Riley, James Whitcomb
James Whitcomb Riley 1849-1916
American poet, humorist, essayist, short story writer, and journalist; also wrote under the pseudonym Benjamin F. Johnson.
The following entry provides criticism from 1894 to 1999 on Riley's life and poetry.
One of the most popular and best-loved American poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Riley, the “Hoosier Poet,” was celebrated for writing uncomplicated, sentimental, humorous verse. His poetry was often written in dialect and invoked a nostalgic longing for halcyon days and childish pleasures at a time when the United States was undergoing rapid industrialization and explosive social change. A prolific writer who achieved mass appeal partly due to his canny sense of marketing and publicity, Riley published over fifty books of verses, humorous sketches, and stories. He achieved renown as a performer of his own work on the stage. Seldom anthologized today, in his time Riley was so beloved that in 1915 Indiana declared his birthday a state holiday.
Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana, on October 7, 1849, to Reuben and Elizabeth Riley. Reuben, a lawyer, had served in the Indiana State Assembly and named his second son after Indiana Governor James Whitcomb, whom he admired. As a child, Riley was influenced by his father's powerful oratorical style. Elizabeth, who wrote poetry and supported Riley's early attempts at writing, died when the poet was twenty. A gifted musician and actor, Riley was a poor student who preferred to read dime novels and write poetry rather than focus on schoolwork. After briefly working his father's law office, Riley traveled around the countryside as a sign painter before becoming an advance-man for a traveling patent-medicine show. In 1873, he returned to Greenfield, where he worked for the town newspaper and published his poems in Indiana newspapers. In 1877, frustrated that his poems were being rejected by eastern periodicals, Riley concocted a hoax in which the editor of the Kokomo Dispatch published one of his poems, “Leonainie,” and claimed it was long-lost work by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem created a sensation, and although it was written in Poe's style, many critics nevertheless questioned its quality. After the fraud was exposed, Riley was fired from the Anderson Democrat but found a position with the Indianapolis Journal. In his column, Riley published rustic poems under the name Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone, which he suggested were submitted to the newspaper by a semi-literate farmer. His “Johnson of Boone” poems, published as “The Old Swimmin'-Hole,” and 'Leven More Poems (1883), sold 500,000 copies, and Riley spent the next ten years increasing his fame and wealth through his appearances on the lecture circuit with Edgar Wilson Nye. Riley charmed audiences with his oratorical skills, and his imitation of rural Indiana dialects earned him the nickname “Hoosier Poet.” At the height of his career, he made himself a commercial brand, complete with Riley cigars and “Hoosier Poet” canned fruits, vegetables, and coffee. Riley's birthday was declared an official holiday in Indiana, 1915; his home on Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis and his birthplace have been made into public memorials.
James Whitcomb Riley is best remembered for humorous, sentimental poems featuring memorable characters and written in dialect, such as “The Raggedy Man” (1890), “Little Orphant Annie” (1899), and selections from A Child-World (1897). In these poems, he often assumes a childish persona that evokes a world of “long-ago.” In “Little Orphant Annie” and “The Raggedy Man,” two of his most popular poems, he affectionately and humorously wrote about the Riley family's “hired girl” and one of his father's clients. It was typical of Riley to write biographically, and the poems from A Child-World and “The Old Swimmin'-Hole” and 'Leven Other Poems recall moments from childhood when he played circus with his friends, went swimming, listened to his mother's stories, and got excited when his grandmother visited. These poems are exuberant, performative, and often display Riley's penchant for using humorous characterization, repetition, and dialect to make his poetry accessible to a wide-ranging audience. Riley gently mocked high-brow tastes with homey poems such as “Rubáiyát of Doc Sifers” (1897), which recounted the philosophy and deeds of a country doctor. In addition to playful poetry, he also wrote sentimental poems, immensely popular for his time, about poverty, the death of a child, and disabilities, such as “Little Mandy's Christmas-Tree,” “The Absence of Little Wesley” (1888), and “The Happy Little Cripple.” Although Riley also wrote gentle, romantic poems in standard English, such as “An Old Sweetheart of Mine” (1875) and “Old-fashioned Roses” (1888). His “straight” poems, clearly derivative of John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, were never as popular as his “Hoosier” dialect poems. In his later years, Riley wrote many occasional poems commemorating important occasions in American history.
