Tag Archives: James Whitcomb Riley

“No Imported Patriots”: James Whitcomb Riley, the Irish, and the Klan

Riley stamp 1940

For most Americans, the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley is no longer a household name.  He’s mostly remembered for “Little Orphant Annie,” an 1885 poem about an Indiana girl who warns children against misbehaving, scaring them with the refrain: “The gobble-uns’ll get you Ef you don’t watch out!”

Riley died a hundred years ago this July.  When President Woodrow Wilson got the news at the White House, he is said to have broken down in tears, then sent an express telegram to the poet’s family in Indianapolis.  As Riley’s body lay in state at the Indiana Capitol in July 1916, thirty-five thousand people filed past.  American children, who adored the old man, were devastated.  The press overflowed with eulogies.  Novelist Booth Tarkington, another once-famous Hoosier name in American letters, eulogized Riley in the Indiana Daily Times, calling him “the first and foremost distinctively American poet, and at the time of his death . . . the greatest American.”  The New York Sun mourned: “The Hoosier Poet blew heart bubbles . . . In his verses Indiana spoke to the world.”  And the Philadelphia Inquirer noted: “There is no doubt that he was the most popular poet of this generation in America… If there is a child today that is not regaled with ‘Orphant Annie’ that child is to be pitied.”


Riley and Children
Riley with children and a puppy, circa 1915. Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis was named in his honor.

Though Riley was mostly known for his folksy childhood lyrics, he was also a civic-minded poet, fierce in his defense of the downtrodden.

In 1898, during one of those periodic battles over immigration that heat up American politics, the “Poet of Childhood” grappled with anti-Irish prejudice — though it wasn’t personally directed against him. Riley, whose own grandparents came from Ireland to Pennsylvania before moving to the Midwest, defended the valor and patriotism of the “Sons of Erin” who fought in the Civil War and Mexican War.  In so doing, he took aim at the religious and ethnic hostility of nativist groups like the American Protective Association, a cousin of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Irish, especially Irish Catholics, were frequently misunderstood and feared as disruptors of society.  Long before the Civil War, American nativists like the Know-Nothings had been actively exploiting fears about the Irish and “Rome,” alien forces ready to undermine American democracy and Anglo-Saxon values.  Though some of those fears may sound downright bizarre today, Irish immigrants were often mired in poverty, violence and alcoholism, facts that scared their neighbors. While the brutal living conditions of many Irish were no myth, catastrophic events like the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s were partly to blame.  With their situation made worse by the greed of landowners and brutal utilitarian social theories, many of Ireland’s sons and daughters were reduced to sub-human conditions. Millions  went overseas or found themselves driven into the arms of death.

The Irish had been targeted by some of the worst 19th-century science and philosophy.  Racialized by other whites during the early days of Darwinism, the “native” Irish in particular were type-cast as little better than apes, doomed by biology itself to crime, degradation and — some theorists hoped — gradual extinction.  One famous drawing compares the “Anglo-Saxon” features of English nurse Florence Nightingale to the ape-like face of “Bridget McBruiser” across the Irish Channel.

That drawing, however, was an American drawing, published in Samuel R. Wells’ New Physiognomy (New York, 1866).  Wells was one of the foremost American phrenologists of his time, studying “character” as he imagined it to be written on the human face and skull.  It took decades for the science of head bumps and nose shapes to be debunked as nonsense, but the fallout proved catastrophic for many immigrants.


Contrasted Faces
Books like Wells’ New Physiognomy gave rise to even more damaging scientific theories about racial types — strange fantasies that fed the growth of American eugenics, the Second Ku Klux Klan, and even Progressivism. Wells also authored books about farm animals, gardening and witchcraft.

Bad science and hyper-patriotic conspiracy theories were the target of one of James Whitcomb Riley’s lesser-known poems, “Brother Jonathan Lectures His Adopted.”  That poem appeared in Songs of Two Peoples, an 1898 collection set partly in New England, partly in Ireland.

