May 16, 2014

James Whitcomb Riley: Even Dull, Depressing Poets Can Be Gay

When I was growing up in Rock Island, teachers thought it their duty to lecture incessantly on local writers and artists, like Carl Sandburg, gay jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, and Isabel Bloom.

My cousins in Indiana were hearing about their local writers and artist, of course, and whenever I visited, I had to hear about them, too: Theodore Dreiser, Gene-Stratton Porter, Hoagy Carmichael....

The one I hated the most was James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916), the "Hoosier Poet," the official poet laureate of the state of Indiana.

My Aunt Mavis scared me and my Cousin Buster to death with her rendition of "Little Orphant Annie":

The goble-uns'll git you ef you don't watch out! (The "git" was accompanied by a sudden grab.)

And "Nine Little Goblins":

You shan't wake up 'til you're plumb dead!

My Cousin Joe had to read "My Bachelor Chum," about a guy who is old -- nearly 40 -- and fat, who claims that he loves being unmarried -- he can smoke and drink and stay out late, and there's nobody around to nag him.  But then he sneaks off to a private study, looks at a picture of a woman, and starts crying.

Not only heterosexist, but depressing! Can you believe that James Whitcomb Riley was one of the most popular writers of his era, and all of his books were best-sellers?

Glancing through a copy of the Selected Poems that was on every bookshelf in Indiana, I found nothing but death, despair, lost heterosexual loves, dying soldiers, and more death.

They loved that kind of thing in the 19th century.

Riley's most famous poem is "The Old Swimmin' Hole": an old man reminisces about how as a boy he used to enjoy skinny dipping with his chums, but now he just wants to die:

I wish..I could dive off in my grave like the old swimmin' hole

Wait -- he liked to swim naked with his chums?

Could Riley have been gay?

His biographer, Elizabeth Van Allen, says certainly not, but what biography doesn't try desperately to establish the heterosexuality of her subject?

She admits that he sought same-sex friendships through his life, and described them in passionate terms; to physician James Matthews, for instance, he wrote: "I love you, and no knife shall cut our love in two."

But that's just a 19th century convention, she explains: "he understood that there was a limit to what was socially acceptable between people of the same gender."

Of course there was.  The same limit exists today -- it is expected, encouraged, and demanded that same-sex relationship be platonic, and cross-sex erotic.    Being gay crosses that line.  But that simply means that gay people must spend a lot of time defending themselves against the accusations that they're trying to destroy the world.  It doesn't mean that they aren't gay.

Or that they never experienced glimmers of same-sex love while writing their dull, depressing poems.

See also: John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.