Immensely popular in his day, Riley's contemporaries hailed him as “America's best-loved poet.” Many critics celebrated his supposed ignorance, which Riley did not discourage. In 1920, Henry Beers praised Riley's poetry as natural and unaffected, with none of the “discontent and deep thought” of “cultured song.” In 1917, Michael Monahan wrote, “I doubt if a single intelligent voice the whole country over would deny him this merited title and distinction [of America's best-loved poet],” and that “[n]o writer in our time has won to the hearts of the plain people with anything like the success of Riley.” Monahan called “A Life-Lesson,” a poem from Afterwhiles (1887), a “Masterpiece” that “speak[s] to the heart.” Riley's work was also praised by Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Hamlin Garland, who recognized a “genuine authenticity” and idealism in his poetry. Riley's critical acclaim was greatly enhanced by his abilities as a performer, and he was generally held to be an outstanding performer of his own work. Famous Shakespearean actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry praised Riley's ability to become the characters in the poems he recited. However, other critics, such as Ambrose Bierce, felt that Riley relied too much on dialect and that dialect “cover[ed] up faulty construction … and ungainliness of structure.” A fellow regionalist, Edgar Lee Masters, faulted Riley's work for its superficiality, lack of irony, and narrow emotional range. Although critics at the turn of the century felt that Riley would always remain “America's best-loved poet,” by the 1930s public opinion had changed. Contrasting Monahan's 1917 praise of “A Life Lesson,” in 1951, James T. Farrell called the poem a “cliché of safe emotion.” Critics at the end of the twentieth century tended to find Riley a “minor” poet, whose work—provincial, sentimental, and superficial though it may have been—nevertheless struck a chord with a mass audience in a time of enormous cultural change. What interests modern critics is not Riley the poet, but Riley as a “protomodern figure” who, in the words of Thomas C. Johnson, “understood how to commodify his own image and the nostalgic dreams of an anxious nation.”
“The Old Swimmin'-Hole,” and 'Leven More Poems [as Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone] 1883
Old-fashioned Roses 1888
Pipes O'Pan at Zekesbury 1889
An Old Sweetheart 1891; reprinted as An Old Sweetheart of Mine 1902
Rhymes of Childhood 1891
The Flying Islands of the Night 1892
Poems Here at Home 1893
A Child-World 1897
Rubáiyát of Doc Sifers 1897
Riley Child-Rhymes 1899
Riley Love-Lyrics 1899
Riley Farm-Rhymes 1901
The Book of Joyous Children 1902
Out to Old Aunt Mary's 1903
His Pa's Romance 1903
A Defective Santa Claus 1904
Gems From Riley 1904
The Raggedy Man 1907
The Orphant Annie Book 1908
A Hoosier Romance, 1868 1910
When the Frost Is on the Punkin, and Other Poems 1911
Down around the River 1911
Knee-Deep in June, and Other Poems 1912
When She Comes Home...
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SOURCE: Garland, Hamlin. “Real Conversations—IV: A Dialogue Between James Whitcomb Riley and Hamlin Garland.” McClure's Magazine 2, no. 3 (February 1894): 219-34.
[In the following interview, local color writer Garland discusses Riley's work with the poet and gives a vivid sense of the performative elements of both Riley's poetry and his artistic persona.]
Riley's country, like most of the State of Indiana, has been won from the original forest by incredible toil. Three generations of men have laid their bones beneath the soil that now blooms into gold and lavender harvests of wheat and corn.
The traveller to-day can read this record of struggle in the fringes of mighty elms and oaks and sycamores which form the grim background of every pleasant stretch of stubble or corn land.
Greenfield, lying twenty miles east of Indianapolis, is to-day an agricultural town, but in the days when Whitcomb Riley lived here it was only a half-remove from the farm and the wood-lot; and the fact that he was brought up so near to the farm, and yet not deadened and soured by its toil, accounts, in great measure at least, for his work.
But Greenfield as it stands to-day, modernized and refined somewhat, is apparently the most unpromising field for literature, especially for poetry. It has no hills, and no river nor lake. Nothing but vast and radiant sky, and blue...
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SOURCE: Nicholson, Meredith. “The Hoosier Interpreted: James Whitcomb Riley.” In The Hoosiers, pp. 156-76. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1900.
[In the following essay, Nicholson argues that Riley is both an important regional and an important national writer.]
Crabbe and Burns are Mr. Riley's forefathers in literature. Crabbe was the pioneer in what may be called the realism of poetry; it was he who rejected the romantic pastoralism that had so long peopled the British fields with nymphs and shepherds, and introduced the crude but actual country folk of England. The humor, the bold democracy, and the social sophistication that he lacked were supplied in his own day by Burns, and Burns had, too, the singing instinct and the bolder art of which there are no traces in Crabbe. Something of Crabbe's realism and Burns's humor and philosophy are agreeably combined in Mr. Riley. His first successes were achieved in the portrayal of the Indiana country and village folk in dialect. He has rarely seen fit to vary his subject, and he has been faithful to the environment from which he derived his inspiration. James Whitcomb Riley is an interesting instance—perhaps, after Whittier, the most striking in our literature—of a natural poet, taking his texts from the familiar scenes and incidents of his own daily walks, and owing little or nothing to the schools. He was born at Greenfield, the seat of Hancock...
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SOURCE: Beveridge, Albert J. “Address by Albert J. Beveridge.” In In Honor of James Whitcomb Riley: A Meeting of Indiana State Teachers' Association, pp. 10-18. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1906.
[In the following speech, Indiana Senator Beveridge's hails Riley as “the people's poet,” suggesting that Riley is not only a Hoosier poet but has a universal appeal.]
Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen—It would seem that Indiana and the Middle West, the center of the republic geographically, the center of the republic numerically, is becoming the center of the republic intellectually. Only in America could the center of culture follow close on the heels of the moving center of population; because only in America is learning equally distributed among the people, so that where the center of population is, the center of intelligence must be.
At any rate Indiana at this hour is giving more creative literature to the English-speaking world than any single portion of the republic. Charles Major, the American Dumas; Meredith Nicholson, our latter-day Hawthorne; George Ade and Nesbit and McCutcheon, whose true humor sets the land aglee; Booth Tarkington, whose genius expresses itself in the most finished art of any contemporaneous novelist; David Graham Phillips, whose savage force and masterfulness are elemental and epochal—all these and more are children of Indiana....
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SOURCE: Dickey, Marcus. “Vision of His Mission.” In The Youth of James Whitcomb Riley: Fortune's Way With the Poet From Infancy to Manhood, pp. 271-82. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1919.
[In the following essay, Dickey describes how as a young man of twenty-seven, Riley had a vision in which he was called to be a voice for “the inarticulate masses.”]
Walking one April morning through an orchard with a friend, his eyes on the blossoming trees and his thoughts in the sky, Riley suddenly pitched forward into a post-hole. In the twinkling of an eye the Tennysonian sentiment came to his lips:—
O let the solid ground Not fail beneath my feet Before my life has found What some have found so sweet; Then let come what come may, What matter if I go mad, I shall have had my day.
The lines, repeated at random, were an innocent prelude to his “prolific decade”—the ten years of poetic effusion, whose natal days, in the providence of Heaven, mantled with rapture the summer of 1876. A glimpse of that rapture is seen in his remarks, three years following, to the Thousandth Man, Myron Reed. One winter night they were talking on the significance of dreams. Riley was in a state of ecstasy over a vision that had crossed his path. “Nor was I on the road to Damascus,” said he, “unless all men travel that way. I was vibrating between the woods and the law...
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SOURCE: Beers, Henry A. “The Singer of the Old Swimmin' Hole.” In The Connecticut Wits and Other Essays, pp. 31-43. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920.
[In the following essay, Beers extols the simplicity and sentimentality of Riley's verse, arguing that while Walt Whitman might be “the poet of democracy,” James Whitcomb Riley is “the poet of the American people.”]
Many years ago I said to one of Walt Whitman's biographers: “Whitman may, as you claim, be the poet of democracy, but he is not the poet of the American people. He is the idol of a literary culte. Shall I tell you who the poet of the American people is just at present? He is James Whitcomb Riley of Indiana.” Riley used to become quite blasphemous when speaking of Whitman. He said that the latter had begun by scribbling newspaper poetry of the usual kind—and very poor of its kind—which had attracted no attention and deserved none. Then he suddenly said to himself: “Go to! I will discard metre and rhyme and write something startlingly eccentric which will make the public sit up and take notice. I will sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, and the world will say—as in fact it did—‘here is a new poetry, lawless, virile, democratic. It is so different from anything hitherto written, that here must be the great American poet at last.’”
Now, I am not going to disparage old...
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SOURCE: Marsh, Daniel L. “Practical Religion: Humble Service.” In The Faith of the People's Poet, pp. 205-29. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1920.
[In the following essay, Marsh reads Riley's poetry against Biblical stories and aphorisms to suggest that the down-to-earth, everyday qualities of his poems provide a foundation for daily religious practice.]
In his poem entitled “My Philosofy,” Riley declared
No man is grate tel he can see How less than little he would be Ef stripped to self, and stark and bare He hung his sign out anywhare.
In this instance his “Philosophy” squares with that of other great thinkers. Confucius once said: “Humility is the solid foundation of all the virtues.” John Ruskin said: “I believe that the first test of a truly great man is humility.” Whittier felt that
The Lord's best interpreters Are humble human souls.
Jesus Himself once gave an example of true greatness when He washed the disciples' feet. This footwashing was not in the remotest sense of the word a religious ceremony. It was a custom of the time that when a stranger entered a home his sandals were laid off at the door, and a servant, the most menial servant of the household, was assigned the task of washing the dust and sand off his feet. On this particular occasion, Jesus and His disciples had entered into an “upper...
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SOURCE: Wyatt, Edith. “James Whitcomb Riley.” In Great Companions, pp. 182-90. New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1922.
[In the following essay, Wyatt examines dialect in Riley's poetry and states that “music enters at the spaces left by all those hard g's and gutteral word-endings he cuts out so gracefully.”]
In a delightful conversation quoted in an essay entitled “The Dusk of the Gods” in a recent Atlantic Monthly, George Moore says, “If there be a future for the English language, which I doubt, it is in America. A great deal of your speech is Elizabethan, and what is not you have invented. You are still inventing a language, while we have stopped; we take what additions foreigners and our savage subjects supply us, but that is all. Perhaps in America another language will arrive, adapted to literary usage … out of your slang, your dialects.”
Appearing almost on the morrow of the death of our most accomplished singer of dialect lyrics, these penetrating words brought to mind one of the most beautiful endowments of James Whitcomb Riley.
Like Uncle Remus he was an inventor of language, and his unique singing speech has contributed to human expression. He brought words from life into letters. Familiar phrases which had vibrated as mere blatant discords at the touch of a lesser writer, were at the hands of his skill harmonies...
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SOURCE: Farrell, James T. “The Frontier and James Whitcomb Riley.” In Poet of the People: An Evaluation of James Whitcomb Riley, by Jeannette Covert Nolen, Horace Gregory, and James T. Farrell, pp. 63-106. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1951.
