King, Stoddard (1889-1933)

  • By Paul Lindholdt
  • Posted 10/28/2014
  • Essay 10959
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Stoddard King was a Spokane journalist, an internationally acclaimed poet, and the writer of a song widely performed during World War I. His light verse and public persona, as well as his intellect and wit, put him much in demand in Spokane. There he was active on theater stages, in schools, churches, halls, colleges, and clubs. Poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) and King mutually admired, promoted, and quoted one another’s work. King’s national speaking and reading tours took him away for weeks at a time from his job as a journalist at the Spokesman-Review newspaper. He died of brain cancer in 1933, at the age of 43. Upon his death, eulogies poured forth from around the nation in praise of his personal charm and his humorous books of verse. 

An Industrious Youth

Born in Jackson, Wisconsin, on August 19, 1889, Stoddard King moved with his parents to Spokane in 1903. During high school he began as a copy boy in the field of journalism, a line of work that later became his mainstay. Concurrently he labored for Spokane International Railway where his father, Louis A. King, worked as a clerk. In 1907 he graduated from South Central High School (now Lewis and Clark High School) and was offered full-time employment at The Spokesman-Review as a 16-year-old reporter. There he gained experience covering the blazes that swept across Idaho and Montana in 1910. The forest fires killed 85 people and covered some three million acres. King’s first personal column, titled "On the Side," ran in the Sunday sports section starting in January 1909. At that very early stage in his career, he began his signature merging of original verse and journalism for which he would become so well known later in his life. 

Spokesman-Review owner William H. Cowles (1866-1946) liked King’s work and encouraged him to enroll in Cowles's own alma mater, Yale College. Cowles loaned the family the money so the young man could attend. The student thrived at Yale for the four years he spent earning his degree. He graduated in 1914. He occupied himself by editing the college newspaper, the Yale Daily News; by getting elected to the Zeta Psi social fraternity and to the Phi Beta Kappa honorary fraternity; and by composing with Yale College classmate Alonzo "Zo" Elliot (1891-1964) a song that rallied English-speaking troops during World War I. Both men were seniors at Yale College when they wrote "The Long, Long Trail," a song that remains the most enduring legacy for both of them. 

"The Long, Long Trail"

The setting for the song’s composition was Elliot’s dorm room one evening in 1913. Elliot composed the music, King suggested a first line, and together they completed and performed it for their fraternity brothers that same evening. Later they performed it as Zeta Psi delegates in Boston.

After they graduated, Elliot licensed the song in England and credited the lyrics to King, though evidently without King’s knowledge. Here legends of the tune’s evolution become hard to separate from fact. According to one account, King learned that the song had taken hold in the battle zones of World War I only when he read a news dispatch from London about "a Zeppelin air raid in which a street gamin, knocked down by the concussion of a bomb, sprang to his feet unhurt and, pulling a mouth organ from his pocket, trudged away nonchalantly playing" the tune (Dyar, 301). 

Soldiers and entertainers including Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) and Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) sang the song at Liberty Loan drives to entertain and bolster the morale of troops from Britain, Canada, and the United States. Singer Elsie Janis (1889-1956) is reported to have sung it from the back of a truck in France.

Dorothy Powers (1921-2014), a columnist for The Spokesman-Review, argued that prideful Spokane citizens had every right to be outraged over Time magazine’s mistake in naming it a British song. Powers set the record straight and recounted how American publishers first spurned the song, which become "the rage in every London music hall before a New York publisher would gamble on it" (Powers). Once the United States entered World War I, "regimental bandmasters seized" the song, and "government morale-boosters made it compulsory for soldiers to sing" (Powers). In the White House President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) liked to sing it after supper. 

Due to loose copyright restrictions of that era, the song was misattributed to other authors, co-opted, even retitled. Vachel Lindsay, pointing to its patriotic exploitation and alluding to the Ralph Waldo Emerson poem "Concord Hymn," named it "the song stolen 'round the world" (Dyar, 310).

During the war years, King rose to the rank of captain in the Washington National Guard before resigning his post in 1921. He later titled one of his lectures "Confessions of a Reformed Songwriter."

A Versifying Columnist

King was one of the foremost American journalists to compose original poems and place them in his columns on a regular basis. His passing references to poets and essayists suggest that he had studied literature in college and that his audiences enjoyed and shared his displays of cultural literacy. Following the advent of his Sunday sports column "On the Side," which began in The Spokesman-Review in January 1909, he began that next month to write a second sports feature modeled on humor and light verse that he titled "Old Sport’s Witticisms." Both columns appeared above the byline "Ess Kay." On his summer vacations away from college, he also wrote for the newspaper, and following his college graduation he pinch-hit as an editor before originating a third feature, a weekly column titled "In a Minor Key," which The Spokesman-Review ran on its editorial page. 

After an abortive stint in New York as associate editor of Harper’s Weekly in 1916, the same year that political magazine was absorbed by The Independent, King returned to Spokane. He spent the remaining 17 years of his life writing for The Spokesman-Review.

