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James Whitomb RileyJames Whitcomb Riley

Hoosier Connection: James Whitcomb Riley was born in Greenfield, worked in Anderson, and spent most of his life in Indianapolis. His childhood home in Greenfield, now dubbed James Whitcomb Riley's Old Home and Museum, and his adulthood home on Lockerbie St. in Indianapolis, the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home, are open to the public.

Works Discussed: The Bat,” “A Child’s Home—Long Ago,” “A Country Pathway,” “The Hoosier Folk-Child,” “The Iron Horse,” “The Judkins Papers,” “On the Banks o' Deer Crick,” “The Poems Here at Home,” “Time of Clearer Twitterings,” “Town and Country,” and "The Wind"

Known as both “The Hoosier Poet” and “The Children’s Poet,” James Whitcomb Riley was one of America’s most popular poets and orators in the early 1900s, thanks to sentimental, local color poems like “Little Orphant Annie” and “When the Frost Is on the Punkin.”

Born in 1849 in the village of Greenfield, Indiana, which was then nestled in an oak and poplar forest east of Indianapolis, Riley was the son of a lawyer who discouraged young James’ inclination to write poetry as being “too visionary” (Riley 1: 8). Nevertheless, his professional writing career began when he became literary editor for the Greenfield newspaper and filled the pages with his own poetry.

While working for The Anderson Democrat in 1877, Riley carried out his famous hoax of passing off a poem of his own, “Leonanie,” as a Poe creation. He lost his job and became the target of sharp criticism among literary circles across the nation.

Two years later, Riley’s luck turned when he was given a position at The Indianapolis Journal. By 1883, his first collection of poems, most of them written in the dialect of rural Indiana folk, was published as The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems.

Riley quickly became an enormously popular poet and perhaps even more popular reader of his poems at public recitations. From 1910 to 1915, Hoosiers were obsessed with their favorite son, regaling him with public celebrations of his birthday, various civic and statewide proclamations of “Riley Day,” and the governor’s declaration, in 1915, that he was their “most beloved citizen.” By his death in 1916, Riley had written more than 1,000 poems and two dozen prose sketches of acquaintances.

While nature appears as a prominent subject in much of Riley’s poetry, he often treats it in generalized terms, celebrating flowers (e.g., "The Rose”), insects (“Two Sonnets to the June-Bug”), amphibians (“The Frog”), birds (“The Jaybird”), seasons (“Knee-Deep in June”), and so forth. He sometimes alludes to nature in classical myth (“A Glimpse of Pan”), and often presents nature as the background of a happy childhood (“The All-Golden”), but in most such poems he does not comment specifically on Indiana’s natural features.

Yet in a wide range of poems Riley does paint pictures of Indiana’s natural world as it existed during his lifetime, and at the same time he conveys a range of environmental attitudes.

In “A Country Pathway (read full text), for example, he takes the reader along dreamy, irresistible wanderings, mile after mile, through roadside weeds, meadow, pasture, creek, and woodland, with specific descriptions of the sights along the way.

Time of Clearer Twitterings” describes childhood experiences in nature with references to specific plant and animal life: a “spotted water-snake,” bittern, crane, and chipmunk; sycamores, a “hazel thicket,” and a shellbark hickory in an “almost pathless wood”; pennyroyal, the fruit of “black haws” (hawthorns), and “a ripe May-apple,” eaten as a molten, “pulpy lump of gold” (4: 1051-53).

The superiority of country living over town living is touted by the speaker of “Town and Country,” in which a nephew, while living in town, “jest natchurly pined, night and day, / Fer a sight of the woods, er a acre of ground / Whare the trees wasent all cleared away!” Town-dwelling children, who “don’t know a bird-song, / Ner a hawk from a chicky-dee-dee,” are chided to return to nature and the happiness it brings (6: 1483-84).