[In the following essay, Farrell analyzes the sociological significance of Riley's sentimentality and nostalgia at a time when America was becoming increasingly urban and industrial.]
One of the problems of cultural history and analysis which is all too infrequently dealt with in America is this—how does the consciousness of writers evolve, develop, take shape in this country? Here, however, I can only suggest that such a problem should be posed and dealt with, and that it is also pertinent to the works of James Whitcomb Riley.
The analysis presented above should suggest the kind of cultural climate in which Riley grew up. Riley spoke at length of his boyhood, and his remarks are copiously quoted in Marcus Dickey's, The Youth of James Whitcomb Riley. Riley loved nature. He loved the streams, the fields. He hated and resented school. In after years, he spoke of school with contempt, because of the discipline of the three R's, the whippings, the floggings, and the boresomeness of the appeal to pure verbal authority.
“Omit the schoolmarm from my history entirely,” he said to Marcus...
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SOURCE: Kindilien, Carlin T. “The Continuing Tradition: Sentimental Humor.” In American Poetry of the Eighteen Nineties, pp. 56-9. Providence: Brown University Press, 1956.
[In the following excerpt, Kindilien catalogues those attributes that make Riley's poetry sentimental, notes the enormous popularity of sentimental literature in the late Victorian era, and ultimately dismisses Riley's “hundreds of verses” as having “no claim to distinction as poetry.”]
Most of the poetry of the Nineties was a sentimental expression. The successful poets had learned in newspaper offices that the sympathetic emotion could be marketed and they were willing to accentuate its place in literature. They had little reason to balk when they saw the success of Will Carleton and Jim Riley. Carleton had parlayed the emotional distortions of sentimentalism and cleaned the board when he turned up the old homestead. America's most popular poet of the Seventies, Will Carleton sold forty thousand copies of his Farm Ballads in eighteen months, and by the time of his death in 1912 over six hundred thousand copies of his books had been circulated. His “Over the Hill to the Poor-house” capsuled the appeal to the heart that became his stock in trade. Doting on the homely and the sentimental, he worked over the small town instincts with a catalog of banalities that were to become the stock in trade of the...
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SOURCE: Randall, Dale B. J. “Dialect in the Verse of ‘The Hoosier Poet.’” American Speech 35 (1960): 36-50.
[In the following essay, Randall provides a linguistic analysis of dialect in five poems by Riley, noting a controversy around whether Riley invented or faithfully reproduced his particular Hoosier dialect.]
An admirer of James Whitcomb Riley has claimed that ‘for his dialect poetry he kept notebooks as accurate as a scientist's. … The philologist of the future, studying Middle-Western colloquialisms of the late-nineteenth century, may depend on Riley's transcription of them as the most exact ever made.’1 Yet another reader maintains that Riley's dialect verse depicts ersatz Hoosiers who speak ‘a dubious dialect as yet unidentified by any philologist.’2 As such comments suggest, no very diligent search is necessary to find Riley criticisms ranging over the entire spectrum of opinion and prejudice. Since no study of the poet's dialect, so far as I know, has ever been undertaken, and since a sound evaluation of his work must involve a knowledge of his language, I offer here a brief analysis of his dialect usage. Let us consider the following kinds of evidence: opinions concerning Riley's dialect; his modus operandi; his own comments and poems; and the nature of Hoosier speech.
Perhaps early criticisms of Riley are best approached with...
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SOURCE: Revell, Peter. “The Victorian Poet.” In James Whitcomb Riley, pp. 57-73. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.
[In the following essay, Revell examines several key Victorian influences on Riley's poetry, noting that on several occasions the poet's verse very closely resembles the work of such “fireside poets” as Eliza Cook.]
