symbolic implications of their senseless brutality.
The dogs themselves do not let the reader miss the point, however. This is clearly not a poem about “man’s best friend.” “Half the world,” one dog observes as they congratulate each other at the close of the poem, “don’t know / How the other gits its livin’!” The lines might have served as an epigram for America at the beginning of the new industrial age. They have not entirely lost their applicability even today.
In a slightly earlier poem, “The Little Mock-Man,” Riley presents a stunted creature who sits on a stairs making grotesque faces at everything it sees: bicycles, horses, chickens, Old Settlers, the girl who scrubs the floor, the music-box and the clock, circus handbills, the rich and the poor, “An’ ever’body ever’wheres!” The creature, ostensibly a child, calls out with a wild energy.
The cause of its mockery – whether pain or despair – is not revealed. It is a nightmare figure, worthy of Ensor or Munch, writhing as though seized with a sudden clear glimpse into the twentieth century.
“Defrosting the Punkin: Another Look at Riley.” Indiana Writes ii:2 (1977): 20-35.
Full disclosure: I was invited to guest-edit the 1979 issue of Indiana Writes devoted to “Writing from the Prisons” described in the headnote to this post. My co-editor on that project is today an eminent physician and researcher in epidemiology.