Originally written in broad New England dialect, “Brother Jonathan” recounts the anti-Catholic ravings of a recent Northern Irish immigrant voting for “the fust time” at a small-town polling booth in America. Jonathan showed himself an eager campaigner against foreign influence, “tearin’ up an’ deown’ on platforms,” lashing out at Rome’s priests who “eat heretics at feasts” — dark tales from European history carried by folklore and immigrant ships into American election booths well into the 1960s and even beyond. Catholics, Jonathan warns, were gearing up to crush the American public school system and democracy.  He gets a stinging rebuke from the embodiment of Uncle Sam, “His Adopted.”


Brother Jonathan
Songs of Two Peoples, Boston, 1898. Like Brother Jonathan, many popular anti-Catholic lecturers who touted Americanism a hundred years ago were recent immigrants or not even citizens. Several wrote books that were later promoted by the Klan.

Though Riley’s poem is set just after the Civil War, it spoke to the issues of 1898, when America’s generously open door did bring many problems. Yet the looming figure of “Brother Jonathan” was still fresh decades later when George R. Dale, the brave editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat, reprinted it as part of his long battle against the powerful Hoosier Klan.

In 1924, Dale found Riley’s poem as apt as ever.  Dale was at the start of a practically one-man battle against the KKK in his town, using humor to transform the Muncie Post-Democrat into a rollicking 1920s version of The Onion.  Though Dale faced routine death threats and assaults from Klansmen, the Muncie editor bravely tore into chauvinism at a time when the Klan was as much against new waves of Eastern and Southern European immigration as it was opposed to African Americans coming up from the South.  Dale slightly abbreviated Riley’s poem — missing the fact that Brother Jonathan was an immigrant himself and had brought Old World animosities across the Atlantic, a prelude to the Irish “Troubles.”


James Whitcomb Riley -- April 25, 1924(Muncie Post-Democrat, April 25, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles. The A.P.A. was the American Protective Association, an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic secret society founded in Iowa in 1887.  It had a membership of over two million in the 1890s and was a forerunner of the Second Klan. A.P.A.-affiliated newspapers like The Menace and The Yellow Jacket landed on millions of American doorsteps.)


Though many Irish immigrants were racists themselves, stirring up some of the worst race riots of the 1800s, George Dale found an ally in both history and the Catholic Church.  Virtually every issue of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s Klan paper The Fiery Cross contained attacks on the church, sharpest during the Indiana gubernatorial election of 1924, the year Dale reprinted “Brother Jonathan” in Muncie.  It’s not surprising that, since they were long targeted by nativists, Catholics became a major force in undermining the Klan and helped hobble half-baked social and medical theories like eugenics. (The barely-concealed “science” of white supremacy, eugenics had deep roots in Indiana.)

While Riley was of Irish descent, he wasn’t Catholic himself — in fact he wasn’t much of a church-goer at all.  Yet Riley knew plenty of immigrants: they were his neighbors in Lockerbie, an Indianapolis neighborhood first called “Germantown” and settled partly by refugees from Europe’s 1848 revolutions.

But even Riley’s support had a dark irony in it.  A frequent visitor at his house in Lockerbie was Indiana Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The son of French immigrants, Debs was a champion of the working class but often hostile to the new wave of immigration, which he thought undermined American labor and played into the hands of big business.  Debs may have been right about the effect of cheap labor on the American workers’ movement, but history repeated itself in a sad way when even the great Socialist leader made disparaging remarks in 1891 about Chinese and “Dagos” (Italians). They “fatten on garbage,” Debs said, live “more like a savage or a wild beast,” and “are able to underbid an American workingman.”  It took years for Debs to temper those views, as even the Socialist Party succumbed to nativism and fear of the “degraded foreigner.”


Riley house
Riley’s house in Indianapolis around 1960. During the days of urban renewal, the Lockerbie neighborhood fell into bad shape, but fortunately its decline was turned around by the 1990s. The green ivy that once covered the poet’s house, though, is long gone.

