NORMAL — Little more than a footnote in American letters today, Richard Hovey was one of the better-known American poets in the 1890s and into the early 20th century.
Born May 4, 1864, in Normal, Hovey developed a stridently unconventional voice with his “tramp” verse celebrating freedom, anti-materialism, the supremacy of love and the importance of male comradeship. He smoked hashish in college, wore outlandish clothes, wandered the New England countryside in search of himself and wrote of “life unmeasured save as it aspires.”
Hovey was the third son of Union Brigadier Gen. Charles Hovey and Harriet (sometimes spelled Harriette) Spofford. His father was the first president of “The Normal” (now Illinois State University) who during the Civil War organized and led the 33rd Illinois, known as the “Teacher’s Regiment.”
Richard Hovey was born at the family home, a two-story residence on the 200 block of West Mulberry Street, opposite today’s Manchester Hall.
At the end of the war Harriet and the children moved to Andover, Mass., before reuniting with “Gen.” Hovey in Washington, D.C., where the educator had established a law practice. After growing up in the nation’s capital, Richard attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, entering as the youngest in his class and graduating cum laude in 1895.
He could’ve taught high school most anywhere if not for his “costuming” as an Oscar Wilde “esthete,” a look that included long hair and unusual clothes such as a floppy hat, knee breeches, silk shirt and loose-flowing tie.
“Dick” Hovey (as he was known) returned to Normal from time to time. His many relatives in town including close cousin Agnes Cook Gale, whose father was Illinois State Normal University President John W. Cook. “(Hovey) was so strikingly good-looking that I have seen people turn in the street to look after him,” she recalled to The Pantagraph in 1934.
In a letter written a year before his death, Hovey said his decision to become a writer was made on New Year’s Day 1889, in a Chicago & Alton Railroad parlor car heading from the Windy City to Bloomington. As the car’s only passenger he watched a partial solar eclipse out a window before deciding “then and there” to become a poet and playwright. This epiphany also included a planned Arthurian epic of six plays and three “masques” (he would complete four “Launcelot and Guenevere” plays before his death).
Hovey is best known for three volumes (the last appearing posthumously) of collaborative verse with Bliss Carman, who in the 1920s would be named Canada’s poet laureate. The two met in 1887 and tramped through New England, an adventure that led to the publication of the first volume, Songs from Vagabondia, in 1894. These early counterculture poems paid tribute to the open road, freedom from social mores, fellowship and drink. Not surprisingly, the Vagabondia trilogy proved popular with the college set and likeminded free spirits.
Hovey had an extended affair with the married Henrietta Russell, a woman old enough to be his mother. After she obtained a divorce the two had a son, Julian, born in France in 1892, though they themselves were not married until 1894.
After minor surgery in New York City, Richard Hovey died on Feb. 24, 1900, of complications from a blood clot. He was only 35 years old.
In 1931, the Chicago alumni chapter of the Psi Upsilon fraternity (he had been a member at Dartmouth) paid for the erection of a memorial boulder and plaque in front of the former Hovey residence on West Mulberry Street. The house fell to the wrecking ball more than 30 years ago, while the boulder, sitting as it does in the now rather forlorn lot, is mostly forgotten today.
Hovey supported the emergence of the independent, self-reliant “new woman” of the late 1800s, and he was the rare male of his era who was a friend of women’s liberation. In the poem “Her Valentine,” written the year of his death, he declared:
Let her undo the stays of the ages,
That have cramped and confined her so long!
Let her burst through the frail candy cages
That fooled her to think they were strong!
For Hovey, this new woman remained “a bachelor, even when married” and “a vagabond, even when housed.” He also placed her on a bicycle, this at a time when such an activity was rather daring, at least in some social circles. Somehow he couldn’t help but write the following: “I love her in bicycle skirtlings / Especially when there’s a breeze.”