James Whitcomb Riley
Aug. 4, 1880
Dear Friend: I'm most afraid you're spoiling me with all your good words, praises and encores, and tincturing me, too, beyond my wont with that delirious favoring enthusiasm — that leaps and revels so along your veins that my own twang and tingle as I write. And I'm going to follow your advice — for this morning at least — and not attempt a line of verse until I shall have answered your best of letters and the soul it held. `You are glad you are an enthusiast,' and I'm glad, too, — 'cause even though your lavish praise may stimulate an egotism as alert as mine, still that is just the spirit that needs active exercise, and should by no means lie dormant, as you seem to think in your case, — `To write my best, only for the sake of beholding it in print seemed egotistical to me.' — `And there are so many writers in the field there doesn't appear to be room for all.' — Make room, then, and for yourself — and I do assure you that you can't do that, no matter what your worth, without the strongest consciousness of that worth yourself, and the continued emphasis of that fact in your bearing toward the public, and in all you undertake, — and that may doubtless be called `egotism,' — let 'em call it what they will — the more you possess of it, the sooner you will shake hands with Success is my serious belief. But, ah! you say — `A man can wave his hat and shout bravo ! and a woman she can' — just strike hands with him and climb right on to glory by his side - if she has only strength — as Mrs. Browning — the God-woman — to conquer her own modesty and self-disparagement, and let the great strong, towering soul step out and straighten-up among the stars. And what a glorious giant she is then! — I gather from your letters and your poems that it is your desire to reach, at last, some height, at least, along the upward path. And this is why I have spoken, and will speak, most seriously.
More than four years ago I received a letter from J. T. Trowbridge responding to my query as to how I might find market for my verse. I was then, as now you are, writing gratuitously, but hungrier a thousand times, I know, for some crumb of pecuniary help, and recompense for my work. — And Trowbridge said in order to make poetry marketable in this day and age it must be a part of it — that is, it must possess the qualities of the great Present: dash, brilliancy, strength, originality — and always a marked individuality of its own — a striking something that would stamp it from the ordinary. These are not his words — but the meaning of them as nearly as I can give it after the constant endeavor of years to follow his advice. Then it was not long till some hint of real success came dawning — not in the East, however, where naturally one looks for dawn — but here in the West, where are so many papers seemingly eager to advance and lend assistance to the poor bedrabbled strugglers in the everstanding army of poets, jingle-ringers, and verse-carpenters. Since then, I have been steadily gaining, until now — with the exception of one magazine and paper of the East — I have more engagements for verse alone here in my western home than I can fill creditably — the pay not much, but still enough to humor some extravagances, and steadily increasing. Another thing I speak of before leaving this modus-operandi outline of how I write for market — and that is: We are writing for today and for the general reader — who, by the bye, is anything but a profound or classical scholar. Therefore, it has been, and is, my effort to avoid all phrases, words or reference of the old-time order of literature; and to avoid, too, the very acquaintance of it — because we are apt to absorb more or less of the peculiar ideas, methods, etc., of those authors we read; and as everything is right in its place — so the old authors are right in the past — while new ones must be here in the present — see? Whenever I am forced to say a commonplace thing it is my effort, at least, to say it as it never has been said before — if such a thing can be done without an apparent strain. Then, too, as before intimated, I exercise just all the egotism at command (not a small stock, I assure you), and try to believe myself as smart, or smarter, than any-body else who ever attempted doing anything; and, as a usual thing, to counteract the many dangers likely to result from such indulgence, I lay my work aside, as first perfected, forget it as wholly as I can, and the next day, perhaps, resurrect it in a mood the very opposite of that in which it was produced, and coldly, cruelly and most relentlessly attack and tear it into all possible shreds, — then when Mr. Public gets it, if the critic can find meaner treatment to bestow on it than I have given, he must have a very wicked heart indeed, and I a very tender one, if what he says of it can sting the least.
To Benj. S. Parker
August 29, 1887
Dear Parker: Just as your letter came I was called from town, and so till now I have been kept from answering it.
In many respects I agree with you regarding dialect — Yankee, Southern, Hoosier and all the rest; still I most conscientiously believe (outside of all its number-less deviations) there is a legitimate use for it, and as honorable a place for it as for the English, pure and unadulterated. The only trouble seems to be its misuse — its use by writers who fail wholly to interpret its real spirit and character either through blind ignorance, or malicious perverseness, in what they are about. To range back to the very Genesis of all speech, we can only righteously conjecture a dialectic tongue — a deduction as natural as that a babe must first lisp — the child babble — and the youth and man gradually educate away all like preceding blemishes, and I think it is absolutely necessary, in the general illustration of human life and character, to employ the dialect as the speech refined — its real value, of course, dependent on the downright wisdom and honesty of the writer who employs it. And my ambition in the use of dialect is simply as above outlined. That I have few endorsers among the scholarly I grievedly admit, yet am graciously assured and compensated by the homely approbation of my class and grade of fellowmen. Once in a while, however (and there's, at last, a discernible growth of the tendency), some finished critic discriminates and estimates the dialectic purpose exactly. Let me quote from Art Interchange of August thirteenth:
It says of a dialect poem of mine in August Century that it `is an illustration of the only possible excuse for this sort of work,' in that `the tender and touching little poem does not depend on the dialect' — but that — 'The feeling, the homely pathos of the verse makes it of value, and the dialect is simply its strongest and most fitting expression.' Now I am very proud of this detailed estimate of the poem. That is the highest praise I seek or my ambition desires, and I think you will believe me and approve me there.