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WALT MASON

 

 

            La Jolla has a distinguished citizen in Walt Mason, whom George Ade has termed “The high priest of horse sense.”  A prolific writer of prose poems, Mr. Mason has achieved international renown as the author or the “Rippling Rhymes” and is regarded by many as America’s best beloved bard.  He removed to California from the Sunflower State, after many years’ connection with the Emporia Daily Gazette, and became famous while associated with that paper.  In its issue of Monday, May 4, 1931, appeared the following article:

            “Sixty-nine years ago today, May 4, 1862, there was born in Columbus, Ontario, a boy who, as he himself puts it, was the ‘fifth in a series of six sons’ of John and Lydia (Campbell) Mason.  The fifth son was Walt Mason, known and loved in Emporia, Kansas, and throughout the United States as the foremost interpreter in verse of the Middlewest that has arisen—or is likely to arise.  No more than one such bard can be expected in the generations now living.

            “Walt Mason came to Emporia in October, 1907, driving his bay pony, ‘Billy’ hitched to a rickety old buckboard, and carrying as the principal item of baggage what he afterward described as a wreck of a typewriter.  He went to work on The Gazette as editorial writer, and soon he had risen from obscurity to international fame.  His ‘Rippling Rhymes,’ printed each day in more than two hundred American newspapers, and in scores of papers in Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, India and Australia, are sought out daily by millions of readers.  Their kindly philosophy, their straight-to-the-point truth, their wide variety, appeal to an equally wide variety of readers.  Their influence—wholesome, cheerful, keen, wise—cannot be estimated.  So strong a hold has Mr. Mason’s work on the public that Who’s Who in 1931 lists him as one of this country’s most distinguished writers.  He is intensely human, with an intuitive sympathy for those in financial trouble or physical or mental distress.  Having known grief and trouble and hardship in many phases, he is eager to help wherever and whenever he can.

            “Walt Mason’s father, of Welsh birth, made a scanty living for his family by working as a dyer in a woolen mill in Columbus.  There he was accidentally killed when his son Walt was but four years old.  His mother, of Scotch descent, died when he was fifteen.  He had attended a country school as he grew up, working for famers and in the woolen mill outside school hours.  When he was nine he almost drowned, and was hauled out of the water, unconscious, by an older brother.  Ever since his hearing has been defective, but he has overcome triumphantly what might have been a life-long handicap to one less devoted to the work for which he seems to have been born—the writing of verse.

            “After the death of his mother, Mr. Mason went to Port Hope, Ontario, and worked in a hardware store for a year and a half, for two dollars and a half a week, boarding himself.  He quit this job, and says his employer was a glad as he when he left the store.  In 1880 he crossed Lake Ontario into New York State.  There he hoed beans for a farmer on summer, and says it was the poorest fun he ever struck.  From New York he decided to go west, worked for a time in Ohio, then in Illinois, and finally reached St. Louis.  There he got a job in a printing establishment, and kicked a job press through a long, hot summer.  Always he was writing verse, and one day he sent some of his stuff to The Hornet, a humorous weekly published in St. Louis.  The Hornet printed it, and the editor wrote him a note, asking him to call at the office.  He offered Mr. Mason five dollars a week to go into the office to write verse, read proof, sweep floors and do whatever other work he was called upon to perform.  Mr. Mason stayed with The Hornet until it failed.  He was unable to get another job in St. Louis.  Then he decided to come to Kansas.”

            Here is the story of Walt Mason’s newspaper career in Kansas and Nebraska, as told by him.  He wrote this by request for his birthday party in The Gazette—though he didn’t know it was for The Gazette, or for his birthday party.

