January 25, 2013

Cawein to Riley: recognition of your genius

"Dear old boy," began Madison Cawein's telegram to James Whitcomb Riley, dated, January 25, 1912:

I want to be the first to congratulate you on receiving the gold medal for poetry. Great enthusiasm at Institute dinner over the award. Am proud of you over this national recognition of your genius.

The award in question was from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an organization which Riley joined in 1908. Cawein was in attendance at that dinner, not because he had any hope of receiving the award but, as he wrote, "I want to be present on that occasion and see to whom the gold medal is to be presented." Cawein and the other voting members selected Riley unanimously. Riley himself, however, was not present; only two years before his award, Riley suffered a debilitating stroke that left him without the full use of his writing hand, but also in a deep depression. He was also still battling his alcoholism. But the very public admiration was a bit of a boost to him, and 1912 became an important year for the "Hoosier Poet."

He was asked, for example, to record himself reading some of his poems. By October of that year, the governor of Indiana declared Riley's birthday as Riley Day, and schools celebrated his poetry that day. In that year, he also re-published Rhymes of Childhood, which became his highest selling book. By 1913, he returned to public appearances with the aid of a cane.

Cawein wrote to a friend that Riley's gold medal was "the crown for his life work." He admitted that Riley should "feel proud of that medal, as doubtless he does, and should now be content to die, as perhaps he is." The year 1912 proved less fortunate for the Kentuckian poet Madison Cawein, however. His financial situation suffered miserably from the stock market crash, though he also began writing some of his most ambitious poems. Two years later, he was added to the relief list of the Authors Club before he died in 1914. Riley joined him in death two years later.

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