The Indiana University Press has a nice series called the Library of Indiana Classics, to which belong several books by Booth Tarkington. As a Midwesterner I used to feel I came from one of the blander parts of the country, but as this series shows, Indiana in particular has produced a substantial amount of fine American literature. James Whitcomb Riley, Hamlin Garland, and Edward Eggleston were known to me; Gene Stratton-Porter and George Barr McCutcheon were not. There is so much out there to discover.
I took advantage of one of IU Press’s sales to pick up a copy of The Best of James Whitcomb Riley. The South may have the most “colorful” dialects, but Riley and the “local color” writers like Garland show that the Northern regions have their own diversity and, to re-appropriate the word usually applied to third-world people, vibrancy.
Consider Riley’s touching and very popular Civil War poem “The Old Man and Jim.” Jim isn’t much of a farmer, but shows himself to be a fearless soldier. His elderly father, never much for expressing his emotions, dotes on Jim and in the end has to bury his son, who succumbs to his wounds just as Northern victory is being announced. I’ll print the first and last stanzas here; the rest is posted here.
Old man never had much to say–
‘Ceptin’ to Jim,–
And Jim was the wildest boy he had–
And the old man jes’ wrapped up in him!
Never heerd him speak but once
Er twice in my life, and first time was
When the army broke out, and Jim he went,
The old man backin’ him, fer three months;
And all ‘at I heerd the old man say
Was, jes’ as we turned to start away,
“Well, good–bye Jim:
Take keer of yourse’f!”
Think of him–with the war plum’ through,
And the glorious old Red-White-and-Blue
A-laughin’ the news down over Jim,
And the old man, bendin’ over him–
The surgeon turnin’ away with tears
‘At hadn’t leaked fer years and years,
As the hand of the dyin’ boy clung to
His father’s, the old voice in his ears,–
“Well, good–bye, Jim:
Take keer of yourse’f!”
Regardless of the utility of or justifications for war, we grieve for the young men lost or forever scarred, a loss which their countrymen feel as their own. Now, Riley’s poem reminds us of so much else that has been lost: language, memories, kinship, common culture. But we do have the poem, and the culture it came from, though badly ailing, is far from dead. It can continue to live if we work to make that possible.