Charles Badger Clark, Jr. (1883-1957), achieved a degree of recognition as a western poet during his lifetime and earned the title of South Dakota’s first Poet Laureate, but due to his unwillingness to court fame, he was largely unknown outside his home state. Even within South Dakota, Clark was better known as a public speaker than as a writer. The additional fact that his best-known poem, “A Cowboy’s Prayer”, was widely reprinted as an anonymous composition contributed greatly to his literary obscurity.
There was a time however, when the poet flirted with fame, and according to his biographer, Helen Morganti, “his success in this field [public speaking] was instantaneous, due to his pleasing personality, his verse which when read by him, had a definite, different vitality and which painted even more graphic pictures than the printed page could ever convey.” While traveling with the Redpath Chatauqua circuit in the early twenties, Clark admitted, “I soon discovered that having a group of people at one’s mercy was rather fun, and I have done a good deal of talking and reading my own verse since, at one time traveling from Vermont to Los Angeles and from Oregon to Florida on my own jaw, so to speak.”
These “hot air raids” were curtailed in 1925 when he moved to Custer State Park to begin his more or less monastic life there. Although he continued public speaking for the rest of his life – and indeed relied heavily on this income during some very lean years – these were restricted to addressing graduating students from junior high through college age primarily in his home state.
It is not difficult to imagine the handsome, distinctively dressed westerner being idolized by the ladies and admired by audiences of all kinds as he shared his poetry and comments in a rich baritone voice. He was the real thing, and he represented a dying breed – the cowboy – which Jazz Age America rushed to lionize in literature and films.
What if Badger Clark had decided to pursue a career in the limelight instead of a reclusive lifestyle in Custer State Park?