Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

James Whitcomb Riley, The Hoosier Poet

James Whitcomb Riley and I were at breakfast together, and the appearance of his cup of steaming coffee, into which he hastened to drop four full-sized blocks of sugar, threw the "Hoosier" poet into a train of reflections, for which he presently found expression. "They don't make coffee any more," he observed, in an almost aggrieved tone, "It is a lost art. You don't see any more the clear, transparent beverage that mother used to make. It's thick and murky, and, worse than all, it does no good to protest."

It was a fortunate circumstance, however, this recalling a youthful remembrance, for it led him at once into a lively discussion of that part of his career,—his early struggles,—which possess for the average person, and often for the subject himself, far more interest and fascination than any later triumphs, no matter how complete. It is doubtful if there is in the literary world, today, a personage whose boyhood and young manhood can approach in romance and unusual circumstances that of the author of "The Old Swimmin' Hole." It was almost as if it were all a chapter from a fairy tale, to see the poet sitting there, calm and dignified, and to listen to his slow speech, in well-modulated voice, and still attempt to realize of what circumstances he had been a factor, what experience he had passed through. All tradition was against his accomplishing anything in the world. How, indeed, said the good folks of the little town of Greenfield, Indiana, could anything be expected of a boy who cared nothing for school, and deserted it at the first opportunity, to take up a wandering life.

It is a wonder of wonders that from such a beginning should spring a poet whose ideals are among the noblest in American literature. "Ike Walton's Prayer," it would seem, must have been spoken from the poet's heart.


I crave, dear Lord, No boundless hoard

Of gold and gear, Nor jewels fine,

Nor lands, nor kine, Nor treasure-heaps of anything.

Let but a little hut be mine.

Where at the hearthstone I may hear The cricket sing.

And have the shine Of one glad woman's eyes to make,

For my poor sake, Our simple home a place divine:

— Just the wee cot—the cricket's chirr — Love, and the smiling face of her.

I pray not for Great riches, nor For vast estates, and castle halls,

Give me to hear the bare footfalls Of children o'er An oaken floor,

New rinsed with sunshine, or bespread With but the tiny coverlet

And pillow for the baby's head; And pray thou, may The door stand open and the day

Send ever in a gentle breeze. With fragrance from the locust trees,

And drowsy moan of doves, and blur Of robins' chirps, and drone of bees,

With after hushes of the stir Of intermingling sounds, and then

The good-wife and the smile of her Filling the silences again —

The cricket's call, And the wee cot. Dear Lord of all, Deny me not!

I pray not that Men tremble at My power of place And lordly sway, —

'I only pray for simple grace, To look my neighbor in the face,

Full honestly from day to day- Yield me his horny palm to hold, And I'll not pray For gold: —

The tanned face, garlanded with mirth, It hath the kingliest smile on earth —

The swart brow, diamonded with sweat, Hath never need of coronet.

And so I reach Dear Lord to Thee, And do beseech Thou givest me

The wee cot, and the cricket's chirr, Love, and the glad sweet face of her!


The boy's father, like almost all fathers, had aspirations. He wanted the boy to follow in his footsteps, in the legal profession, and he held out alluring hopes of the possibility of scaling even greater heights than any to which he had yet attained. Better still, —from the standpoint of the restless James, —he took the youngster with him as he made his circuit from court to court. These excursions, for they were indeed such to the boy, sowed deep in his heart the seed of a determination to become a nomad, and it was not long until he started out as a strolling sign-painter, determined upon the realization of his ideals. Often times business was worse than dull, and, on one occasion, hunger drove him for recourse to his wits, and lo, he blossomed forth as a "blind sign-painter," led from place to place by a little boy, and showered with sympathy and trade in such abundance that he could hardly bear the thought of the relinquishment of a pretense so ingenious and successful, entered on at first as a joke.

Then came another epoch. The young man fell in with a patent-medicine man, with whom he joined fortunes, and here the young Indianian, who had been scribbling more or less poetry ever since he first essayed to compose a four-line valentine upon a writing table whose writing surface was almost as high as his head, found a new use for his talent, for his duties in the partnership were to beguile the people with joke and song, while his co-worker plied the sales of his cure-all; and, forsooth, there were many times when, but for his poetic fancy, Riley might have seen his audience dwindle rapidly away. It was while thus engaged that he had the opportunities which enabled him to master thoroughly the "Hoosier" dialect. When the glamour of the patent-medicine career had faded somewhat, Riley joined a band of strolling Thespians, and, in this brief portion of his life, after the wont of players of his class, played many parts. At length he began to give a little more attention to his literary work, and, later, obtained a place on an Indianapolis paper, where he published his first poems, and be it said that they won their author almost instant success.


When I drew Riley out to talk still further of those interesting days, and the strange experiences which came to him therein, the conversation finally turned on the subject of his youthful ambitions. "I think my earliest remembered one," he said, ''was an insatiate longing to become a baker. I don't know what prompted it, unless it was the vision of the mountains of alluring 'goodies,' which, as they are ranged in the windows of the pastry shops, appear doubly tempting to the youth whose mother not only counsels moderation, but enforces it.

"Next, I imagined that I would like to become a showman of some sort, and then my shifting fancy conjured up visions of how grand it would be to work as a painter, and decorate houses and fences in glowing colors, but finally, as I grew a little older, there returned my old longing to become an actor. When, however, my dreams were realized, and I became a member of a traveling theatrical company, I found that the life was full of hardships, with very little chances of rising in the world. I never had any literary ambition whatever, so far as I can remember. I wrote, primarily, simply because I desired to have something to read, and could not find selections that exactly suited me. Gradually I found a demand for my little efforts springing up, and so my brother, who could write legibly, transcribed them."


