Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Yup, The Frost is on the Punkin This Morning

We drove on down to Springfield early yesterday to join the big March for Marriage Equality.  It was still a crystal clear morning up in McHenry County before we drove into cold rain and bluster that we would stand in for several hours outside the Capital.  The very first frost of the season lay thick and crisp on suburban lawns and corn field stubble alike.  And, yes, on pumpkins decorating porches and stoops, piled high in a road side stand, or, in one case, still laying in a patch among the spreading vines.
This morning, the air was even clearer.  Under the perfect, cloudless sky the frost was, if anything thicker.  Folks say that in the south and some of the western suburbs there was even a dusting of snow.  The trees up here, due to a long, warm late summer/early fall are only about half way to calendar art glory, but still a pretty sight.
On mornings like these I always get the old Hoosier dialect poem by James Whitcomb Riley stuck in my head.
Poetry snobs absolutely hate him.  But regular readers know that I like to rub those folks’ noses into their own my-shit-don’t-stink in my relentless quest to get real people to read and enjoy poetry in all of its many guises.  So this morning, a little bit about Riley and his most enduring poem.
Riley may not have been the greatest American poet.  But for a good many years he was the most popular—and the most beloved.  Many of his verses were written for, and loved, by children and there was a time when most could recite at least one of his poems by heart.
Riley was born on October 7, 1849 in the extremely rustic village of Greenfield, Indiana.  Although his father was a lawyer with political ambitions—the boy was named for a governor of the state—the family was still crowded into a two room log cabin. 
What passed for a super highway, the planked National Road, ran by the cabin’s dooryard.  In those days with inns and taverns scarce, travelers on the road often pulled up at the cabin, the largest in the village, for supper or a place to sleep by the hearth or in the soft hay of the barn.  From the time he was a small boy, James listened to and absorbed the accents and the stories of the visitors and entertained his family and friends with imitations.
As the village and fortunes of the family grew, they replaced the cabin with a handsome two story white frame house.
James was an indifferent, make that horrible, student in the local one room academy.  His mind was always wandering to the meadows, woods, and creeks and the play of his friends.  He learned well enough to read and write, but seemed totally indifferent to anything else. One teacher told his exasperated father, “He doesn’t know which is more—twice ten or twice eternity.”  He dropped out of school to work odd jobs in town and on nearby farms.
His father convinced him to try reading law with him.  But that was a failure, too.
Despite his love of his town and his friends among the lively local youths, Riley had itchy feet and a hankering to see a bit more of the world.  He took up the tramp profession of traveling sign painter, roaming the Mid West.  Later, he became a barker in a traveling medicine show where he honed stage skills that would later help make him famous and where he cultivated a lifelong taste for product, heavily laced with alcohol.
Riley didn’t write his first known poem until the age of 21 in 1870.  He sent it to a newspaper, which published it.  It became a habit.  The poems, usually in dialect, reflected his memories of the rural childhood.  Newspapers began, in the custom of the time, to reprint the poems “on exchange.”  He even started to get paid a dollar or two for a submission.
Despite this modest success, Riley suspected that as a rural bumpkin he would never be taken seriously as a poet by the Eastern literary establishment.  To prove his point, he perpetuated a hoax.  He submitted Leonanie an “undiscovered poem” by Edgar Allan Poe which was universally proclaimed as a masterpiece.  The Eastern critics failed to note that Poe himself was a famous hoaxer, having published at least six in his life, the most famous about a supposed 1844 crossing of the Atlantic by balloon.  When Riley revealed himself there were a lot of embarrassed—and angry—critics.  It is seems likely that tribe holds the grudge to this day.
He established himself enough as a writer to get a full time job on the Indianapolis Journal where he did reporting and regularly contributed verse, still a popular part of any American newspaper. 
In 1883 he self published an edition of 1000 copies of a collection, The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems under the pen name of Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone.  Most poets trying this gambit ended up with crates full of unsold books and ruinous debts to the printer.  Riley’s book sold out its first printing in only a few months.
That got the attention of local Indianapolis publisher Merrill, Meigs and Company which published a beautifully bound second edition under his real name.  It sold like hot cakes.  Riley would be associated with the company, which eventually became Bobbs-Merrill, for the rest of his life.  In fact that well known publishing house was largely built on the success of its Riley books.  The first of the original ones was The Boss Girl.
Riley was able to give up his day job, cater to his wanderlust, and promote his books when he took to the lecture platform.  With his charming wit, and theatrical style of reading he became one of the most sought after public speakers in the country, a genuine star of the Lyceum Circuit.  And everywhere he spoke, he sold even more books. 
One of the few critics who appreciated him, fellow Mid Westerner Hamlin Garland, said he was a peer of Mark Twain  “who had the same amazing flow of quaint conceits.  He spoke ‘copy’ all the time.”  In an interview in 1892 in Greenfield, Riley told him, “My work did itself.  I'm only the willer bark through which the whistle comes.”
Twain, by the way, was not fond of Riley.  In their only appearance together on the same program, he felt that he was upstaged by someone plowing similar ground.  There after he avoided those literary dinners where Riley might make an appearance and occasionally derided his adversary. 
Riley’s lectures and book sales made him the best paid writer America for a while, surely another bitter pill for struggling “serious” scribes.  It was said copies of his books were found in homes that contained no other save the Bible.
Riley never married.  He said a failed teenage romance back in Greenfield had made him decide not to commit his heart.  But serious alcoholism, that all too common malady of writers, was more likely the cause.  At least one lecture tour was aborted do to drunkenness.  Several attempts of stop drinking all ultimately failed.
In 1893 Riley began boarding at the home of his friends, Charles and Magdalena Holstein in the Indianapolis neighborhood of Lockerbie.  It was his home for the rest of his life and his friends took care of him through bouts of drinking and later severe health problems.
By 1895 he had largely stopped touring and his attempts to publish more “serious” poems were savaged even by critics who had warmed to his rustic style.  At home in Lockerbie he appointed himself an uncle to neighborhood children who flocked to hear his stories and tales.
That inspired his last, and ultimately most successful, original book, Rhymes of Childhood with illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy.  It was so popular through so many editions—it remains in print today—that Riley was proclaimed the Children’s Poet, much as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had been years before.  Twain was so moved by this collection—and probably the memory of his dead children—that he finally had good things to say about Riley.
In 1902 Boobs-Merrill began issuing elegantly appointed volumes of his complete works, an honor few poets lived to see.  Riley spent his last years editing the texts.  Eventually 16 volumes were issued.
Riley purchased the family homestead in Greenfield and his brother John lived in the house.  Riley would make occasional visits.
Riley’s health had been in steady decline since 1901.  He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1910 which confined him to a wheel chair.  The loss of the use of his writing hand bothered him and he later relied on dictation to George Ade for his last poems and biographical sketches.  By 1912 he had recovered enough to begin recording readings for Edison cylinders.  The same year the Governor of Indiana declared his birthday James Whitcomb Riley Day, a state holiday observed until 1968.
He made his last visit to Greenfield in 1916 for the funeral of a boyhood friend.  A week later back in Lockerbie, he suffered a second stroke and died on July 22nd.
Riley was widely mourned.  His books continued to be popular through the next two decades, finally falling out of favor.
His boyhood home in Greenfield is now a preserved historical site and his home in Lockerbie is the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home and a designated National Historic Site.
When the Frost is on the Punkin
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin’ sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover over-head!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’ ’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! ...
I don’t know how to tell it—but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me
I’d want to ’commodate ’em—all the whole-indurin’ flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

—James Whitcomb Riley

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