Friday, October 30, 2015

James Whitcomb Riley, Folksy Hoosier Poet, Dead of Stroke at 66

If James Whitcomb Riley, sometimes called the “Hoosier Poet” and sometimes the “Children’s Poet,” is remembered at all today, it is for a handful of humorous dialect verses that include “Little Orphant Annie,” “The Raggedy Man,” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin’.” But in his heyday in the 1880s and 1890s, he was widely read and immensely wealthy from both his verse and his popular public readings—which were so successful that Mark Twain, with whom Riley often shared the stage, refused to continue their joint appearances since he felt he was always upstaged. Despite his stardom, Riley was frequently so drunk he couldn’t perform.

This odd literary figure was born October 7, 1849, in Greenfield, Indiana, the son of a successful lawyer and his wife.  He began his working days as a sign painter, submitting bits of verse to newspapers on the side. Eventually he obtained a permanent job with the Indiana Journal, for which he wrote a society column studded with his verses. He also submitted his poetic output to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the nation’s most revered poet in the 1860s and 1870s, hoping for an endorsement. A few months before Longfellow’s death, Riley managed to barge his way into Longfellow’s home, even though doctors had ordered the ailing elder poet to receive no visitors.  Shortly after he died, Riley published embellished accounts of his visit and the praise that Longfellow had lavished upon him.  It wasn’t long until Riley was able to inherit the mantle of the nation’s leading poet.

Never married and fighting alcoholism all his life, Riley had a twelve-year on-and-off romance with a Greenfield schoolteacher named Clara Bottsford. Eventually his drinking caused them to split.

Riley took a boyish delight in playing pointless practical jokes. He would pretend to be blind and draw a crowd to watch him paint a sign. He once rigged up a long hose from an abandoned cellar to the adjacent building and projected his voice through the hose, calling out to passersby that he was trapped in the cellar. His most infamous prank backfired on him.  He persuaded the editor of the Kokomo Dispatch to publish a poem he had written in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, claiming it was a newly discovered unpublished piece of Poe’s work. It was picked up by a few other newspapers, but the sensational hoax Riley had hoped for did not materialize. The trouble was, the poem didn’t fool many people, and most critics said it wasn’t good enough to have been written by Poe.

Riley was reared a Methodist and maintained an affiliation with that church. His religious belief and his views of personal immortality conform to conventional Christian theology. In a poem called “The Evangelist,” he wrote:

            The Motive? That all tongues confess
            To Him—our Hope and Righteousness!
            Tho’ now the view be darkly dim,—
            Through faith we’ll win the world to Him!

            And Victory?  It will be won!
            God’s Promise—through His Promised Son!
            We’ll sing it in the realms above—
            Enraptured by Enraptured Love!

And in a poem entitled “We Must Believe,” he wrote:

                        O there must be
            Some fair, green, flowery pathway endlessly
            Winding through lands Elysian! Lord, receive
            And lead each as Thine Own Child--even the Chief
            Of us who didst Immortal life achieve....
            Lord, I believe:
            Help Thou mine unbelief.

By 1895 Riley was so successful he was earning $1,000 a week from his book sales and nationwide public readings—the equivalent of about $30,000 today. He received honorary degrees from Yale, Penn, and Indiana universities, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him a special medal for poetry.

But his persistent alcoholism caught up with him, and in 1901 he was diagnosed with a nervous disorder that his doctors called neurasthenia. It caused him constant fatigue, headaches, irritability, and emotional distress. He remained ill for the final fifteen years of his life. In 1909 he had an attack of Bell’s palsy, refusing to take any medicines except patent potions (which he used to peddle in his youth) and, of course, frequent doses of whiskey. In 1910 he had a stroke that paralyzed his right side, but after three years he was able to walk unsteadily with a cane.

On July 22, 1916, Riley suffered another stroke; he seemed to recover during that day and was able to joke with friends. But during that night he died in his sleep, at the age of sixty-six.

The governor of Indiana ordered that Riley’s body lie in state at the capitol building on Monday, July 24, from 3:00 until 6:00 p.m.—an honor that had been previously accorded by the state to only one person, Abraham Lincoln. More than 35,000 people filed past the open coffin, and thousands more were turned away. 

The following day at 2:30 p.m., with only family and close friends present, a funeral service at the Riley home on Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis was conducted by the Reverend Joseph A. Milburn, former pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis and a good friend of Riley’s. Riley’s body was loaded into a white hearse and taken to Crown Hill Cemetery, where he was interred in a flower-bedecked Gothic crypt with Turkish carpets on its floor. Riley’s hometown of Greenfield waged an ardent campaign to have his body moved to the family cemetery there, but Riley’s survivors decided that he would remain at Crown Hill permanently.

Note: Photo copyright by Moffatt, 1913

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