Tuesday, April 30, 2019

We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years by an Unknown Proletarian

The sheet music for We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years remained in print for more than 70 years.

Well, it’s the last day of National Poetry Month and our annual festival of verse is winding down.  Since tomorrow is May Day, I thought I would share one of my favorite IWW poems.

We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years first appeared as a poem in the pages of The Industrial Union Bulletin in 1908, only three years after the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World.  It was credited simply to “An Unknown Proletarian” and I know of no research that has identified the author.  It was popular from the start and was frequently reprinted and was included in early editions of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent better known as the IWW pocket sized Little Red Songbook.

Around 1912 it was set to music by Rudolph von Liebich identified only as a “member of the General Recruiting Union, Chicago, and Composer of Music for the Working Class.  Not much to go on there, either.  

In addition to being printed in new editions of the Songbook, the song was issued as piano sheet music by the union.  Along with Joe Hill’s Rebel Girl and the IWW version of The International it remained in print in that form for more than 70 years.

In the early 1970’s Utah Phillips recorded a version that has become a classic.
I love this poem because it lays out the heavy cost of the exploitation of labor better than anything I know.

We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years

We have fed you all, for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there's never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the worker's dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full.

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we're buried alive for you.
There's never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth
Good God! We have paid it in.

We have fed you all for a thousand years--
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike of a week ago.
You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives,
And we're told it's your legal share;
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth
Good God! We have bought it fair.

—An Unknown Proletarian

Monday, April 29, 2019

On the Wine Dark Sea—Poems on Salt Water

Dutch Boats by J.W,M. Turner

I grew up where the tang in the air at dawn was sagebrush, not salt water, where the vast rolling expanse was the high prairie sloping away from the Big Horns toward the Powder River, and where most of the year you can wade across almost any water without getting your belt wet.  I have never lived by the shore or, except for a childhood Sunday excursion to Catalina Island, ever been on the ocean.
Despite my landlubber status, it is easy to see the lure of the sea, its lore, its call to mysterious adventure.  So many poets have felt that call.
Sometimes called an elegy to himself, this famous poem by Mathew Arnold could also be included in a roundup of death poems.  In fact the sea and death often seem inseparable especially in the days when many who sailed never returned to port.
Dover Beach.
Dover Beach
The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; — on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
—Mathew Arnold

Ships on a stormy sea.

Walt Whitman, of course, caught the hurly-burly of the ships of the world crowding the harbor of old New York, is thrilled by the wide world they represent—and by the sailor boys come ashore.  But he dare not forget the many never come to harbor again.

Song for All Seas, All Ships


To-day a rude brief recitative,
Of ships sailing the Seas, each with its special flag or ship-signal;
Of unnamed heroes in the ships—Of waves spreading and spreading, far as the eye can reach;
Of dashing spray, and the winds piping and blowing;
And out of these a chant, for the sailors of all nations,
Fitful, like a surge.

Of Sea-Captains young or old, and the Mates—and of all intrepid Sailors;
Of the few, very choice, taciturn, whom fate can never surprise, nor death dismay,
Pick’d sparingly, without noise, by thee, old Ocean—chosen by thee,
Thou Sea, that pickest and cullest the race, in Time, and unitest Nations!
Suckled by thee, old husky Nurse—embodying thee!
Indomitable, untamed as thee.

(Ever the heroes, on water or on land, by ones or twos appearing,
Ever the stock preserv’d, and never lost, though rare—enough for seed preserv’d.)


Flaunt out O Sea, your separate flags of nations!
Flaunt out, visible as ever, the various ship-signals!
But do you reserve especially for yourself, and for the soul of man, one flag above all the rest,
A spiritual woven Signal, for all nations, emblem of man elate above death,
Token of all brave captains, and all intrepid sailors and mates,
And all that went down doing their duty;
Reminiscent of them ‘twined from all intrepid captains, young or old;
A pennant universal, subtly waving, all time, o’er all brave sailors,
All seas, all ships,

—Walt Whitman

Stephen Crane's Open Boat

Stephen Crane was a youthful phenom as writer.  One of his seminal experiences was being shipwrecked and cast a-sea in an open boat in storm tossed waters.  Although he was quickly rescued, it led to his classic story of survival The Open Boat and poetry like this.

The ocean said to me once

The ocean said to me once,
Yonder on the shore
Is a woman, weeping.
I have watched her.
Go you and tell her this—
Her lover I have laid
In cool green hall.
There is wealth of golden sand
And pillars, coral-red;
Two white fish stand guard at his bier.

“Tell her this
And more—
That the king of the seas
Weeps too, old, helpless man.
The bustling fates
Heap his hands with corpses
Until he stands like a child
With a surplus of toys.”

—Stephen Crane

Gulls in a rising tempest.
Carl Sandburg was no sailor.  After he relocated from the Midwest to North Carolina, he learned to the shore and tide pools.  His ocean is unconcerned with commerce, or even human experience.  It is its own true thing.

From the Shore

A lone gray bird,
Dim-dipping, far-flying,
Alone in the shadows and grandeurs and tumults
Of night and the sea
And the stars and storms.

Out over the darkness it wavers and hovers,
Out into the gloom it swings and batters,
Out into the wind and the rain and the vast,
Out into the pit of a great black world,
Where fogs are at battle, sky-driven, sea-blown,
Love of mist and rapture of flight,
Glories of chance and hazards of death
On its eager and palpitant wings.

Out into the deep of the great dark world,
Beyond the long borders where foam and drift
Of the sundering waves are lost and gone
On the tides that plunge and rear and crumble

—Carl Sandburg

Beach stones.

Lillian Moore, best known as a brilliant children’s and young adult writer, editor, and publisher, also walked the beaches.

Beach Stones
When these small
clear pools and
nets of weed

teased by spray

they glowed
glinted sunsparks on
their speckled

Spilled on the
they were
wet-sand jewels
still flecked with

gray stones
dry and dim.

Why did we bring them home?

—Lillian Moore

Massachusetts beach.
Everett Hoagland was of late the Poet Lauriat of New Bedford, Massachusetts, that old home port to whalers, clipper ships,  and  fishermen.  The sea has always called to him.  He compiled and edited Ocean Voices:  An Anthology of Ocean Poems.

At East/West Beaches

The day night was born
we searched for time and sea-
smoothed fragments of blue, green,

brown bottles. Glass
cleared of gloss
made of man-
and woman-
made fire

and sand
made from
stone, made

from rock, made
from cosmic dust. We

fringed the lips of under-
tow with footprints the waves
redeemed from the firm, wet
shore. We gathered and gave each other
milk white moonstones, aeons
old obsidian, pebbles trans-
lucent as sucked rock

candy and rolled up our jeans in the raw
salty mist. The sun sank into

a violet-lipped quahog, and grit-edged
night opened like a mussel. Under
lacquered, pearly black
light of moonrise we crossed
over a sandbar
into camp

by duned scrub
beach rose. The night day
was born we turned
around and found
no footprints.

—Everett Hoagland

Mary Oliver.

We will close with Mary Oliver, another lover of beaches.

Ocean, a poem

I am in love with Ocean
lifting her thousands of white hats
in the chop of the storm,
or lying smooth and blue, the
loveliest bed in the world.
In the personal life, there is

always grief more than enough,
a heart load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self.
—Mary Oliver

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Chicago’s Anarco-pacifist Poet of the Streets—Joffre Stewart

Joffre Stewart in his winter garb, a stocking cap and old Army coat.

Word went out last month a Joffre Stewart, perhaps the quintessential outsider poet, died in Chicago.  He was 93 years old.  If you were not from  the Windy City or active in tax/war resistors, pacifist, anarchist/Wobbly,  Black poetry/performance art circles you probably have never heard of him.  Yet he was a familiar fixture on the streets of the city and at demonstrations and actions for almost 7 decades,  his prodigious body of  hand lettered poetry and polemics dug out of bulging bags and freely passed to anyone who take them.  A life time of work as ephemeral as last year’s dried leaves.  And no human being I have ever known so steadfastly lived his values not matter the cost.
The closest Joffre ever came to fame was a mention by Allen Ginsberg in Howl.  Joffre was involved in the Beat scene and the two met at a San Francisco gathering.  He wrote that he was, a man “with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing / out incomprehensible leaflets.”
To the best of my recollection, I first met Joffre one steamy summer night at the foot of the wide staircase to Roosevelt University in the Auditorium Building.  I was there attending a Free University class with Staunton Lynd just before Democratic Convention of 1968.  Joffre was a Roosevelt graduate and often returned there for various events.  He was a striking character.  He was dressed in a well-used and dingy un-tucked short sleeve shirt, baggy khaki shorts, and  flip flops.  His hair and bear untamed.  From a bulging newsboy delivery bag slung from his shoulder he dug out and handed me a hand-lettered leaflet/poem.  He engaged me, this strange kid in a battered white cowboy hat from the suburbs, in earnest conversation about the upcoming big events.  Later I caught glimpses of his several times during the tumultuous demonstrations, always calmly sharing his leaflets with whoever would take them no matter what chaos surrounded him.
Our paths would regularly cross from then on, especially at the old anarchist Solidarity Bookstore on Armitage Avenue, Industrial Workers of the World (Wobbly) events and socials, College of Complexes sessions at the Mark Twain Hotel, and every major anti-war event I attended.  We often just ran into one another on the street.  And always he had a freshly written screed to share.
About those leaflets—Joffre never owned a typewriter.  Each one was hand lettered with plenty of words in bold, creative layout, and often including collage elements including newspaper clippings, illustrations, and other snippets.  He always signed them with “Joffre Stewart Advocate of the ANTI-Christ” and his home address upside down at the bottom of the page.
His earliest leaflets, dating to the 1950’s may have been produced by multiple carbon paper or run off by the mimeograph  of the War Resistor’s League.  Later the anarchist/Wobblies of the J.S. Jordon Memorial Press printed some on their decrepit old Multilith offset press.  I even produced a few for him the Columbia College print shop where I worked in 1970.  Eventually he would cage sheets from copiers where ever he could find them.
All of those leaflets over all of those years plus his private correspondence and materials from the organization and demonstrations he was associated with are now in an unsorted archive in the Black Metropolis Research Consortium at the University of Illinois at Chicago—an astonishing 91 linear feet of it.  That’s a treasure trove for some future scholar which is good because so little of his work, survives elsewhere.
Stewart was born in Chicago on April 17, 1925.  He was drafted into the Army during World War.  He began to formulate his pacifism and aversion to authority in the service.  He went AWOL several times but managed to avoid a dishonorable discharge.  By 1947 he had joined Peacemakers and was influenced by the non-violent resistance advocated by Bayard Rustin and particularly with his anti-draft activities.  He was arrested several times for protesting the Draft and racial discrimination in the military.
In June 1948 he was arrested in downtown Chicago for attempting to get a haircut at a barbershop in downtown Chicago which would not serve African-Americans.
Back in Chicago Joffre enrolled in the new Roosevelt University, an experiment in urban, multi-racial education.  From the beginning it was an activist campus and Joffre was in the thick of things.  He graduated in 1952 but returned regularly to use their library and at the invitation of various student groups.  A campus IWW group was banned after Joffre began a meeting burning miniature U.S. and United Nations flags.
The flag burnings, symbolic of his rejection of all state power were a regular feature of many of his readings and presentations and not surprisingly frequently got him into trouble.  Gwendolyn Brooks once threw him out of a gathering of Black poets at her home for it.  Reportedly, she was less concerned with flag burning than the fact that it was done in her crowded home.  Other times the display caused his arrest.
By the early 50’s Joffre had fully developed his philosophy of total non-compliance with the State.  That included refusal to pay taxes or even to accept employment that would lead to taxes to support war being taken from his pay checks.  He lived by barter and trade and by the kindness of family members, friends, and supporters.  Frequently homeless, he couch surfed before that became a thing.
The longest term war tax resisters (l to r) Joffre Stewart, Juanita Nelson, Karl Meyer and Brad Lyttle at the 2005 WTR strategy conference in New York City. Photo by Ed Hedemann.
He was active in the War Resistor League and it the War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee.  He contributed long articles and essays that displayed a brilliant and original mind to publications of those groups, other anti-war organizations, and the Bulletin of the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation (SRAF).  In all forums he advocated total resistance to government in all of its forms while advocating strict non-violent disobedience.
Joffre frequently traveled long distances, usually by Greyhound or hitching with friends to attend meeting and conferences of these groups as well as to some national peace and civil rights actions. He continued to do so until infirmity finally caught up with him at age 91.
In the meantime he also became a fixture at every poetry reading and open mic he could find and was one of the few Chicago poets to present regularly at African American events on the South and West Sides as well as the largely white events on the North Side.  Some found his work startling and alarming, others were charmed by his complete sincerity and dedication to his ideals.
Joffre at a poetry event.
Those ideals made him, in the words of one acquaintance, “the most arrested man in Chicago.” While that claim may be impossible to document Joffre was not only collared at demonstrations, but was rousted on sight by some cops who would charge him with everything from loitering and vagrancy, to littering if someone threw away one of his leaflets, to trespassing and the old reliable disorderly conduct.  At demonstrations he often “went limp” and had to be carried away leading to charges of resisting arrest.  Since he refused to be “complicit  in my own oppression  he refused to pay fines or even sign discharge documents that could get him out of jail resulting in several days-long stretches at Cook County Jail.
In 1994 despite being well known in poetry circles Joffre was mistaken for a homeless person while attempting to attend a modern poetry reading by Paul Hoover and Amiri Baraka at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in north suburban Evanston and was arrested by an off duty cop acting as a security guard, Frank Conklin.  He was accused of being aggressive and belligerent, which witnesses denied.  After an outpouring of protests the book store, much embarrassed, announce that neither it or the security guard would press charges.  But Joffre refused attend court hearings where the case would have been dismissed.  He was charged and arrested for being a fugitive.  He was referred twice for psychological evaluation.  In total he spent 11 days in jail and lost more than 20 pounds due to a hunger strike.  Refused to sign an I Bond that would have allowed his release on personal recognizance .  As the case became an embarrassment he was finally released when he agreed to initial a note on the discharge that said judgement was “refused.”  The clothes he was arrested in, the $4.37 in his pocket, and his bag of leaflets were never returned and he had to borrow a dollar form a cop to get home.
In 1980 Joffre was treated and cured of stomach cancer at a Veterans Administration hospital and he was regularly treated there for the rest of his life.  He also eventually got a small disabled veteran stipend which provided his sole cash income for the rest of his life.  This was surely his greatest compromise with his principles.
I last saw Joffre a couple of years later before my move to Crystal Lake.  Subsequently I began to hear from old friends that he had “gone off the deep end” in anti-Semitism in his Anti-Zionist writings.  He had long been a supporter of Palestinian rights and had condemned Israel for colonialism and settler oppression, but he was also a fierce critic of all colonialism and the oppression of all indigenous groups including Native Americans.  
By one account, after Joffre was attacked and beaten by members of Meir Kahane’s far right vigilantes, the Jewish Defense League while leafleting outside a major Jewish organization’s annual meeting, his attacks on Israel became more and more tinged with the language of anti-Semitism.  In leaflets he superimposed a swastika on a Star of David and began to advance conspiracy theories that sounded uncomfortably like the canards of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  
Joffre always denied any personal anti-Semitism and pointed out that he railed against all cabals and conspiracies including those of WASPS as well a Jews.  Because I did not see most of his later work, it is hard for me to judge how much true anti-Semitism was.  Suffice it to say, many thought it was and he was repudiated by several old friends and supporters.  He was reportedly banned from several poetry venues, including North Side poetry slams celebrating just the style of in-your-face performance art the Stewart pioneered.  Even his oldest comrades in the War Resistance movement professed discomfort and ambivalence.  Feelings about him became so bitter that vicious attacks were made against anyone that spoke fondly of him after his death.  I expect I will receive the same for posting this.
Despite this  Joffre remained defiant to the end, always declaiming the truth as he understood it despite the consequences.  And on the balance of his long and eventful life we were richer for it.
Although his work was vast, examples are hard to find.  His only book, Poems and Poetry was published by the Every Now and Then Publishing Cooperative in 1982 and is nearly impossible to find.  Daniel X. O’Neil on his web page derivativeworks.com reproduced portions of photocopies of several of Joffre’s pieces.  The two below are just a sample of his style.