"Mr. Riley," I said, "I came here to see you to-day in behalf of the thousands of people who are seeking to make progress, or gain a start in business or professional life, and I suppose that the tastes of some of them incline to the literary field. Can't you give me your idea of the prime requisites for success in the field of letters?"

"The most essential factor is persistence, —the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragements that must inevitably come. I believe that he is richer for the battle with the world, in any vocation, who has great determination and little talent, rather than his seemingly more fortunate brother with great talent, perhaps, but little determination. As for the field of literature, I cannot but express my conviction that meteoric flights, such as have been taken, of recent years, by some young writers with whose names almost everybody is familiar, cannot fail to be detrimental, unless the man to whom success comes thus early and suddenly is an exceptionally evenly-balanced and sensible person. Many persons have spoken to me about Kipling's work, and remarked how wonderful a thing is the fact that such achievements could have been possible for a man comparatively so young. I say, not at all. What do we find when we investigate? Simply that Kipling began working on a newspaper when he was only thirteen years of age, and he has been toiling ever since. So you see, even that case, when we get at the inner facts, confirms my theory that every man must be 'tried in the fire,' as it were. He may begin early or late, and in some cases the fight is longer than in others, but of one thing I feel sure, that there is no short-cut to permanent, self-satisfying success in literature, or anything else."


When he was asked for his opinion on the subject of the expansion of Indiana literature, Mr. Riley said : —

"I do not know what I should say about Indiana literature and the causes of its growth. I think, possibly, the reason it has attracted such wide attention, and expanded in so many directions, is that it drew inspiration and received impetus from having been lampooned and made fun of by every cultured 'Tom, Dick, and Harry' of the outside world.

"Personally, the world has always been kind to me, but I do not know that I expected kindness.

"It is glorious to be barred, —to suffer the whips and scorn of self-accredited superiors! It roused us, this superciliousness, to our real worth, and it inspired us to put forth our best efiforts. That excellence in literature is found in Indiana I am thankful for, and I am glad that I have outlived the ridicule, and that others have recognized, of late, this special excellence of the work of our authors, and given credit most generously.

"I am sure that the same excellence will be found in our neighboring western states, and that we, in turn, will not withhold from them encouragement and recognition. Ilhnois has already developed some rare poets. Ohio, too, ranks high in western literature.

"The beginner, with his youthful imagination just ' ramping it,' is too sensitive to the pricks of criticism. He stands in awe of the self-constituted critic, until he cannot see anything else, and, necessarily, loses sight of the value of ideas, which count more than all else. He can never make up the loss in years. Indeed, he can never regain it. It is expecting to be a writer in six months or a year that makes him think himself a failure.

"A literary life means work. He who would write must learn that, and learn to work hard. Look at Bernhardt's art; look at the amount of hard work she goes through every day to make it perfect. How many writers do as she does? No good thing was ever done quickly, —nothing of any value. The capacity for hard work has had much to do with the development of Indiana literature."


Answering other questions, the poet said: "A college education for the aspirant for literary success is, of course, an advantage, provided he does not let education foster a false culture that will lead him away from his true ideals and the ideals he ought to cling to. There is another thing that the young man in any artistic pursuit must have a care for, and that is, to be practical. This is a practical world, and it is ahvays ready to take advantage of this sort of people, so that if he wishes what we might call domestic happiness, he might as well make up his mind to a dual existence, as it were, and must try to cultivate a practical business sense, as well as an artistic sense. We have only a few men like Rudyard Kipling and F. Hopkinson Smith, who seem to combine these diverse elements of character in just the right proportions, but I believe that it is unfortunate for the happiness and peace of mind of our authors and artists and musicians that we have not more of them."

Riley's poetry is popular because it goes right to the feelings of the people. He could not have written as he does, but for the schooling of that wandering life, which gave him an insight into the struggle for existence among the great unnumbered multitude of his fellow men. He learned in his travels and journeys, in his hard experience as a strolling sign-painter and patentmedicine peddler, the freemasonry of poverty. His poems are natural; they are those of a man who feels as he writes. As Thoreau painted nature in the woods, and streams, and lakes, so Riley depicts the incidents of everyday life, and brightens each familiar lineament with that touch that makes all the world kin. One of his noblest poems is "Old Glory." It speaks the homely, sterling patriotism of the common people.

"The Little Coat" illustrates his wonderful power to touch the heart.


Here's his ragged "roundabout," Turn the pockets inside out;

See: his pen-knife, lost to use, Rusted shut with apple-juice;

Here, with marbles, top and string, Is his deadly "devil-sling,"

With its rubber, limp at last. As the sparrows of the past!

Beeswax—buckles—leather straps — Bullets, and a box of caps, —

Not a thing of all, I guess, But betrays some waywardness —

E'en these tickets, blue and red. For the Bible verses said —

Such as this his memory kept —

"Jesus wept."

Here's the little coat—but O!

Where is he we've censured so!

Don't you hear us calling, dear? Back ! come back, and never fear.

You may wander where you will, Over orchard, field and hill;

You may kill the birds, or do Anything that pleases you!

Ah„ this empty coat of his! Every tatter worth a kiss;

Every stain as pure instead As the white stars overhead;

And the pockets—homes were they Of the little hands that play

Now no more—but, absent, thus

Beckon us.

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