Today, in August 13, 1881, “The Land of Used-To-Be” by James Whitcomb Riley published in the Indianapolis Leader

On August 13, 1881, the Indianapolis Leader published “The Land of Used-To-Be” by James Whitcomb Riley.

Indianapolis Leader, August 13, 1881. Chronicling America.

Born on October 7, 1849 to Reuben and Elizabeth Riley in Greenfield, Indiana, James Whitcomb Riley became one of the most popular authors of his time and belonged to the Golden Age of Indiana Literature.

When Riley was 16 years old, he dropped out of school and began working a variety of jobs until he achieved success as a poet. He found success as a sign painter but quickly tired of the mundane work. Riley found more pleasure when he worked for traveling travel medicine shows because he was able to perform impressions, play the guitar, sing, recite stories, and hone his writing skills. However, the work was unstable and Riley often had to scrounge for money in order to support himself.

In 1877, The Anderson Democrat, a newspaper in Anderson, Indiana, hired Riley as an editor. Within weeks of him starting, the newspaper’s circulation doubled and Riley’s editing style was a hit with the newspaper’s readers. However, Riley’s true passion was writing poems, not editing newspapers. He constantly submitted poems to newspapers, but was frequently rejected. This did not deter Riley from continuing to submit poems, though. Rather, he devised a plan with John Henderson, the editor of the Kokomo Dispatch, a newspaper in Kokomo, Indiana, to publish his poem, “Leonainie” in the Kokomo Dispatch under the name of E.A.P., the initials of Edgar Allen Poe. Excited over the lost Poe poem, newspapers across the country republished “Leonainie,” which sparked interest and controversy over the poem’s style and lyrics. Ultimately, another local newspaper exposed Riley as the poem’s author and disgruntled people across the country condemned and chastised Riley for his actions.

The negative press contributed to Riley’s success and led him to become one of the most celebrated Indiana writers. After the scandal, the Indianapolis Journal hired Riley as the newspaper’s full-time poet and in the winter of 1880-1881, Riley toured Indiana, reciting his poetry wherever he was welcomed.

In 1883, Riley wrote and published his first book, The Old Swimmin’-Hole and ‘Leven More Poems, in what would become his iconic style of writing, the “Hoosier dialect.” By using language that resonated with the every day man and woman and Indiana culture, landscape, and people as his subject, the state of Indiana quickly fell in love with Riley and he became known as “The Hoosier Poet.”

Even though the Midwest recognized Riley for his talent, the literary elites on the east coast, who ultimately had the power to determine if a poet was or was not successful, did not recognize Riley’s talent. It was not until 1887 when the east coast literary critics recognized Riley’s poetic gift. In 1887, the International Copyright League invited Riley, among other writers such as Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, to speak at a program. Originally, Riley was only to speak one night, but after he read his poem, “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” the League asked Riley to recite another poem the following evening. Riley enchanted other several highly respected poets that night, including James Russell Lowell, who introduced Riley on his second night reciting his poems. Ultimately, Lowell’s approval of Riley was what sparked the east coast literary elites to acknowledge Riley for his talents.

Throughout his lifetime, James Whitcomb Riley published over 90 books and wrote more than 1,000 poems. Some of his most well-known poems include, “Little Orphant Annie,” “The Raggedy Man,” “The Runaway Boy,” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin.” Riley died on July 22, 1916 in Lockerbie, an Indianapolis neighborhood, and buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.

Additional Resources

In June 1912, Victor Talking Machine Company recorded James Whitcomb Riley reading roughly twenty of his poems. However, the Victor Talking Machine Company only released a limited number of recordings. The Indianapolis Public Library digitized seventeen previously unreleased recordings on its website, including “When the Frost is on the Punkin.” To listen to Riley read some of his most beloved poems, click here.

The Indiana State Library Treasures collection contains a wealth of sources pertaining to James Whitcomb Riley and is accessible to the public here.

