James Whitcomb Riley: Vaudeville Poet

In his day, Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) was known as “America’s Best Loved Poet”. Today, I fear that most English departments regard his work as primitive kitsch and he has consequently become an obscurity. I regard that as unfortunate, but then my field of vision is wider than literature per se; I’m interested in culture whole cloth, and Riley was a performer as well as writer, hence our title for this post. Even so, Riley more than earned his place at the table with the other ink-stained Indianans I’ve examined here: Booth Tarkington, Theodore Dreiser, and George Ade. There is a regional voice, and for a time Riley was also cherished as a national one.

It would be natural to assume, as some have, that like “Reilly”, his was an Irish name, but the truth seems to be that he was of Pennsylvania Dutch stock, and the family name was originally the German “Ryland”. His father was a well-to-lawer, a member of the Indiana State legislature, and a friend of Governor James Whitcomb, whom the poet was named after. At school, Riley was a poor and incorrigible student, but he learned a lot from his parents and other relatives. He admired his father’s oratory, listened to his mom’s folk tales and fairy stories, loved to read, was encouraged to create theatricals, and learned to play musical instruments.

When his father was badly injured in the Civil War, the family’s fortunes plunged and Riley very rapidly had to learn to shift for himself. The rub is that he wanted to make his living by writing, and that’s much easier to do when you have family wealth to fall back on. In his early career, Riley performed with traveling medicine shows, including Wizard Oil, and so this is one of the things we cherish about him. He is a genuine link between American high and low culture, in fact, it’s very hard to separate Jekyll from Hyde in his case.

Whitcomb’s poems began getting published in the 1870s. His best known poems are written in dialect form, although he sometimes wrote in a straighter style influenced by Longfellow and Tennyson. Early in his career, Longfellow endorsed him in writing, which gave his career a boost, and he even had a meeting with the senior poet a month before he died. At the start of his career, he was published only by midwestern papers, because his informal style seemed beneath the attentions of the stodgier folks in the East. As a gambit to demonstate his chops he perpetrated a hoax in which he had a poem published as a lost work of Edgar Allan Poe’s. When he revealed it as his own work, he suffered from the blowback for a time, but in the long run it’s like they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity,

Riley’s best remembered poems include “Little Orphant Annie” (1885), which became an inspiration for the comic strip Little Orphan Annie; and “The Raggedy Man”, which inspired Raggedy Ann and Andy, but also I believe L. Frank Baum’s Shaggy Man, who appears in several of the Oz books. So Riley is associated with dialect (i.e. the plain speech of the people) and with children, and neither of these fields automatically earn you respect, though some, like Robert Burns, for example, or Lewis Carroll, do manage to attain it. Like Mark Twain, who also admired Riley’s work, the poet tirelessly worked the lecture circuits, especially the Redpath Circuit, commanding large fees, and this was largely how he became wealthy. And this led to best-selling books which also led to income. His most popular book was Rhymes of Childhood, illustrated by Howard Chandler Christy, which sold in the millions. He also made some recordings for Victor in 1912; there are several available to listen to on Youtube. John Singer Sargent painted his portrait in 1903. Can there be a better measure of his standing in society at that stage? Yet he was also said to be close friends with the Socialist Eugene V. Debs.

In 1887, Riley authored his only known play Flying Islands of the Night, a fantastical romp very much drawn from fairy tales. I have come across no references to him performing in vaudeville; I imagine his fee would have been too high by the time the circuits came into being, but I can also clearly imagine him performing and being embraced by audiences there if he had chosen to.

Late in life, just as Longfellow had to him, Riley passed the torch to the next generation of poets, gicing support and advice to the likes of Edgar Lee Masters and Paul Laurence Dunbar. While he had several serious relationships with women, he never married. A severe alcohol problem was one of the likely reasons. But he wouldn’t be the first poet of whom that was true.

For more about vaudeville and related variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous