Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Little Orphant Annie

Inscribed, with All Faith and Affection:
    To all the little children: -- the happy ones; and sad ones;
    The sober and the silent ones; the boisterous and glad ones;
    The good ones -- Yes, the good ones, too; and all the lovely bad ones.

In the days before the explosion of technology light verse was ideal for Saturday-night recitations and standard fare for holiday festivities. Casey at the Bat, Plain Language from Truthful James and "Little Orphant Annie" were popular among those who prized pronouncing them in a variety of voices and different dialects. In fact, they're still fun on the right occasion to cast aside inhibitions and let the melodrama rip. Before long everybody's smirking and maybe just a few think that poetry isn't so boring after all.

Backwoods beginnings

Known as the "Hoosier poet" it may not be too surprising to learn that as a student James Whitcomb Riley had spent some time during his school years studying another well know poet who used Scottish dialect Robert Burns. Born in Greenfield, Indiana Riley spent his early years working with a group of wandering painters and a patented medicine show eventually becoming a regular contributor of verse to Indiana newspapers. Riley's popularity was derived largely from his quaint use of Hoosier dialect, a Hoosier being a native of Indiana. Originally writing under a pen name, "Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone" he appealed to the majority of people with his ordinary style and expressions. Many likened Riley to fellow contemporary author Mark Twain for his talented use of natural parlance. His dialect and use of the language, as well as his cheerful sense of humor fascinated people.

Deliciously dark

Although a bit gruesome "Little Orphant Annie" is a deliciously dark morality tale for kids. Overflowing with the nostalgia and warmth along with her own colorful commentary `Orphant Annie' tells a terrifying tale of the consequences to disobedient and disrespectful children reminding them to "say our prayers", "help the poor and needy ones", and "cherish them that loves us". James Whitcomb Riley attributed his ghastly storyline to the family's hired girl. One source from the University of Indiana explains:

    The poem we familiarly call "Little Orphant Annie" was first printed in the Indianapolis Journal on November 15, 1885 as "The Elf Child." It appeared under that title in Character Sketches The Boss Girl, a Christmas Story and other Sketches published by the Bowen-Merrill Company in 1886. Orphaned during the American Civil War, Annie, whose name was actually Mary Alice Allie Smith, came to stay with the Riley family in Greenfield during the winter of 1862. She performed household chores in exchange for her room and board. Allie enchanted the Riley children with tales, warning of the goblins below the stairs. When next published Riley altered the title to "Little Ophant Allie," but a typesetting error turned Allie into Annie. Riley contacted his publisher about a correction, but upon being informed that the edition was selling extremely well, he decided to leave the error intact. Allie grew up, married a fellow named Grey, and moved to the Indiana town of Philadelphia. When she was 74 she visited the Greenfield home. It was not until she was in her 70's that she knew that she was the heroine of Riley's poem.

The picturesque tale of spooks and goblins in its Hoosier dialect made Riley one of the most well-liked and well off American poets of his day. As his popularity mounted Riley took to the road yet again, traveling around the country to perform his poems in many cities. By 1883, two collections of his poems were published, entitled The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems. Little Orphant Annie was at last published in hard print 1890 in an anthology titled Rhymes of Childhood striking a chord in many as to what the American Midwest was like in the years following the Civil War.

From celebrity to superstar

The mythology of the orphan was born in children's literature and popular culture. Its whimsical narrative style captures the imagination with an orphan storyline that has gone on to become a recurring theme in media today. In 1918 a black and white film by the same title was made. Surrounded by a group of children, the poet himself narrates the story of Little Orphant Annie, who loses her mother at an early age and is sent to an orphanage. Rated PG-13 Annie, played by Colleen Moore charms the other children with her stories of goblins and elves.

From tall tales to poetry to dolls. Patented in 1915 by Johnny Gruelle literary legends discuss that while....."reaching for a volume of poetry behind his desk," Johnny Gruelle leafed through several by poet and family friend, James Whitcomb Riley. Condensing the names of two of his favorites -- "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphant Annie" -- he asked, his daughter, "What if we call your new doll Raggedy Ann?"

Of course the most famous orphan of the 20th century is Little Orphan Annie. Beginning as a weekly newspaper comic strip published by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate in 1924 and created by Harold Gray. Several sources relate that Gray attributed the inspiration for his self-reliant, plucky and cheerful rags to riches character to Riley's poem. Add to that the combination formula of her early origins in a Dickensian orphanage to Daddy Warbucks the results have been guaranteed Annie's comic strip success.

In Riley's later life, Little Orphant Annie, The Raggedy Man," "When the Frost Is On the Punkin," and several more volumes of poetry attracted both national and international readers. He was honored as America's "Children's Poet," and in his home state he became known as "The Hoosier Poet." In 1913 a 6-volume collection of the complete works of this kind, wise poet of everyday Americans was published. James Whitcomb Riley died of a stroke three years later on July 22nd, United States President, Woodrow Wilson sent a note to the poet's family, saying Riley was, "...a man who imparted joyful pleasure and a thoughtful view of many things that other men would have missed."


Colleen Moore
Accessed Oct 20 2003

Accessed Oct 20 2003

James Whitcomb Riley: The Hoosier Poet
Accessed Oct 20 2003

Lost Indiana's In Grave Condition: James Whitcomb Riley
Accessed Oct 20 2003

Outpost 10F - Poetry Guild - James Whitcomb Riley
Accessed Oct 20 2003

Public domain text taken from The Poet's Corner
Accessed Oct 20 2003

The Raggedy Man and Little Orphant Annie
Accessed Oct 20 2003

RPO -- James Whitcomb Riley : Little Orphant Annie
Oct 20 2003