WALT MASON. In the annual output of wheat, corn, livestock, coal, oil and gas, Kansas must share her splendid results with other states. But at least one product is unique--Walt Mason and his rhymes. Statisticians are fond of figuring the value of Kansas crops. No one has estimated nor can estimate how much Walt Mason has contributed to the sum total of human happiness. And practically all that output has come from his home in Kansas, in his congenial surroundings at Emporia. It is said that Mr. Mason is unable to write in strange surroundings, and consequently never leaves Emporia. He is one of the few successful writers of modern times who have not been seduced from his old and familiar center of inspiration and there are many who will find special cause for admiration in this one fact.
Some years ago William Allen White, in whose paper, the Emporia Gazette, Walt Mason's writings first found an appreciative audience, called Mr. Mason "the poet laureate of American democracy." Walt Mason is indeed a democrat in literature. The native vernacular is sufficient for him, and his forms of expression are as characteristic of Walt Mason as they are plain and intelligible to the masses of busy mankind. What place in the art of letters the future will assign him, cannot be foretold, and he probably does not give it a thought. He is at least doing a great work in the present, and his genial unlined verse is a force in preserving the balance and sanity of modern thought.
Kansans are proud of Walt Mason, and will naturally expect something to be said of him in this work. The unvitalized statistics of biography are found stated as follows in Who's Who:
"Born at Columbus, Ontario, April 4, 1862; son of John and Lydia Sarah (Campbell) Mason; self-educated; came to United States in 1880. Connected with Atchison Globe, 1885-87, later with Lincoln (Neb.) State Journal and other papers; editorial paragrapher Evening News, Washington, 1893; associated with William Allen White on Emporia Gazette 1907 to present. Believed to have the largest daily audience of any living writer; prose poems are published daily in more than two hundred newspapers in the United States and Canada. Republican. Unitarian. Author: Rhymes of the Range, 1910; Uncle Walt, 1910, Walt Mason's Business Prose Poems, 1911, Rippling Rhymes, 1913."
Asked a short time ago to write a sketch of himself for the Detroit News-Tribune, Mr. Mason, though very busy, responded promptly, and what he had to say regarding himself follows:
"I was born at Columbus, Ontario, April 4, 1862. My parents were poor. I was the fifth of a series of six sons. My father was a dyer in a woolen mill and was accidentally killed in that establishment when I was four years old. He was of Welsh and my mother of Scotch descent. My mother was fond of books and poetry and old songs, and knew many of the latter. She died when I was fifteen years old.
"Meanwhile, during my childhood, I had been going to a country school and working for farmers, and also in the woolen mill. After my mother's death I went to Fort Hope, Ontario, and worked in a hardware store for a year and a half, drawing the princely salary of two and a half dollars a week and boarding myself. When I was nine or ten years old I was nearly drowned and was hauled out of the water unconscious by an older brother. I have had defective hearing ever since, and it was probably due to this that I never became a merchant prince. Anyhow, I was not a success in a hardware store and when I told my employer I was going to leave, he said it was the proudest and happiest moment of his life.
"Having severed my diplomatic relations with the hardware man, I crossed Lake Ontario in 1880, going to New York State, where I hoed beans for a summer. It was the poorest fun I ever struck. The soil was stony and the hoe was dull, and the sun was hot as blazes, and there didn't seem to be any sense in hoeing beans, anyhow. From New York I took my way westward, arm in arm with the star of empire. I stopped awhile in Ohio, then in Illinois, and finally reached St. Louis, where I went to work in a printing establishment and 'kicked' a job press through the hottest summer ever invented. There was a humorous weekly called Hornet in St. Louis and I sent some stuff to it. The Hornet printed it and the editor wrote to me and asked me to call. He offered me five dollars a week to go to work in the office, writing gems of thought, reading proof, sweeping the floors and otherwise making myself useful. I took the job and remained with the Hornet until it went broke.
"Not being able to get another job in St. Louis, I went to Kansas and worked around the state for three years as a hired man. Disgusted with that sort of work, and being ambitious to get into newspaper business, I managed to get a job with the Leavenworth Times. Later I became a reporter on the Atchison Globe and there learned a great deal that was useful to me. From that time forward I was chasing myself over the country and was connected with newspapers in a dozen cities, but always had the idea that the next town would be a little better and kept moving around. I was mixing up farming with newspaper work in Nebraska for a good many years, and making a failure of both. It took me a good while to discover that pigs and poetry won't mix. When I did find it out I came to Kansas and went to work for William Allen White, writing stuff for the editorial page of the Emporia Gazette. The Gazette always printed on its first page an item of local news with a border around it, called a star-head. One day the city editor was shy of the necessary item, and asked me to write something to fill that space. I wrote a little prose rhyme, advising people to go to church next day, which was Sunday. The prose rhyme attracted some attention and on Monday I wrote another one, and a third on Tuesday and so on, and the star-head rhyme became a feature of the Gazette. Thus originated the prose poetry."
This is undoubtedly a veracious and thoroughly modest account of his career up to the time he became famous. The next step was the syndicating of his writings as they appeared in the Gazette. Instead of being read exclusively in the Gazette and as copied from that journal, his poems were published simultaneously by a group of papers supplied by the syndicate, and at the end of a year it is said that he was getting $6 each for his verses. People over the entire country began to enjoy his kind of writing, and in a few years the name Walt Mason came to have significance and a prestige such as few other current writers enjoy. His present income from writing rhymes is equal at least to that enjoyed by many of the more successful lawyers and professional men, and as Mr. Mason's wants are simple, he is really a wealthy man. Not long ago he built a beautiful residence in Emporia, costing altogether about $14,000, and every dollar was earned by writing rhymes. In 1893 Mr. Mason married Ella Foss of Wooster, Ohio.
A magazine writer recently secured an interview from Mr. Mason and he describes some of the difficulties and methods of his work: "My work is easy in one way and hard in another. It is easy because I love the writing of rhymes, and their construction never offers any difficulty. It is hard because there are so many editors and readers to please, and the thing that pleases one set will offend another. Nearly all the chief topics of the day are barred from the syndicate poet because he can't express an opinion that won't jar somebody. The European war is the most absorbing topic of the times, but the bard who runs amuck in that direction will he in trouble immediately. I have written a few good-natured rhymes joshing the suffragettes, and had to take to cover the next day. I have written rhymes about temperance which brought me abusive letters from readers who stand up for personal liberty. I wrote a rhyme about the big men who build railways and make the wheels go 'round, and it brought a shriek from the socialists. Everything is bound to offend somebody, in Medicine Hat or Juneau."
In the course of that interview Mr. Mason also explained his abnormality from most poets in being a fat man. "Fat with me is merely a harmless eccentricity. In order to be successful, a poet must have some eccentricity. One bard wears his hair long and the kids guy him when he goes to the postoffice for rejected manuscript. Another wears a monocle; another-cultivates a VanDyke beard. I tried out all the standard eccentricities and found them lacking in some essential. Then I concluded that getting fat would give me as much distinction as anything, so I subscribed for all the health magazines and began eating all the foods which were condemned by them, and the result is before you. I am writing optimism all the time, and the people wouldn't have faith in a lean optimist."
Tom & Carolyn Ward
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