I also want to thank Bernie Farber for his reminiscence of our mutual friend and an old account in the Reader by Ben Joravsky of Joffre’s Evanston arrest.
One of the few complete poems available on-line is a reaction to the self-immolation in Chicago of Malachi Ritscher in 2006 to protest the War in Iraq.  Joffre got the news of his death while attending a War Tax Resister’s conference in Las Vegas.  They posted the poem he wrote as a response on their webpage.

    He wrote poetry
   An Obituary by Malachi Ritscher
   42 lumpen 102


People who don’t commit suicide
may not be committed


People who don’t commit suicide 
come up with all kinds of interpretation
of those who do:

denied the Church his donations
She was mentally ill:
nobody in h/er/is right mind
would ever sacrifice own life
for anybody or anything
He was a despicable terrorist -- serves him right

She couldn’t wait for medical science
to come up with cure for the ills of the world

He had to right to escape from slavery:
Involuntary Property Loss is ROBBERY!
She didn’t have to shame Law Orders:
she could have run away:
to have courage to of one’s convictions
is unseemly
He was just selfish

She was a damn coward:
sneaking out on brave people like us*

He’s a poet. That’s what poets do.

People who don’t commit suicide
squirm to find every kind of reason
not to value the decision
of the person

On May 3, while I was anti-nuking it
with the national War Tax Resistance coördinating committee
in Las Vegas
Mark Malachi Ritscher

became the flaming man of the Millennium (so far)
by burning like a Buddhist
near Ohio ramp to Kennedy Expressway
19 days before Dallas

Ritscher seems to have been under orders
leaving behind the sign:


But overlooking that illibertarian aspect
of his just ethic
we get to the nitty-gritty
where he says:

Here is the statement I wasn’t to make: if I
am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in you
world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who
did nothing to threaten our country. I will not participate in your
charade — my conscience will not allow me to be a part of your
crusade. There might be some who say “it’s a coward’s way out” —
that opinion is so idiotic that it requires no response.

