Sunday, October 7, 2012

James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916)

The Riley Festival takes place this weekend, October 4-7, 2012, in Greenfield, Indiana. The four-day festival commemorates the life and work of "The Hoosier Poet," James Whitcomb Riley. Born on October 7, 1849, in Greenfield, Riley was at one time among the most popular and beloved of American poets. In addition to being a poet, Riley was a newspaper columnist, a public speaker, and--in his younger and leaner days--a sign painter and house painter. He is supposed to have painted the old house across the street from my family's home.

Riley authored scores of poems which were collected in more than three dozen books. Among his most famous poems are "The Old Swimmin'-Hole," "Little Orphant Annie," and "The Raggedy Man." The last two titles inspired two younger men--Hoosiers both--in their own works. Harold Gray created "Little Orphan Annie," a comic strip that ran in newspapers for nearly ninety years. Johnny Gruelle and his family were behind Raggedy Ann, the little rag doll so well loved by American children, and drew her name from those two poems. The poem "Little Orphant Annie" is memorable for its refrain

An' the Gobble-uns'll git you

  Ef you

Riley was an artist himself, but he left the illustration of his books to those more accomplished than he. They included Howard Chandler Christy, Ethel Franklin Betts, E.W. Kemble, and A.B. Frost. Perhaps no other illustrator is more closely identified with Riley's work than Will Vawter (1871-1941). Though twenty-two years separated them, Riley and Vawter were friends, based in part on their shared memories of childhood in small-town Indiana. Born in Virginia, Vawter grew up in Greenfield, Riley's home town. In 1899, Riley wrote to Vawter: "Simply you are divinely ordained to succeed. And now as I forecast you must prove it." With that, Vawter became Riley's handpicked illustrator.

Other Indiana illustrators who contributed to Riley's books included Virginia Keep Clark (1878-1962), William F. Heitman (1878-1945), and two artists of the Hoosier Group, Richard Buckner Gruelle (1851-1914) and T.C. Steele (1847-1926). (R.B. Gruelle was Johnny Gruelle's father and a friend of Riley. The two men lived close by each other in Indianapolis and Riley was a frequent visitor in the Gruelle home.) Mary Catherine McDonald (1852-1897), about whom little is known, was another Riley illustrator. Riley was also a mentor and benefactor to younger authors, including poet and illustrator Evaleen Stein (1863-1923) of Lafayette, Indiana. Among the more accomplished of Riley's illustrators was Franklin Booth (1874-1948). His full-color drawings for Riley's fantasy poem-play, The Flying Islands of the Night (1913), are simply breathtaking. Booth's interest in and knowledge of architecture are on full display in these drawings. His trademark trees, clouds, and floating and flying objects can be found in almost every image. You can see all of Booth's illustrations on a blog called "Golden Age Comic Book Stories," here.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913), an adopted Hoosier, an author, and an artist himself, defined reading as:

The general body of what one reads. In our country it consists, as a rule, of Indiana novels, short stories in "dialect" and humor in slang. (From The Devil's Dictionary.)
If you substitute "poems" for "short stories" (thereby throwing Riley into the mix) and recognize that George Ade was the leading author of "humor in slang," you'll see that Indiana authors were a dominant force in American literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. James Whitcomb Riley played his part in that. If he isn't well known anywhere else today, he is remembered at least in his hometown this weekend.

James Whitcomb Riley, "The Hoosier Poet," commemorated in a U.S. postage stamp in 1940.
And on a cigar box lid, on which he is called the "Hoosier Bard."
As a young man, Riley worked as a sign painter and house painter. Here is an advertisement in his own hand from 1871.
Riley was no mean artist, as this advertisement for McGrillus' Blood Tonic demonstrates. The image is from 1872 and was part of an exhibition at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana, in 2011. You can read more on the website of Indiana Public Media, here.
Will Vawter was Riley's hand-picked illustrator. This image is from Farm Rhymes (1903).
In my list of Indiana artists who illustrated Riley's poems, I shouldn't forget Cobb Shinn (1887-1951) of Fillmore and Indianapolis. During the postcard craze of the early 1900s, Shinn created hundreds of designs, including this one and the one below for a series entitled "Riley Roses."
Franklin Booth illustrated Riley's book The Flying Islands of the Night from 1913. The book was published by Bobbs-Merrill of Indianapolis.
The Flying Islands of the Night was a rare chance for Booth to work in color. The results compare favorably with the work of any American illustrator of his day. Like Riley, Booth was the son of a hard-nosed military veteran with little understanding of his interest in the arts. Both men got a comparatively late start in life and worked for newspapers before finally meeting with success. Interestingly, neither ever married.

Text copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

1 comment:

  1. On Riley's first book where he used his own name, "Boss Girl," - the cover was illustrated by a young Booth Tarkington.