Sources

The Indianapolis Leader, volume 3, number 1, August 13, 1881, page 3. Accessed August 12, 2014.

About The Kokomo Dispatch (Kokomo, IN). Chronicling America: Historic American Newspaper. Library of Congress. Accessed August 12, 2014.

Indiana State Museum. Uncovering an Indiana Treasure: James Whitcomb Riley. Accessed August 12, 2014.

The Indianapolis Public Library. “James Whitcomb Riley Recordings,” in the Digital Recordings. Accessed August 12, 2014.

Lilly Library at Indiana University. “‘…and touch the universal heart.’: The Appeal of James Whitcomb Riley.” Accessed August 12, 2014.


“The Land of Used-To-Be” 

by James Whitcomb Riley

And where’s the land of Used-to-be, does little baby wonder?
O, we will clap a magic saddle over papa’s knee,
And ride away around the world, and in and out and under
The whole of the golden sunny summer-time, and see!

Leisurely and lady-like we’ll jostle on our journey.
And let the pony bathe his hooves and cool them in the dew,
As he slides down the shady way, and lags along the ferny
And the green grassy ledges of the lane we travel through

And then we’ll canter on to catch the bubble of the thistle
As it bumps among the butterflies, and glimmers down the sun,
To leave us laughing, all content to hear the robin whistle.
Or guess what Katydid is saying little Kathy’s done.

And pausing here a minute, where we hear the squirrel chuckle
As he darts from out the underbush, leaves and honeysuckle
To wreathe around our forheads, riding into Used-to-be;

For here’s the very rim of it that we go swinging over—
Don’t you hear the fairy bugles, and the tinkle of the bells?
And the baby bumble-bees that tumble in the clover,
And dangle from the titled pinks and tipsy pimpernels?

And don’t you see the merry faces of the Daffodillies,
And the jolly John-jump-ups, and the butter-cups a-glee,
And the low, lolling ripples ring around the water-lilies,
All greeting us with laughter to the land of Used-to-be?

And here among the blossoms of the blooming vines and grasses,
With a haze forever hanging in a sky forever blue,
And with a breeze from over seas to kiss us as it passes,
We will romp around forever as the little fancies do;

For all the elves of earth and air are swarming here together—
The prankish Puck, King Oberon, and Queen Titania, too;
And dear old Mother Goose, herself, as sunny as the weather,
Comes dancing down the dewy walls to welcome you and me.

A Brief History of the Indianapolis Journal

Indianapolis Journal, March 1, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Access 32 years of the Indianapolis Journal (1872-04)!

In 1825, Indiana state printer John Douglass relocated with the state capital from Corydon to Indianapolis, then a town with less than 1,000 residents.  Douglass had previously published the short-lived Madison (IN) Western Clarion, and upon arriving in Indianapolis purchased a share of the Western Censor and Emigrants Guide.  Douglass and his partner, Douglass Maguire, changed the name to the Indiana Journal, and produced their first issue on January 11, 1825.  The anti-Jacksonian publishers advocated for government sponsored internal improvements and protective tariffs that would aid Indiana’s agricultural economy.  These political positions led the Journal to align with the emerging Whig Party in the 1830s.

Beginning in 1839 the publishers increased and varied the Journal’s publication frequency based upon when the Indiana General Assembly convened; what had hitherto been a weekly edition, became semi-weekly, tri-weekly, and daily at different times from 1839-1851 to accommodate more state legislative news.  In 1840, Douglass and his new partner, Samuel V. B. Noel, also issued a campaign newspaper, the Spirit of ’76, which supported former Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison’s Whig candidacy for President of the United States.  After eighteen years operating the Journal, Douglass sold his interest to Noel in 1843.  Noel only maintained sole ownership of the paper for two years, but during that time he changed the name of the paper to the Indiana State Journal, and he allowed Henry Ward Beecher to edit and issue the Indiana Farmer from the Journal’s presses.