            “I began my active newspaper work on the Atchison Globe.  I had worked on newspapers before that, but always inside.  I was pretty deaf and it was assumed that I wouldn’t make a good reporter.  But E. W. Howe happened to be hard up for help when I applied for the job, and he thought he’d take a chance.  I believe that was in 1884.  The Globe was just beginning to prosper, after long travail.  There were three daily papers in Atchison; the others had telegraphic reports, and the Globe had boiler plate, so it depended upon its excellence as a local paper for success.  And there it shone.  The way Mr. Howe and Joe Rank and I chased around that town for news was a caution.  A Globe reporter had to work, but the editor never asked him to do anything the editor wouldn’t do himself.  I acquired a sort of tireless dog-trot while on that job, and have never been able to get rid of it.  Even now in my old age I go about three times as fast as I should and have to stop and lean against a tree now and then.  Mr. Howe was the most industrious man I ever knew.  He had recently been recognized as a great writer, his ‘Story of a Country Town’ having recently been discovered by the critics, and honors and emoluments were rolling in on him, but he never slackened his activity on the Globe.  He would chase around town after local items all day and then go home and work half the night on the book he was writing.  He published several after the success of ‘The Country Town.’  I recall the ‘The Mystery of the Locks,’ ‘A Moonlight Boy’ and ‘An Antemortem Statement.’  They were good but overshadowed by the success of his masterpiece.  We had some rather amusing tricks on the Globe.  One was to quote people exactly as they spoke.  One day a marble dealer said to me ‘You might mention in the paper that my brother, a Presbyterian minister from Manhattan, is visiting with us.  He has black whiskers about a foot long and looks like the devil.’  I sent in this item just as he gave it, and the next morning he was around threatening bloodshed.

            “There were a good many distinguished men in Atchison in those days but the shadows have enshrouded them all except John J. Ingalls.  He is among the immortals, not because of his efforts as a statesman, but because of a little sonnet labeled ‘Opportunity’ and an essay on grass, and another on catfish aristocracy.  I always thought it a lucky day when I met him in Atchison.  Anything he said made a story, and he talked in epigrams, even when discussing the weather.  He was greatly feared in the arena of debate; he had wonderful command of excoriating language, but when he met a humble obscure reporter in his home town he was affability itself … .

            “I went from Atchison to the State Journal at Lincoln, Nebraska, and was connected with that paper and papers in Omaha for a long time.  Nebraska was swarming with big men in those days; many of them seemed to have achieved imperishable fame, and now their names have no significance, except to a few old relics like myself.  Who remembers Senator Van Wyck of Nebraska?  He was one of the original insurgents, and bulked as largely as Borah and Norris, and when he made a speech the police had to handle the crowds. 

            “J. Sterling Morton frequently came to Lincoln and I made several attempts to interview him, with indifferent results.  He was a stately, dignified gentleman, without any warmth or humor in his make-up.  He invented Arbor Day and held all the basic patents, and probably drew generous royalties, but there is no basis for the idea that he invented tree planting. …

            “It was in Lincoln that I became quite intimately acquainted with a young attorney named William J. Bryan, who was attracting some attention as an orator.  When I first knew him he hadn’t advanced very far.  I wrote a number of paragraphs about William, and he never forgot the fact as long as he lived, and was always ready to do me a kindness.  When he was a young man he was as handsome as Apollo and it was a pleasure to look at him.  I have read much about him since his death, but none of the writers have done justice to his kindness and loyalty.

            “Many a time I ate corned beef and cabbage with Charles G. Dawes in Cameron’s beanery in Lincoln.  He was ‘Charlie’ then, and had no idea what he would live to make Helen Maria and the underslung pipe famous.  ‘Jack’ Pershing was then military instructor in the university and I remember him as a lithe, active young man, straight as a proverbial ramrod, and full of pep.  A few weeks ago I had a kind letter from him, recalling the old days when we were neighbors in Lincoln.

            Lincoln is the seat of the State University, and the Journal office was frequented by many students, looking for some little work that would help them out on their meal tickets.  Among these students was an attractive girl from Red Cloud who had contributed a few little articles which displayed much talent.  There was an old dead town, Brownsville, on the Missouri River, which had figured prominently in the early history of the state and had turned out several famous citizens.  It occurred to the managing editor that a story about Brownsville would make a good Sunday feature, and he invited the Red Cloud girl to tackle the job.  She went down there with her fountain pen and wrote a story that made the whole state sit up.  It was remarkably fine piece of work and the story may be found in countless Nebraska scrapbooks, even to this day.  The Red Cloud girl was Willa Cather, now one of the world’s foremost novelists, and this was the beginning of her career.