When his column "Facetious Fragments" went into print in October 1916, King gained the esteem of a reading public that ranged beyond Spokane. His daily column integrated original verses, quirky bits from the national newswires, amusing reflections on human nature, and personal discourse on clothing, sports, travel, advertising, and drink. Cutting against the grain of the free verse that was beginning to attract critics and the public, King developed his gift for humorous verses composed in meter and rhyme. His range of poetic forms and tones was extensive, his vocabulary erudite and rich. But the greatest explanation for his popularity and later commercial success seems to have been his capacity to amuse and inform in equal measure, to edify and delight at the same time. 

A Poet on the National Stage

After 10 years of infusing "Facetious Fragments" with his poems, King began to collect the poems in a rapid-fire series of books. Issued in New York City, What the Queen Said appeared in 1926. The book explores domestic pieties and middle-class values and went through multiple printings. It includes pieces with titles like "Poem for Mother’s Day," "Economy," and "There Was Liquor in My Locker," this a ballad about a leaky bottle poorly stored at a golf course. Its final lines impart a taste of the rollicking rhythms and loaded alliteration that made King’s work so palatable for the masses of literate middle-class Americans who were reading newspapers at that time. "I’m a sadder man and meeker,” King wrote, “Since the liquor spoiled the lacquer in my locker at the links" (What the Queen Said). 

The next year, 1927, he published Grand Right and Left. That amalgam of verse and prose seems to aim for an audience of children -- or for adults who would appreciate animal fables written about ponies, zebras, leopards, and wombats. King’s tongue-in-cheek foreword to the book profiles the author as someone who opted for a solitary sojourn on a North Dakota farm to focus on his writing task, in jokey contrast to Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who chose Europe to develop their craft. The satire continues in prose pieces reminiscent of Mark Twain, works such as "It’s a Gift," which narrates a saleswoman’s attempt to sell him a useless objet d'art. "It was about the size of an eggplant, but nothing like the shape. If I wanted to make the riddle harder I could say it barked like a dog, but that would be a lie" (Grand Right and Left).  Here historians may find perspectives on Prohibition, Indian tribes, film censor Will Hays, boxer Jack Johnson, the quack fad of chewing each bite of food a hundred times known as fletcherizing, and on the "eleven enterprising manufacturers of cereals" who assailed a gullible public with their wares (Grand Right and Left).  

His third book, Listen to the Mocking-Bird, came out in 1928, and sold for $1.50. Such birds are no more native to Spokane than are the nightingales and cuckoos that populate his other poems. The book displays King’s impressive erudition and his wide range of poetic forms and tones. In the poem titled "With the Mush," he dubbed his day job his "daily journalistic caper," one that furnishes "good breakfast food" for the citizens of his town. King both castigated and capitulated to middle-class minions, aka "the blustering boosters and bromide-spouting Babbitts, whom Lindsay considered the bane of Spokane" (Higgins, 26). He depicted himself as comfortably ensconced within his writer's life. That book also contains an early animal-rights poem, "At a Furrier’s Show Window."

At this time King was also selling poems to Look and The Saturday Evening Post.

His last volume was titled The Raspberry Tree. Its range of forms, its winsome voices and situations, anticipates the poets Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein. One reason for King's relative obscurity may be found today in the class satire that shoots throughout his work. An instance in The Raspberry Tree is "The Altruist," which at its core is a metrical lampoon of a bleeding-heart liberal, a man who extends his tender empathies to coffee growers, sugar planters, beef producers, and every wage slave whose "back in penury is bent." The poem ends by wondering whether "he / Is as solicitous of me." A second reason King does not hold up as well as other American light versifiers is the callousness he exhibits in occasional disdain for Indians, blackface dialect, mild slurs, and in accents like "spoin" (for “spurn”) that would have provoked knowing laughter.

For his time and his social class, though, Stoddard King had enormous appeal. Sponsored by the Lee Keedick Agency of New York City, he embarked on national lecture tours on which he might address audiences of more than a thousand people. No matter how many weeks away, he managed always  to transmit his daily column on time. His wife, Henrietta Lilliene McColl (1889-1976), whom he married in 1915, apparently left no reminiscences of King, but his daughter Barbara King Walton (ca. 1919-2010) had this to say about his daily habits: "He did go to work seven days a week from about noon to midnight, so his time with his family was limited to a long dinner hour and half Sundays" (Edgerton, p. 21). Walton, who died in 2010, concluded: "I am both startled and saddened to see how little I knew about my father" (Edgerton, p. 21).

Sources: "The Spokesman-Review (Spokane)," (by Jim Kershner), (accessed October 2014); "Forest fires in Idaho and Montana burn three million acres of timber and kill 85 people on August 20 and 21, 1910," (by David Wilma), (accessed October 2014); Ralph E. Dyar, News for an Empire (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1952); Dorothy R. Powers, "'British Song?' Oh, Come Now!," The Spokesman-Review, May 31, 1964, p. 3; Ralph P. Edgerton, "The Humorous King of Spokane," The Pacific Northwesterner , Vol. 32, No. 2 (1990), pp. 18-36; Stoddard King, What the Queen Said, and Further Facetious Fragments (New York: George H. Doran, 1926); King, Grand Right and Left (New York: George H. Doran, 1927); King, Listen to the Mocking-Bird (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1928); Shaun O’L. Higgins and Vachel Lindsay, Troubadour in “The Wild Flower City” (Spokane: New Media Ventures, 1999); Stoddard King, The Raspberry Tree and Other Poems of Sentiment and Reflection (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1930).

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