John D. Defrees, former publisher of the Northwestern Pioneer and St. Joseph Intelligencer in South Bend, acquired the Journal in 1845 and operated it until 1854.  Defrees continued the Journal as a Whig organ, and the paper’s editorials criticizing the Democratic administration’s conduct of the Mexican-American War echoed Whig rhetoric heard around the country.  Defrees’s use of the Journal to spread Whig ideas made him an important Indiana political voice, and when the Whig Party collapsed in the early 1850s Defrees became an important leader in the fusionist movement that established the Republican Party in Indiana.  Defrees also made several important changes to the Journal and Indiana journalism.  He installed the city’s first steam driven printing press, expanded the page format from four to six columns, and introduced better quality illustrations.  Defrees also conducted a fierce rivalry with the Democratic Indiana State Sentinel, and introduced Indianapolis’s first permanent daily, the Daily Indiana State Journal, one week before the Sentinel’s daily premiered in April 1851.  The daily edition’s title changed to Indianapolis Morning Journal in 1853, the Indianapolis Daily Journal in 1854, and simply the Indianapolis Journal in 1867.  The fledgling Indianapolis Locomotive, the brain-child of some Journal apprentices in 1845, demonstrated the reading public’s appetite for more local and society news.  The Journal’s daily production schedule created room for local stories, and next day reporting.

One of the most important nineteenth-century Indiana journalists, Berry R. Sulgrove, joined the Journal in 1854 as editor.  Sulgrove also wrote much local news copy.  He acquired controlling interest in the Journal by 1856, and transitioned the Journal from Whig into the Republican camp.  During the Civil War, Sulgrove penned strong Unionist editorials that supported the policies of President Abraham Lincoln and Governor Oliver P. Morton.  During the war, the Journal’s daily circulation reached 6,000; for comparison the city’s pre-war population was 18,611.

Indiana had a bustling literary scene in the late 1800s, which was due in part to the Journal’s managing editor Elijah W. Halford’s advocacy and support of Hoosier authors.  James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier Poet,” greatly benefitted from Halford’s patronage.  Riley published hundreds of poems and humor pieces in the Journal from 1877-1901, and also worked as a Journal reporter for few years.

In 1880, John C. New became Indiana’s Republican Party Chairman, and purchased the Journal.  New’s greatest success as a political operative and a newspaper publisher was his advocacy of Benjamin Harrison for the Republican presidential nomination in 1888.  New first suggested Harrison for president in 1884, and redoubled his efforts in 1888.  He avidly promoted Harrison’s candidacy in Journal editorials, and distributed thousands of Journal issues among delegates at the Republican National Convention that subsequently nominated Harrison.  The Journal’s role in Harrison’s nomination and subsequent election to the presidency elevated the newspaper’s national profile.

The increased profile, however, did not translate to better sales.  In 1890, the Journal’s daily circulation of 8,263 was paltry compared to its competitors the Indianapolis News with 21,468 and the Sentinel with 15,800.  In the late 1890s the Journal faced even more competition from yellow journalism that used sensational headlines to drive sales.  The ever respectable Journal editors explained, “The Journal refuses to put itself on a level with the cheap papers flooding the country, and therefore appeals only to that class of reading public which wants the news presented in a decent and dignified manner.”  The Journal managed to boost its daily circulation to a high in 1901 with 22,320, but in a city of 170,000 the News remained the leader with almost 50,000 daily issues in circulation.  Three years later in June 1904, George McCulloch, publisher of the recently established Indianapolis Morning Star, purchased the Journal.  McCulloch issued the paper as the Indianapolis Morning Star and Journal until October 26, 1904 when he dropped Journal from the title.

Bibliography

Irby, Harold F. “A History of the Indianapolis Journal” Master’s thesis, Butler University, 1936. Access it here: http://digitalcommons.butler.edu/grtheses/224/

Miller, John W. Indiana Newspaper Bibliography. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1982.

“Berry R. Sulgrove, Journalist,” Indiana Magazine of History 1 (1905): 139-147.

Sulgrove, Berry R. History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts & Co., 1884.