            “I was in Omaha, working on the World-Herald, side by side with Mrs. Peattie, another of several best sellers, when, in 1892, a new evening paper was establish in Washington, D. C.  Mr. Bryan, who had and exaggerated idea of my ability as a writer, went around the publishers and got me a job as editorial paragrapher and columnist.  No newspaper ever had a more promising beginning.  The majority of the men on the editorial staff were stars, several of them being famous, and several others were to become famous.  I never saw so many gifted men in one enterprise, and I felt like a blacksmith in such a company.  But they were all kind to me, and made me feel at home, and I got along quite well.  Never did a newspaper begin business with more flattering prospects.  The paper was bright, aggressive and newsy and made a hit with the first issue.  The advertisers were liberal, and the circulation climbed every day.  Then came ’93 with its famous panic, and gloom settled on everything.  The banks quit paying depositors until they got good and ready, you couldn’t borrow fifty cents on a house and lot, and people who had been opulent were trying to pawn their hats.  Naturally a new paper had no chance in such a cataclysm.  I saw the end approaching, and while I had the price I decided to get back to Nebraska, which I did.

            “While I was working on the Washington paper James G. Blaine died and the managing editor told me to write an obituary.  I went to work and had it written in half an hour.  It caused much comment, and among those who wrote in, expressing appreciation, were members of the Blaine family.   A day or two after the editorial appeared the managing editor summoned me.  He was quite excited and said, ‘You are greatly honored.  Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett has sent word that she would be pleased to see the author of the Blaine eulogy; she will expect you at her home at four o’clock tomorrow.’  Mrs. Burnett, author of ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ and other famous books, had a wonderful prestige in Washington.  She was a sort of empress dowager there.  As the managing editor explained, such an invitation from her was a royal command.  She was always eager to encourage budding talent, and it was like being knighted by the king to be summoned to her mansion.  The next day I started for her home, going at my old Atchison Globe dog-trot, and was all in a lather of sweat when I reached her door.  I had imagined her as a comfortable old lady, living in a vine-covered cottage with a couple of cats and a canary, and was surprised to find that she lived in a palatial house with a retinue of servants in regimentals.  There I saw my first butler, except for the stuffed butlers in the museums.  I was ushered into a large room where there were many men and women in fine attire.  Mrs. Burnett greeted me kindly and pretended she didn’t see how I was sweating.  She tried heroically to set me at my ease, and after some pleasant conversation, invited me to read the eulogy to the assembled guests.  I was so scared and rattle I couldn’t do so, and she handed the clipping to a young man with beautiful mahogany-colored whiskers, who read it with much feeling.  The folks came up and congratulated me and I did some more sweating, fell over a chair, got my feet tangled up in a rug, and finally made a rush for the door, dodged the butler and got away.  The young man with the beautiful whiskers has long been a famous novelist.  He has  published two best sellers and is truly famous.

            “About that time I had an interview more to my taste.  I had a long heart-to-heart talk with John L. Sullivan, who had been one of my heroes for years.  Before leaving Washington I had the honor of colliding with David B. Hill, the great man of New York.  I was going around a corner in a useless hurry and slammed up against him.  I gathered up his hat and cane and began apologizing, saying I would pay for any damage to his headlights and radiator.  He didn’t say anything but the coldly malevolent glance he gave me still sends a shiver down my spine when I think of it.”

            In 1893 Mr. Mason was married to Miss Ella Foss at Wooster, Ohio.  In 1921 they moved to La Jolla, California, and here they have since resided in their beautiful home by the sea.  A few years ago Mrs. Mason took up pottery and she is never happier than when modeling clay into beautiful shapes and figures.  Mr. and Mrs. Mason have a daughter, Mary, whom they adopted while living in Emporia and who is the pride and joy of her foster-parents.  She was graduated from The Bishop’s School, a college preparatory institution at La Jolla, and also took a course in a business college at San Diego.

            A member of the editorial staff of the Emporia Gazette recently said of Mr. Mason:  “He sees in trivial and insignificant happening the making of a story or a rhyme, and forthwith makes it.  His copy is a delight to editors, printers and proofreaders.  Always his reading has been extensive, and he knows so much about out-of –the-way and queer and peculiar things and peoples and countries as to seem almost uncanny.  He stores in his mind all he reads and his deafness in this respect is an asset.  He is not disturbed by noise and confusion but can read straight through a riot without losing a line.  For many years he wrote his syndicate stuff in The Gazette office to the accompaniment of typewriters, job presses, news presses, linotype machines and the numberless weird and jarring noises that infest a newspaper office, and was not troubled thereby.

