“A man who helped make the Kankakee area famous through poetry was buried Saturday in Glencoe,” read the opening paragraph of a short obituary that appeared on Page 3 of the Kankakee Daily Journal’s June 7, 1954, edition.
That man was Wallace Bruce Amsbary, who was described as “the poet of Kankakee Valley” in a 1942 Chicago Tribune story.
The Tribune reported, “Wallace Bruce Amsbary, poet-humorist known for his stories and ballads of the French Canadians of the Kankakee valley in Illinois, is to give a noon hour book talk Thursday at the Chicago Public Library.”
Born in Pekin, Illinois, in 1867, Amsbary began his writing career as a teenager, recording local happenings for the Peoria Transcript newspaper.
Little is known about his early adult years, but in the 1890s, he was a traveling lecturer, speaking in towns across the Midwest.
In 1897, he was booked for his first appearance on the Chautauqua circuit. (Chautauquas were typically weeklong events, often held in large tents, that presented entertainment and educational programs.)
Amsbary lectured on the life and works of such literary figures as Rudyard Kipling, Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Whitcomb Riley.
A frequent lecture topic was “Jean Baptiste and his Brethren” described in an advertisement by the Redpath Bureau (a booking agency for lecturers) as “...an entertainment as well as a lecture. Wallace Bruce Amsbary is ‘the bearer of a story’ — a story of French-Canadian life.”
A 1943 literary column in the Chicago Tribune noted that Amsbary “made the rounds of the Chautauqua circuits when these were hotbeds of political and cultural discussions. It was on these tours that he became acquainted with the French-Canadian backgrounds of the Kankakee country and began writing ballads about them.”
The result of Amsbary’s exposure to Kankakee’s French-Canadian community was “The Ballads of Bourbonnais,” published in 1904 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis.
The 182-page volume, illustrated with more than 60 drawings, presented 20 poems with titles such as “De Fiddleur of Papineau,” “’Long de Kankakee,” “Rubaiyat of Matheiu Lettellier” and “W’en de Frogs Begin to Sing.”
In his introduction to the book, Amsbary wrote, “The ballads ... were written in the hope of preserving, if possible, the dialect of the Illinois French-Canadian.”
In a 1910 lecture entitled “The French-Canadian in Prose and Verse,” the poet described that dialect: “The speech of the French-Canadian contains an odd mixture of genders and tenses; strange idioms, vehement outbursts of French-English. Our neighbor of the North has a cheery, sanguine temperament that is easily excited, and he is very fond of fun. What he does not express in a splutter of vowels and consonants, he attempts to convey by shrugging of shoulders, and swinging of arms like irresponsible windmills — a system of calisthenics, by the way, which mounts to the dignity of eloquence.”
One of the most popular of Amsbary’s ballads was the story of Kankakee River boatman William “Captain Billy” Gougar, entitled “De Captaine of de Marguerite.”
The first stanza of the lengthy poem captures the flavor of Amsbary’s verse:
You vant to know who ‘tis I am?
You’re stranger man, I see;
I don’ min’ tell to you som’t’ing
Concern’ de life of me.
My fadder’s com’ from Canadaw,
‘Long vit Pére Chiniquy,
‘Vay in de early fifty year,
To lan’ of libertee.
An’ I am born here on de State,
An’ rose soon high to be De captaine of de Marguerite,
Dat sail de Kankakee.
“De Captaine” and several other Amsbary dialect poems reached a national audience when they were published in The Century, a popular monthly magazine.
In 1925, some two decades after “The Ballads of Bourbonnais,” Amsbary published his second book of dialect poetry, “M’sieu Robin.”
It consisted of 30 shorter poems described as “Lyrics and Legends of Jean Baptiste and His Friends.”
By this time, the poet and lecturer had embarked upon a different career — teaching. From 1919 until his retirement in 1933, he held the position of professor of general literature at Chicago’s Armour Institute (today, the Illinois Institute of Technology).
In his retirement years, Amsbary lectured occasionally and worked on a memoir of his long and varied career.
“His memoirs ought to tell much about Chicago’s literary life in the first decades of the 20th century,” noted Chicago Tribune literary columnist Harry Hansen.
Unfortunately, Amsbary’s memoir apparently never saw publication.
He died June 3, 1954, at the age of 87.
Amsbary, in his 1910 lecture on “The French-Canadian in Prose and Verse,” mourned the effect of modern life upon “the character and the dialect of these most interesting people. ... In the village of 600 [Bourbonnais], not one is American. Until recent years, it was isolated from the outside world. Now the trolley has invaded its quiet life and taken away some of its native charm.”