So while I was in Vegas
plotting with tax-resisters 
to move resistance into mass movement
Malachi committed the ultimate act 
of tax resistance:
taking himself permanently
Out of the Infernal Revenue System

Had he known about us
he might be letting his little light shine
rather than having his
Millennium Flame
doused, smothered, hidden, suppressed
by the patriotically polluted overflow
of MainStream Media


Malachi was too much like Socrates for me
overidentified with the laws &; orders
(? our? country)
he found impossible to live with
instead of taking up the post-Socratics
who dumped the Republic
and the World Historical System


Malachi was a jazz man:
Will the 28th Annual Chicago Jazz Fest
Suppress the “Star Spangled Banner”
do away with the flagand give him a respectful moment of silence?

And if suicide
is something that poets do
and this poem is known by poets
then we should see a drastic thinning out
of poetry’s ranks
especially those loners
who don’t know hot to get with
national War Tax Resistance coördinating committee**

Pulling at heart strings:
What instrument
Does a plucky man play?

—Joffre Stewart

* Bill Maher is the coward when he apologized for saying the Arab 19 (-6) were not
** 1-800-269-7464

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Hoosier Bard Poetry Snobs Love to Hate

Disdained by Eastern critics, James Whitcomb Riley at least looked every inch a respectable poet.

high minded, serious folk— the worst high school English teachers, academics whose careers depend on culling ever diminish heard of obscure poets for publish-or-perish theses that no one reads, and critics convinced that only the obscure and arcane are worthy of notice and that popularity is vulgar.  Together these folks have just about beat to death any chance that the general public might consider reading and enjoying poetry.

Today we offer up a poet sure to set fire to these folks hair.

The Hoosier poet James Whitcomb 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.

Riley grew up in this comfortable frame home in Greenfield, Indiana which replaced the rustic log cabin of his birth.  It is now preserved and open to the public.
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 Midwest.  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 the 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.

Riley was saluted with that singular 19th Century honor, a cigar brand and box.

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 lifeIn 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 Midwesterner Hamlin Garland, noted that of American writers only 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.

Although ravaged by alcoholism and in declining heath, Riley enjoyed regaling the neighborhood children with his yarns and verse.
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.

The James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home in Indianapolis, a National Historic Site.

 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.

Our Hired Girl

Our hired girl, she’s ‘Lizabuth Ann; 
An’ she can cook best things to eat! 
She ist puts dough in our pie-pan, 
An’ pours in somepin’ ‘at's good an’ sweet; 
An’ nen she salts it all on top 
With cinnamon; an’ nen she’ll stop 
An’ stoop an' slide it, ist as slow, 
In th’ old cook-stove, so's 'twon't slop 
An’ git all spilled; nen bakes it, so 
It's custard-pie, first thing you know!
An’ nen she’ll say, 
“Clear out o’ my way! They’s time fer work, an’ time fer play! 
Take yer dough, an’ run, child, run! 
Er I cain’t git no cookin’ done!”

When our hired girl ‘tends like she’s mad, 
An’ says folks got to walk the chalk 
When she's around, er wisht they had! 
I play out on our porch an' talk 
To Th’ Raggedy Man ‘at mows our lawn; 
An’ he says, “Whew!” an’ nen leans on 
His old crook-scythe, and blinks his eyes, 
An’ sniffs all ‘round an’ says, “I swawn! 
Ef my old nose don’t tell me lies, 
It ‘pears like I smell custard-pies!”
An’ nen he’ll say, 
“Clear out o’ my way! 
They’s time fer work, an’ time fer play! 
Take yer dough, an’ run, child, run! 
Er she cain’t git no cookin’ done!

Wunst our hired girl, when she 
Got the supper, an we all et, 
An’ it wuz night, an’ Ma an’ me 
An’ Pa went wher’ the “Social’ met,--
An’  nen when we come home, an’ see 
A light in the kitchen door, an’ we 
Heerd a maccordeun, Pa says, “Lan’-- 
O’-Gracious! who can her beau be?’ 
An’ I marched in, an’ ‘Lizabuth Ann 
Wuz parchin’ corn fer The Raggedy Man!

Better say, 
“Clear out o’ the way! 
They’s time fer work, an’ time fer play!
Take the hint, an’ run, child, run! 
Er we cain’t git no courtin’ done!”

—James Whitcomb Riley