Though his name adorns an elementary school in Vincennes, James Whitcomb Riley, once known as the “Hoosier poet,” is largely forgotten.
Riley died 100 years ago, in the middle of Indiana’s 1916 centennial, but he left behind a tremendous volume of work that reflects an Indiana of long ago, a time quite unfamiliar with modern-day Hoosiers. But in his time Riley was one of the most popular cultural icons in the United States. He dined with Presidents Grover Cleveland and Indiana’s own Benjamin Harrison, performing at the White House.
Known for his mostly simple and sentimental verse, Riley’s work evoked nostalgia. Americans were thirsty for nostalgia at the turn of the last century. Riley was sometimes referred to as the “Hoosier Bard,” a regional poet whose homespun humor and rhyming doggerel made him an Indiana legend and a famous American.
Though not considered a serious literary master, like Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, Riley was nonetheless praised by his contemporaries — including Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Hamlin Garland. His poetry and fame made him a rich man.
Riley was the most well-known of Indiana writers during what is considered the state’s “Golden Age” of literature. Other writers who produced popular works between 1880 and 1910 were Lew Wallace (“Ben Hur”), Maurice Thompson (“Alice of Old Vincennes”), George Ade, Booth Tarkington, Meredith Nicholson, and Gene Stratton Porter.
James Whitcomb Riley also came to be known as the “Children’s Poet,” and youngsters would sit on his knee and gather around while he read to them “The Raggedy Man,” or “Little Orphant Annie.” His poems are written in dialect — the language peculiar to a region — though some critics say it was a way to cover up or dress up poor poetry.
We often remember Riley in autumn, because of one of his most notable poems, “When the Frost is on Punkin.’” It is a poem schoolchildren used to learn, a poem they used to recite:
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.
Historian Howard Peckham wrote that Riley was “never a dialect poet” because there was no true Indiana dialect. He claimed Riley used “uneducated Hoosiers’ bad grammar” known throughout the central part of the state, and some even say that Hoosiers never spoke the way Riley wrote.
But, Riley’s success in conjuring up nostalgia with so-called “dialect,” managed to sell thousands of poetry books and earned him a healthy living. Hoosiers were said to have his work framed and on their parlor walls. He was one of them, and he wrote about things they knew and loved. His poems were rustic and sentimental. He wrote about nature, country life, and family. He was indeed “the people’s poet.”
I tell you what I’d ruther do—-
Ef I only have my ruthers,—-
Id’ ruther work when I wanted to
Than be bossed round by
others . . . .
Many of Riley’s poems are focused on childhood, and he used his own childhood experiences and memories to provide messages or morals. Riley’s wistful longing and reminiscence for the Indiana of his own childhood led to poems like “The Old Swimmin’ Hole,” and “Billy’s Alphabetical Animal Show,” “The Raggedy Man,” and “Little Orphant Annie:”
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the break, an’ earn her board-an’-keep,
An’ all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchenb fire an’ has the mostest fun,
A-lis’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
Ef you Don’t Watch Out!
Though Riley never married and never had children, he showered his nieces and nephews with gifts and looked out for his younger relatives. In the early 1890s he began composing material for “Rhymes of Childhood,” a volume that sold millions of copies. It was his best-selling book. Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis — the only children’s hospital in Indiana — is named for him.
Born before the Civil War
James Whitcomb Riley was born Oct. 7, 1849, on a farm in Greenfield, Indiana. He was the third of Reuben and Elizabeth Riley’s six children. His namesake, James Whitcomb, was governor of Indiana and a friend of Riley’s father.
His mother taught him to read, but when formal schooling didn’t seem to suit young James. His attendance was not the best and he often found himself in trouble. He managed to graduate from eighth grade, though he admitted to being deficient in math, science, and even grammar. It was his lack of education — and his writing in the language of common people — that some critics attributed to Riley’s popularity.
Riley adored his mother, for it was she who encouraged his artistic, creative side. But Elizabeth Riley died in 1870 from heart disease, putting the entire Riley family in distress. She was the glue that held them together. Unhappy with his father, Riley left to seek his own fortune early, finding work painting houses. He went to Rushville to be a Bible salesman, but it is unknown how many Bibles he actually sold.
Later he became an apprentice to a painter and eventually learned to create and paint signs for businesses. Sign painting allowed him the freedom to be on his own, yet he was poor with money and spent most of what he earned as soon as he got it. His weakness was alcohol; he imbibed early on, and often, ultimately becoming an alcoholic.
He was good at sign painting, and selling, as he did both for a patent medicine peddler, going from town to town praising the performance and curative qualities of whatever snake oil his benefactor had manufactured. Sign painting, and clever slogans, became his specialty, though, and helped sustain him, despite his spending habits.
Newspaper work and performing
His writing began to be noticed after Riley became employed at the Indianapolis Journal. He wrote news articles and set type, but he was also allowed to publish poetry. The Anderson Democrat liked what they saw, and offered Riley an editor’s job at the newspaper. He wrote and edited local news, though he continued to write verse.
During this time he sent a poem to an eastern literary magazine. The poem was rejected, prompting Riley to complain that only famous poets got their work published in literary periodicals. To prove it he wrote a poem in the style of Edgar Allen Poe and submitted it anonymously to a Kokomo newspaper. The paper published it, saying it was a long lost poem of Poe’s. The poem wasn’t as good as Poe’s work, and Riley was found out.
Thanks to that fiasco Riley lost his job at the Democrat then returned to Greenfield. He had a short-lived relationship with a woman who loved literature like he did, but it’s likely that alcohol contributed to the break-up. Though Riley went to a few temperance meetings after that in an attempt to give up drinking, he quit going within a week.
A gifted orator and actor, Riley earned good sums performing for live audiences, especially after traveling for a few years around Indiana and the Midwest. Humorous and endearing, a Riley performance was a hot ticket. In October 1892, Riley performed in Vincennes, at the Grand Opera House.
The writer Hamlin Garland wrote about his performances in an 1894 McClure’s Magazine article: Riley’s “vibrant individual voice, his flexible lips, his droll glance, united to make him at once poet and comedian—comedian in the sense in which makes for tears as well as for laughter.”
National publication and national performances gave Riley considerable fame and fortune. On a visit to Boston (then America’s literary capital) for one of his first national performances, Riley visited his longtime idol, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who in 1882, was old and in poor health. Riley was well-received, however, and the meeting between the two was cherished, though embellished by Riley for years.
Riley also made plenty of money from the publishing of his poetry, several volumes sold thousands of copies over the years. He made even more money touring again, in the 1890s, with efficient management strategies that scheduled performances at the time of a book’s release. He gave his last, and some of his largest, performances throughout the country in 1895, appearing in most of the major U.S. cities.
When he died in the summer of 1916, hundreds paid their respects as his body laid in state at the Indiana State Capitol. Indiana newspapers devoted whole pages to his obituary. John Bartlow Martin wrote that “the worship of things he and his poems touched approached idolatry.”
He is buried at the highest spot in Crown Hill Cemetery, where his monument overlooks the city of Indianapolis.
Sources for this story include: Elizabeth J. Van Allen’s James Whitcomb Riley: A Life (1999); Indiana: A History, Howard H. Peckham (1978); and Indiana: An Interpretation, by John Bartlow Martin (1947). “Defrosting the Punkin,’” a 1977 biographical essay by poet Jared Carter, and various websites were also part of this research.
By Bernie Schmitt