Riley home on Lockerbie
Riley's home, for 23 years, on Lockerbie St. in Indianapolis

In contrast, according to “The Hoosier Folk-Child,” a childraised in Indiana’s countryside “owns the bird-songs of the hills— / The laughter of the April rills” and bears all the jewels of nature (6: 1556). One such child shows up in a prose sketch of a local personality, entitled “The Judkins Papers.” The boy in the sketch, already a budding naturalist, reflects on spiders, mud turtles, and frogs, though not always with great insight. He notes, for instance, that frogs "is the people’s friend, but they can’t fly” (9: 2506).

In “A Child’s Home—Long Ago (read full text), the speaker scans the pioneers’ transformation of Indiana from forested wilderness to farmland. This “broad expanse of fair and fertile land,” he comments, was, before human intervention, “but a blot / Of ugly pigment on a barren spot—/ A blur of color on a hueless ground / Where scarce a hint of beauty could be found.” Two stanzas later, the poem presents a brawny pioneer who stands, happily, "with his vision backward turned / To where the log-heap of the past was burned.” Yet this stanza, in contrast to the poem's earlier sentiments, describes pre-settlement Indiana in idyllic terms, as a “magnificent expanse / Of nameless grandeur,” a “sleeping wilderness” that is blessed by the trees (2: 289-96).

When Riley examines human relationships with nature, he occasionally reveals an ethic that ultimately subjugates humans to natural forces, as is the case in “The Wind,” in which a personified wind declares, as the poem’s refrain, “I am the Wind, and I rule mankind...” (1: 222-28).

A rarely seen viewpoint in Riley's poems, however, is the admiration of industrialization's superiority over nature. The speaker of “The Iron Horse” celebrates the locomotive as a “gallant steed” that “is of nobler blood,” / And cleaner limb and fleeter speed, / And greater strength and hardihood” than an Arabian horse (1: 140-42). In an equally rare instance, Riley portrays an element of nature in fearsome terms: the speaker of “The Bat” addresses a bat as a “dread, uncanny thing,” as the “Devil’s self, or brat, at least” (3: 830).

Overwhelmingly, though, Riley’s verse asserts the joys of nature in Indiana, in contrast to exotic, faraway sights. Twice the speaker in “On the Banks o’ Deer Crick” announces,

Well!—I never seen the ocean ner I never seen the sea.—
On the banks o’ Deer Crick’s grand enough for me! (5: 1146-47)

Likewise, according to “The Poems Here at Home,” Hoosiers want poems about their own simple surroundings, about the “out-doors, / And old crick-bottoms, snags, and sycamores”; about “pizen-vines, and underbrush, / As well as Johnny-jump-ups.” The speaker further instructs Indiana poets, “Putt in old Nature’s sermonts,—them’s the best,— / And ‘casion’ly hang up a hornets’ nest,” to teach the lesson that “even insec’s has their rights!” (6: 1588-89).

Throughout a career devoted to Indiana, Riley's deep love of the natural world often took center stage in his poetry. While sometimes whimsical and often sentimental, such commentary provides a rich glimpse into Indiana's natural landscapes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.



Dickey, Marcus. The Youth of James Whitcomb Riley. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1919.

---. The Maturity of James Whitcomb Riley. Indianapolis: Bobbs- Merrill, 1922.

Riley, James Whitcomb. James Whitcomb Riley's Complete Works, Including Poems and Prose Sketches, Many of which Have Not Heretofore Been Published. Memorial ed. Vols. 1-10. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1916.

Van Allen, Elizabeth J. James Whitcomb Riley: A Life. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1999.

---. My Life with Riley. 2000. Indiana Historical Society. 10 Oct. 2002 <www.indianahistory.org/pub/traces/jwrlife.html>.


In Riley. Vol. 1. Frontispiece.

GermantownLockerbie. 5 Nov. 2002. <http://home.earthlink.net/~technoid47448/Lockerbie.html>


About James Whitcomb Riley (includes links to Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley, vols. 1 and 10)

The Appeal of James Whitcomb Riley (see link to "1948 proclamation" for governor's declaration of James Whitcomb Riley Centennial Year)

Indiana Historical Society links (for other resources on Riley, go to the IHS website and search for "James Whitcomb Riley"):

James Whitcomb Riley.Com

James Whitcomb Riley Old House and Museum

Teacher Guide for James Whitcomb Riley, Young Poet