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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 410-411

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James Whitcomb Riley: A Life. By Elizabeth J. Van Allen. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press. 1999. xii, 352 pp. $29.95.

James Whitcomb Riley is no Thomas Shadwell, but he is and will likely forever remain a "minor poet" of American letters. Riley's "minor" credentials are simply too impeccable to be denied: his art is provincial by design, intensely sentimental, and powerfully uncritical of the swirling forces of cultural change that defined life in the post–Civil War United States. Rarely studied or anthologized today, Riley was by the end of the nineteenth century the most popular poet in the United States, and he remains a vital cultural institution in Indiana to this day.

In her prologue, Elizabeth Van Allen asserts that Riley's poems "describe a static world where stability and certainty reign, while his life demonstrates how mutable reality in modern society can be." The tension and collusion between these two orientations form the de facto theme of her biography, an intelligent and thorough account of a man who, before becoming a celebrated poet, "used his many talents in a number of confidence games to sell goods and services." For Riley, this itinerant huckster experience blurred for him the "boundaries between salesmanship and other forms of performance" and led to his understanding and exploitation of what Van Allen calls the "fluidity of personal identity" characteristic of the growing anonymity and mobility in modern America.

Riley eventually learned to out-Twain Twain in the performance of his work and his literary persona; at the height of his success, he actually became a commercial brand, hawking Riley cigars and "Hoosier Poet" canned fruits, vegetables, and coffee to a loyal and adoring readership. Riley presented himself as a homespun, rustic wordsmith despite the sophisticated, cosmopolitan polish he achieved in his later years, and Van Allen is fully aware that what intrigues contemporary scholars is not Riley as poet but Riley as protomodern figure who understood how to commodify his own image and the nostalgic dreams of an anxious nation. The idyllic rural world and moral universe of Riley's poetry were, in fact, genuine reflections of his personality and childhood experience but he and promoters consciously trucked in midwestern and middle-class values, illuminating the friction between artistic vision and the literary marketplace. William Dean Howells once remarked that the man [End Page 410] of letters was increasingly becoming a man of business, and Van Allen's portrait of the "Hoosier Poet" affirms this insight.

Riley's life is fascinating enough, but much of the value in this book rests in Van Allen's skillful rendering of historical context and her keen explorations of such historic conventions as the national newspaper exchange, the national lecture circuit, patent medicine sideshows, the temperance movement, county fairs, and a host of other cultural institutions surviving outside the Boston-New York literary juggernaut of the day. Van Allen somewhat overstates the modernity of Riley's rural elegies with an unfortunate comparison to Thomas Hardy's dense laments, but this is a tight and well-orchestrated biography, and her balanced evaluation of Riley's place in American literary history in the epilogue serves as ballast for the very few loose claims in the preceding chapters.

A biographical exhumation of a literary figure such as Riley raises thorny literary questions about the status of minor poets in American letters and the place of regionalism and local color in literary study. Such questions play an important role by focusing light on the literary fringes and on the forgotten former centers of literary tradition. That this biography of an Indiana poet was written by a Hoosier biographer, published by Indiana University Press, and reviewed by, yes, a Hoosier critic in a journal called American Literature is a significant comment on the means by which regional writing can penetrate a broader literary discourse.

Despite Riley's provincialism and the obvious sentimentality of his poetry, both Howells and Twain recognized a fundamental authenticity in his expression of the impossible idealism of midwestern youth, and I must confess that when I read lines like those that conclude "At Broad...


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