Thursday, November 10, 2011

Irving Bacheller Pops Up Again

Irving Bacheller on the grounds of his estate in Winter Park, Florida, circa 1930s.

I was awarded a grant several years ago to research the life of writer Irving Bacheller, a best-selling novelist in the first half of the 20th century.

He's not well-known today. But, when I was writing a small book about Winter Park, Florida, I kept stumbling across his name. He had a winter home in Winter Park, and I discovered that in his day, he was a big literary light to shine in such a small town.

Now, I've stumbled upon the old fellow again.

Irving Bacheller was so famous he faced the ignominy of the public figure: publishers sometimes misspelled his name on the postcards they produced of his Winter Park estate.

I was watching Turner Classic Movies, as I often do when I'm cleaning or ironing, and when I glanced up from a pillowcase, up popped a short subject called "Whispering Bill." The introduction said it was "based on a poem by Irving Bacheller." Produced by MGM in 1933, Bacheller's name was still well enough known that it earned him a place above the title, as they say in the movies.

Irving Bacheller in the study of his Winter Park, Florida, home.

After watching the short film, I went On Line to see if I could learn more about the poem. I  found a copy of "Whispering Bill" in the book In Various Moods: Poems and Verses by Irving Bacheller, published in 1910 by Harper and Brothers.

Bacheller's old-fashioned style can be tough slogging for the modern reader. But the poem "Whispering Bill" is something of an exception. Though it is not a great poem, it does have a poignant and universal theme--how the wounds of war resonate within a family and a community, long after that war has ended.

In fact, the tale of "Whispering Bill" is so terribly real, it makes me wonder if Bacheller, who began his career as a newspaperman, may have reported on a similar case. It tells the story of a boy who returns home from war with a traumatic wound that leaves his father telling a local politician:

     "An' ye've filled our souls with bitterness
                 that goes from sire to son,
       So ye best be kind o' careful
                down there in Washington."

And though the poem was written before the devastations of World War I--in which Bacheller served as a correspondent--his anti-war theme was well-suited to the public mood in America in the 1930s.

An autographed photo of Bacheller. All of these photos are from the archives of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Bacheller served on the Rollins board.

Bacheller was in his seventies by then and very worried that his career was on the wane. He feared being forgotten. So the sale of his 1910 poem to MGM in 1933 must have been a real coup for him. What a surprise that his work has found new life again in another medium nearly eighty years later.

And, it appeared on the eve of Veterans Day: a reminder to all of us to remember and be very grateful to those who have risked it all for our freedom.

(To read "Whispering Bill" click on the link below and scroll through the index to the poem.)

"In Various Moods: Poems and Verses by Irving Bacheller"

Ken Kraft, at left, is now the owner of Irving Bacheller's nifty old Ford. I got to ride in the rumble seat.

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Jon Gnagy's Portfolio said...

How nice to learn more about Irving Bacheller. I suspect his anti-war views were another link to Hamilton Holt, who was a leader in the Peace Movement in the early part of the century. As I learned from you, it was Bacheller who invited Holt to come to Rollins as president in 1925. Hope you'll post a link to your excellent presentation on the WPPL page.

linda said...

passed through part of winter park thursday on my way to the va hospital (the old training center hospital) and thought about you! :-)

Robin Chapman said...

Those anti-war sentiments are shared by many of us--including veterans like my father, who would often quote FDR and say "I'm like Roosevelt. I hate war."