May 17, 2011

Dana and Riley: I do not like it at all

Critic (and former Brook Farmer) Charles Anderson Dana wrote to James Whitcomb Riley about "the great talent" in his poetry. He had accepted a couple of Riley's poems in previous issues of the New York Sun, including "Silence," but Dana's May 17, 1880 letter was not entirely positive. Dana roundly dismissed some of Riley's other submissions:

'The Wandering Jew' I return. It lacks both originality of imagination and finish of execution. 'Tom Johnson's Quit' I do not like at all. It has the radical defect of attempting to joke with a shocking subject.

"I was too profoundly impressed with my literary attainments," Riley later recalled. "I sent Dana blooming, wildwood verse. He pruned it and at first the pruning hurt, but afterward I saw the benefit." Riley was, after all, still struggling in his young career, and even resorted to gimmicks to get attention. Nevertheless, Riley took Dana's advice quite seriously and he later published a revised version of both rejected poems. "Tom Johnson's Quit," however, continued to joke about a shocking subject when it was published under the pseudonym John C. Walker. The poem is a satire of the temperance movement (ironic, considering Riley's own drinking problems), when townspeople hear the local drunk has given up alcohol:


Well, we was stumpt, an' tickled, too,—
  Because we knowed ef Tom hed signed
There wa'n't no man 'at wore the "blue"
  'At was more honester inclined:
An' then and there we kind o' riz,—
  The hull dern gang of us 'at bit—
An' th'owed our hats and let 'er whiz,—
      "Tom Johnson's quit!"

I've heerd 'em holler when the balls
  Was buzzin' 'round us wus'n bees,
An' when the ole flag on the walls
  Was flappin' o'er the enemy's,
I've heerd a-many a wild "hooray"
  'At made my heart git up an' git—
But Lord !—to hear 'em shout that way!—
      "Tom Johnson's quit!"

But when we saw the chap 'at fetched
  The news wa'n't jinin' in the cheer,
But stood there solemn-like, an' reched
  An' kind o' wiped away a tear,
We someway sort o' stilled ag'in,
  And listened—I kin hear him yit,
His voice a-wobblin' with his chin,—
      "Tom Johnson's quit—

"I hain't a-givin' you no game—
  I wisht I was! ... An hour ago,
This operator—what's his name—
  The one 'at works at night, you know?—
Went out to flag that Ten Express,
  And sees a man in front of hit
Th'ow up his hands an' stagger—yes,—
      Tom Johnson's quit!"

*The "blue ribbon" was used as a symbol by those who took temperance pledges. Recommended reading: James Whitcomb Riley: A Life (1999) by Elizabeth J. Van Allen.

1 comment:

  1. Am I the only one that noticed the angry look Dana is giving Riley in these two images??

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