The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.X. Later Poets
§ 16. James Whitcomb Riley
Carleton’s success foreshadows the still greater success of another journalist and public reader of his own verse, the “People’s Laureate,” James Whitcomb Riley. Of Pennsylvania Dutch and Irish stock, the latter predominating, he was born in 1849 in the country town of Greenfield, Indiana, where his father had attained a considerable local reputation as a lawyer and orator. In his boyhood Riley was, as he says, “always ready to declaim and took natively to anything dramatic or theatrical.” He was fond of poetry before he could read it, carrying a copy of Quarles’s Divine Emblems about with him for the sake of its “feel.” In later years his favourite authors were Burns in poetry and Dickens in prose. With his father he often went to the courthouse, where, being allowed to mingle freely with the country people, he came to know the dialect and the hearts and minds of the people who were in after years to be the subject of his poems. For a time he devoted himself to music—the banjo, the guitar, the violin, the drum.
For a time, too, he was a “house, sign, and ornamental painter,” covering, he tells us, “all the barns and fences in the State with advertisements.” Persuaded by his father, he read law, only to find himself running away with a travelling medicine man, whose company was composed, he says, of “good straight boys, jolly chirping vagabonds like myself. Sometimes I assisted the musical olio with dialect recitations and character sketches from the back step of the wagon.” This life suited him; “I laughed all the time.”
Returning to Greenfield, he entered journalism, and began to publish in various papers elsewhere. Lean and uncertain years followed, till, in 1877, he was invited to take a place on The Indianapolis Journal. In this newspaper he printed his dialect poems by “Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone,” which were welcomed so warmly that a pamphlet edition was sold locally, with the title The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ’Leven More Poems (1883). This marks the beginning of his widespread success as a poet of the people, which led to his success as a public reader of his own work. Early in his career he had been given valuable encouragement by the Eastern people’s laureate, Longfellow, and in 1887, when he appeared before a New York audience, he was introduced as a “true poet” by the author of The Biglow Papers. By 1912 schools in many parts of the country celebrated “Riley Day”; by 1915 he was honoured by official recognition, the Secretary of the Interior suggesting that one of his poems be read in each school-house in the land. When he died in the year following, some thirty-five thousand people are said to have passed his body as it lay in state under the dome of the Indiana capitol. The impression that Riley made—and still makes—on the American public was indeed extraordinary.
It is to be accounted for, in part, by his personality. His sunny, gentle nature won the affection of those who met him, and he had a group of loyal friends who presented him to the public in his true character. But in the main his popularity depends on the excellence and the limits of his achievement. Essentially sincere, he nevertheless aimed at the public a little too deliberately. “In my readings,” he informs us, “I had an opportunity to study and find out for myself what the public wants, and afterwards I would endeavour to use the knowledge gained in my writing.” The public wants, he concluded, “simple sentiments that come from the heart” and not intellectual excellence; he must therefore compose poems, he says expressively, “simply heart high.”
This he did. Even his poems in conventional English, of which he wrote not a few, fail to rise above simple sentiments; there is scarcely a trace of thought or passion in even so pleasantly sentimental a poem as An Old Sweetheart of Mine. Nor, in all his dialect verse, is there more than a suggestion here and there of the profundity of emotion—not to mention profundity of thought—of the great poets. He wrote of the everyday life of rustic America, of “home” and “old times,”—magic words with him,—of childhood, of simple well-tried pleasures and sensibly received pains. He had genuine sympathy for ordinary folk, for animals, for nature. In his presentation of character,—Old John Clevenger, Bee Fessler, Myle Jones’s wife, and the rest of his large gallery,—he showed an understanding born of sympathy and humour; in his pictures of nature, as in When the Frost is on the Punkin, responsiveness and distinct vision, though to be sure he fails to go much below the physical, even the air being “so appetizin” merely. His “philosophy” is that of the prudent farmer; it is made up of the most patent truisms, though some of them are freshly worded. If there is nowhere the quality of The Biglow Papers, still less of Burns, there is at least a wholesomeness of mood and mind, uncommon in the restlessly brooding nineteenth century, that offers some justification for Riley’s enormous vogue. Though there are capacities in the American mind and character that he does not appeal to, it is undeniable that he appeals urgently to the normal thoughts and feelings of the divine average.