- Performing Class: James Whitcomb Riley’s Poetry of Distinction
In 1889 the poet James Whitcomb Riley and the prose humorist Bill Nye appeared at Boston’s Tremont Temple in a show sponsored by the Boston Press Club and booked through the Redpath Lyceum Bureau. They were introduced by Mark Twain, who amused the audience with an anecdote claiming that P. T. Barnum had discovered Riley and Nye when they were “orphans” joined at the chest:
Now at that time, before the severance of that old bond, this one’s name (pointing to Mr. Riley) was Chang Riley and this one’s Eng Nye. These were Siamese names—names not conferred on them—born with the names. You could tell it because there was a hyphen between them. (Laughter.) Those Siamese names I could translate into English, but it would be very difficult and would require a great deal of machinery (applause), so that it is not worth while to do it. 1
Twain pressed the joke, asserting that Chang Riley and Eng Nye were bound together because they could not work independently; Riley had all of the muscle, but Nye had all of the brains: “When Mr. Chang Riley enchants your spirit and touches your heart with the tender music of his voice . . . you will remember to place him where justice would put him. It’s not his music, it’s the other man’s. (Laughter.) He only turns the crank.” 2 Tremont Temple represented the pinnacle of Bostonian respectability, and “Chang Riley” was funny partly because he was incongruous there. As Twain jokingly linked Riley to Barnum’s Chang, [End Page 197] he also linked him to a network of cultural anxieties about the value of “high” versus “low” art forms, the ethnic and racial content of popular entertainment, the class positions of popular audiences, and the fate of poetry in the age of mass-marketed and mass-produced (“he only turns the crank”) entertainment.
As the specter of “Chang Riley” suggests, and as I will argue, Riley can be seen as a hinge figure in the history of American poetry, a poet who incorporated high and low culture into a precarious balancing act that was further destabilized by racial, ethnic, and class anxieties. In 1915 Van Wyck Brooks noted that America had evolved into two cultural camps, the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow”: “Between university ethics and business ethics, between American culture and American humor, between Good Government and Tammany, between academic pedantry and pavement slang, there is no community, no genial middle ground.” 3 By then the most influential poets in America were appearing in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, an elite publication with a small circulation. But Riley, who died one year after Brooks had codified this great divide, built an enormous middlebrow following between 1877 and 1915 despite the shifting and shrinking of the “genial middle ground” that had supported midcentury poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. Poetry had begun to disappear into the avant-garde and the universities, but Riley brought it back into popular culture by using old-fashioned rhymes and meters that were, like his subject matter, deeply imbued with nostalgia. Yet to see Riley as simply a throwback to Longfellow would be to miss his immediate social importance: as a poet of the mobile middle class, Riley performed social distinctions—genially, but with a startling undercurrent of aggression. Longfellow’s popular subjects of the 1840s and 1850s were often distant in time and place, such as Hiawatha, Miles Standish, or Evangeline. Riley’s turn-of-the-century subjects were mostly humble “Hoosiers,” contemporary characters whose gaffes and flaws perhaps lay too close for comfort and who nonetheless—or therefore—made people laugh. [End Page 198]
Riley’s success was bolstered by his performances: in the 1880s and 1890s he gave hundreds of readings in towns from Kokomo, Indiana, to Concord, Massachusetts, providing a mass-entertainment context for poetry at the very moment when it, like “classical” music, was being sacralized as high culture. As the Bookman put it in 1911, reaching back to Riley’s toddler days:
Jim’s Gab’s what made him famous, for since...