In replying to a request from W. D. Howells for contributions to The Cosmopolitan, Riley asked: “But do you want dialect—or serious work—or both.”1 The implication that work in dialect could not be serious is more typical of the general critical attitude of the late nineteenth century than of Riley's attitude to his own work (though perhaps one reason for his general tendency to deprecate its value). Serious poetry was that written in “correct” English, but there was plenty of scope within this style for a greater or lesser admixture of poetic diction for the advocates of simple and natural language, and for those who favored a more ornate style and the use of “classical” (that is, European) models.
As we have seen, Riley favored a plain style. The volume of his collected letters contains several to aspiring poets, in response to the kind of requests for advice which he had occasionally sent to established writers when himself a beginner. A letter to Mrs. R. E. Jones dated August 4, 1880, sets out very clearly...
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SOURCE: Revell, Peter. “The Middle Western Pastoral.” In James Whitcomb Riley, pp. 106-29. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.
[In the following essay, Revell explicates the ways in which Riley's pastoral poems, particularly the “Johnson of Boone” poems, follow and adapt the generic formula of the pastoral.]
Riley's work in the pastoral form came to represent for his age “the essential Riley” and is, with a few exceptions from the rural narratives, the part most worth preserving of his total oeuvre. There are pastoral elements in much of his other work in dialect and even some pastoral poems in modern English. Riley was not above attempting to people the Middle Western landscape with mythological trappings, in such neo-Keatsian sonnets as “Pan,” which sees the god loitering
… listlessly by woody streams, Soaking the lush glooms up with laziness; Or drowsing while the maiden winds caress Him prankishly, and powder him with gleams Of sifted sunshine.
But this note was not the one to appeal to any but the more fastidiously literary of lady magazine readers. Riley's very popular pastoral “Out to Old Aunt Mary's” is also in modern English; in some respects it suggests Whittier's pastoral manner and calls for more detailed consideration later. Our task for the moment is to establish the setting for the uniquely...
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SOURCE: Gray, Paul H. “Poet As Entertainer: Will Carleton, James Whitcomb Riley, and the Rise of the Poet-Performer Movement.” Literature in Performance 5, no. 1 (November 1984): 7-12.
[In the following essay, Gray argues that Riley was primarily an entertainer and that his poetry was performance art.]
Spectacular as Carleton's meteoric career had been, the reputation he established in the 1870s was eclipsed in the very next decade by another poet-performer from the Midwest, James Whitcomb Riley. Though the Indiana poet was just four years younger than Carleton, his career developed at a far more leisurely pace. When “Betsy and I Are Out” thrust Carleton into the limelight in 1871, Riley was just beginning to think of a career on the platform. His heroes at that time were not poets but comedians like Josh Billings, Mark. Twain, and Petroleum V. Nasby.1 Riley wanted to be a performer, not a writer, and the details of his career indicate that he seldom swerved from that goal. Like Carleton, he wound up writing poetry because that turned out to be what he performed best. As a young man, he had refused to follow his father into law, joining a medicine show instead. After eight years of polishing his performance skills, the still-unpublished poet read his own work in Kokomo, Indiana, during the winter of 1878, to a full house for fifteen dollars. He followed this with performances in Tipton...
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SOURCE: Raffel, Burton. “James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916).” In Politicians, Poets, and Con Men: Emotional History in Late Victorian America, pp. 135-50. Hamden: Archon, 1986.
[In the following essay, Raffel proposes that Riley's drive for money and success—and a skill at marketing—helped the poet commodify his poetry, producing a mass market phenomenon.]
In 1899 William Dean Howells declared, in the pages of one of the oldest and most august of American magazines, the North American Review, that James Whitcomb “Riley has known how to endear himself to a wider range of American humanity than any other American poet.”1 Sales figures fully support the statement. Published in 1883, by 1889 Riley's The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems had sold over half a million copies.2 Between 1893 and 1949, his books sold something like three million copies.3 “No one could equal James Whitcomb Riley,” Russel B. Nye explains. “The public loved him for his frankly sentimental, gently humorous, and artfully artless treatment of tried-and-true themes …, and for his celebration of old-fashioned country values in a frantically competitive, urbanized society.”4 Riley was also a superb performer who “could have been one of the greatest stage comedians of his time (7).”5 When he “appeared at Chickering Hall in Boston on the same...