            “Walt mason is a prolific writer, writing with ease and sureness on hundreds of subjects.  In the past quarter of a century he has written scores of magazine articles for foremost publications in the United States.  He has turned out thousands of the prose poems that appear in the dailies and still writes these for large clientele.  His books are: ‘Uncle Walt,’ published in 1910; ‘Walt Mason’s Business Prose Poems,’ 1911; ‘Rippling Rhymes,’ 1913; ‘Horse Sense,’ 1915; ‘Terse Verse,’ 1917; and ‘Walt Mason His Book,’ 1918.  Ill health the past few years has compelled him to slow up on the writing game but he maintains the same interest in the world and its doings.”

            The following are a few of the tributes that have been paid to Walt Mason by famous admirers of his ‘Rippling Rhymes.’

            “We should be sorry to miss his verse, modestly masking as prose, a single day out of six.  The reader already knows our unfeigned affection for this poet, and we need not renew our protest.  What we must say is that this work (play, rather—joyful frolic, blithe, exercise of the soul!) seems not to have lost its freshness after a succession of say two or three thousand days.  But this is the least wonder of it.  The wisdom, the kindness, the unswerving right-mindedness, is always there, with the beauty which comes of these and a true sense of life.” –William Dean Howells in Harpers Magazine.

            “Walt Mason’s little sermonettes in rhyme are gospels, and they are going about doing good.” – Robert J. Burdette.

            “How many millions of people are cheered year by year as they turn every day to these quaint verses!  Three strong talents have given Walt Mason his standing.  First, originality of expression; he imitates no one, and his word combinations are positively unique and generally immensely funny.  Second, he has common sense and does not go off at a tangent about any fad, ism or creed; his creed is the wisdom of the people.  Third, he sometimes reveals fine, strong, manly sentiment of the first order.  Read ‘The Journey’ or ‘The Eyes of Lincoln,’ and the real poet- not the rhyme maker-will appear to you.  Walt Mason is the poet laureate of American democracy.” –William Allen White

            “His wit burbles and gurgles like a Kansas creek where the bullheads gambol.  Walt Whitman wrote poetry that did not rhyme; Walt Mason writes prose that does.  Walt Mason is a big man who does thing so simply that we say ‘anybody can write like that.’  Suppose you try it.  It is beautiful to find a man who has been will licked but who has no kick coming.  It is a great thing to reform the world and never let the world know it.” –Elbert Hubbard.

           

Mr. Mason’s own favorite ‘Rippling Rhyme’ is entitled:

THE LITTLE GREENT TENTS

            The little green tents where the soldiers sleep, and the sunbeams play and the women weep, are covered with flowers today; and between the tents walk the weary few, who were young and stalwart in ‘sixty-two, when they went to the war away.  The little green tents are built of sod, and they are not long, and they are not broad, but the soldiers have lots of room; and the sod is part of the land they saved, when the flag of enemy darkly waved, the symbol of dole and doom.  The little green tent is a divine thing; the little green tent is a country’s shrine, where patriots kneel and pray; and the brave men left, so old, so few, were young and stalwart in ‘sixty-two, when they went to the war away!

           

The following is also considered by many as one of the finest examples of his muse:

THE EYES OF LINCOLN

            Sad eyes, that were patient and tender, sad eyes that were steadfast and true, and warm with the unchanging splendor of courage no ills could subdue!  Eyes dark with the dread of the morrow, and woe for the day that was gone, the sleepless companions of sorrow, the watcher that witness the dawn.  Eyes tired from the clamor and goading, and dim from the stress of the years, and hallowed by pain and foreboding, and strained by repression of tears.  Sad eyes that were wearied and blighted by visions of sieges and wars, now watch o’er a country united form the luminous slopes of the stars!

 

           

 

Transcribed By:  Michele Y. Larsen on March 18, 2012.

Source: California of the South Vol. II,  by John Steven McGroarty, Pages 171-181, Clarke Publ., Chicago, Los Angeles,  Indianapolis.  1933.


© 2012 Michele Y. Larsen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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