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SOURCE: Robertson, David. “Re-Forming Frontier Values: The Dialect Poetry of James Whitcomb Riley.” Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor 19, nos. 1-2 (1999): 14-27.
[In the following essay, Robertson provides close readings of “The Frost is on the Punkin,” “Rubáiyát of Doc Sifers,” and “The Good, Old-Fashioned People” to show how Riley uses character and warmth to evoke a comfortable humor that is filled with common-sense aphorisms.]
James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) was not a great poet. Indeed, he is almost forgotten today. At the turn of the century, however, he was one of the most popular poets, if not the most popular poet, in America.1 In his own lifetime he was a literary phenomenon. Between the years 1881 and 1893, Riley toured all over the United States giving recitations of his poems and sharing the stage with such fellow humorists as Bill Nye and Mark Twain. His popularity may be judged from the fact that in 1888 he was sometimes earning as much as the phenomenal sum of ＄1000 a night from his performances. His literary reputation was such that even as late as 1940 the US Post Office issued a set of stamps in a “Famous Americans” issue celebrating Famous American Poets which included Riley's portrait on the 10 cent stamp.2 And although he established his reputation by performances of his humorous dialect verse, his standard language poems were also...
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SOURCE: Bush, Jr., Harold K. “‘Absorbing’ the Character: James Whitcomb Riley and Mark Twain's Theory of Performance.” American Literary Realism 31, no. 3 (spring 1999): 31-47.
[In the following essay, Bush explains Mark Twain's theory of performance, comments on the novelist's respect for Riley's performed poetry, and posits that both authors saw the absence of any critical space between poet and persona as responsible for the success of Riley's sentimental poems.]
Much recent work on Mark Twain, including all or parts of influential volumes by Susan Gillman, Randall Knoper, and Richard Lowry, has been preoccupied with Twain's theories of performance.1 Oddly, none of these fine books has much to say about James Whitcomb Riley (not to be confused with Twain's friend James H. Riley of South African diamond fame); in fact, Riley's name is not even listed in two of the three indexes. It is interesting, however, that Lowry's study, which does include some rather brief discussion of Riley, begins where much traditional commentary on Twain's life has tended also to begin: that is, with the famous “declaration of independence” that Twain ostensibly made before the literary gods of brahmin Boston at Whittier's birthday celebration in December of 18772 Lowry calls this both the “primal scene” and the “locus classicus” of Twain studies, and deservedly so.3 I...
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Cagle, William R. “James Whitcomb Riley: Notes on the Early Years.” Manuscripts 17, no 2 (spring 1965): 3-11.
Uses Riley's correspondence to argue that he was a more complex, contradictory figure than his poetry suggests.
Carman, Bliss. James Whitcomb Riley: An Essay, pp. 11-25. Metuchen: Charles F. Heartman, 1926.
A personal essay about the author's friendship with Riley that includes correspondence. The author was a poet and contemporary of Riley.
Crowder, Richard. “James Whitcomb Riley and Children.” Library Journal 82, no. 22 (December 15, 1957): 3229-3230.
Short biographical sketch describes Riley's devotion to children, including the establishment of a Camp Jim Riley for disabled youngsters.
———. Those Innocent Years: The Legacy and Inheritance of a Hero of the Victorian Era, James Whitcomb Riley. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1957, 228 p.
A scholarly biography of Riley.
Dickey, Marcus. The Youth of James Whitcomb Riley: Fortune's Way With the Poet From Infancy to Manhood. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1919, 425 p.
First volume of a laudatory, authorized biography of Riley by his friend that, most contemporary critics argue, provides insight into...
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