Study Guide

James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley Essay - Riley, James Whitcomb

Riley, James Whitcomb

Introduction

James Whitcomb Riley 1849-1916

American poet, humorist, essayist, short story writer, and journalist; also wrote under the pseudonym Benjamin F. Johnson.

The following entry provides criticism from 1894 to 1999 on Riley's life and poetry.

One of the most popular and best-loved American poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Riley, the “Hoosier Poet,” was celebrated for writing uncomplicated, sentimental, humorous verse. His poetry was often written in dialect and invoked a nostalgic longing for halcyon days and childish pleasures at a time when the United States was undergoing rapid industrialization and explosive social change. A prolific writer who achieved mass appeal partly due to his canny sense of marketing and publicity, Riley published over fifty books of verses, humorous sketches, and stories. He achieved renown as a performer of his own work on the stage. Seldom anthologized today, in his time Riley was so beloved that in 1915 Indiana declared his birthday a state holiday.

Biographical Information

Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana, on October 7, 1849, to Reuben and Elizabeth Riley. Reuben, a lawyer, had served in the Indiana State Assembly and named his second son after Indiana Governor James Whitcomb, whom he admired. As a child, Riley was influenced by his father's powerful oratorical style. Elizabeth, who wrote poetry and supported Riley's early attempts at writing, died when the poet was twenty. A gifted musician and actor, Riley was a poor student who preferred to read dime novels and write poetry rather than focus on schoolwork. After briefly working his father's law office, Riley traveled around the countryside as a sign painter before becoming an advance-man for a traveling patent-medicine show. In 1873, he returned to Greenfield, where he worked for the town newspaper and published his poems in Indiana newspapers. In 1877, frustrated that his poems were being rejected by eastern periodicals, Riley concocted a hoax in which the editor of the Kokomo Dispatch published one of his poems, “Leonainie,” and claimed it was long-lost work by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem created a sensation, and although it was written in Poe's style, many critics nevertheless questioned its quality. After the fraud was exposed, Riley was fired from the Anderson Democrat but found a position with the Indianapolis Journal. In his column, Riley published rustic poems under the name Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone, which he suggested were submitted to the newspaper by a semi-literate farmer. His “Johnson of Boone” poems, published as “The Old Swimmin'-Hole,” and 'Leven More Poems (1883), sold 500,000 copies, and Riley spent the next ten years increasing his fame and wealth through his appearances on the lecture circuit with Edgar Wilson Nye. Riley charmed audiences with his oratorical skills, and his imitation of rural Indiana dialects earned him the nickname “Hoosier Poet.” At the height of his career, he made himself a commercial brand, complete with Riley cigars and “Hoosier Poet” canned fruits, vegetables, and coffee. Riley's birthday was declared an official holiday in Indiana, 1915; his home on Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis and his birthplace have been made into public memorials.

Major Works

James Whitcomb Riley is best remembered for humorous, sentimental poems featuring memorable characters and written in dialect, such as “The Raggedy Man” (1890), “Little Orphant Annie” (1899), and selections from A Child-World (1897). In these poems, he often assumes a childish persona that evokes a world of “long-ago.” In “Little Orphant Annie” and “The Raggedy Man,” two of his most popular poems, he affectionately and humorously wrote about the Riley family's “hired girl” and one of his father's clients. It was typical of Riley to write biographically, and the poems from A Child-World and “The Old Swimmin'-Hole” and 'Leven Other Poems recall moments from childhood when he played circus with his friends, went swimming, listened to his mother's stories, and got excited when his grandmother visited. These poems are exuberant, performative, and often display Riley's penchant for using humorous characterization, repetition, and dialect to make his poetry accessible to a wide-ranging audience. Riley gently mocked high-brow tastes with homey poems such as “Rubáiyát of Doc Sifers” (1897), which recounted the philosophy and deeds of a country doctor. In addition to playful poetry, he also wrote sentimental poems, immensely popular for his time, about poverty, the death of a child, and disabilities, such as “Little Mandy's Christmas-Tree,” “The Absence of Little Wesley” (1888), and “The Happy Little Cripple.” Although Riley also wrote gentle, romantic poems in standard English, such as “An Old Sweetheart of Mine” (1875) and “Old-fashioned Roses” (1888). His “straight” poems, clearly derivative of John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, were never as popular as his “Hoosier” dialect poems. In his later years, Riley wrote many occasional poems commemorating important occasions in American history.

Critical Reception

Immensely popular in his day, Riley's contemporaries hailed him as “America's best-loved poet.” Many critics celebrated his supposed ignorance, which Riley did not discourage. In 1920, Henry Beers praised Riley's poetry as natural and unaffected, with none of the “discontent and deep thought” of “cultured song.” In 1917, Michael Monahan wrote, “I doubt if a single intelligent voice the whole country over would deny him this merited title and distinction [of America's best-loved poet],” and that “[n]o writer in our time has won to the hearts of the plain people with anything like the success of Riley.” Monahan called “A Life-Lesson,” a poem from Afterwhiles (1887), a “Masterpiece” that “speak[s] to the heart.” Riley's work was also praised by Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Hamlin Garland, who recognized a “genuine authenticity” and idealism in his poetry. Riley's critical acclaim was greatly enhanced by his abilities as a performer, and he was generally held to be an outstanding performer of his own work. Famous Shakespearean actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry praised Riley's ability to become the characters in the poems he recited. However, other critics, such as Ambrose Bierce, felt that Riley relied too much on dialect and that dialect “cover[ed] up faulty construction … and ungainliness of structure.” A fellow regionalist, Edgar Lee Masters, faulted Riley's work for its superficiality, lack of irony, and narrow emotional range. Although critics at the turn of the century felt that Riley would always remain “America's best-loved poet,” by the 1930s public opinion had changed. Contrasting Monahan's 1917 praise of “A Life Lesson,” in 1951, James T. Farrell called the poem a “cliché of safe emotion.” Critics at the end of the twentieth century tended to find Riley a “minor” poet, whose work—provincial, sentimental, and superficial though it may have been—nevertheless struck a chord with a mass audience in a time of enormous cultural change. What interests modern critics is not Riley the poet, but Riley as a “protomodern figure” who, in the words of Thomas C. Johnson, “understood how to commodify his own image and the nostalgic dreams of an anxious nation.”

Principal Works

“The Old Swimmin'-Hole,” and 'Leven More Poems [as Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone] 1883

Afterwhiles 1887

Old-fashioned Roses 1888

Pipes O'Pan at Zekesbury 1889

An Old Sweetheart 1891; reprinted as An Old Sweetheart of Mine 1902

Rhymes of Childhood 1891

The Flying Islands of the Night 1892

Poems Here at Home 1893

A Child-World 1897

Rubáiyát of Doc Sifers 1897

Riley Child-Rhymes 1899

Riley Love-Lyrics 1899

Home-Folks 1900

Riley Farm-Rhymes 1901

The Book of Joyous Children 1902

Out to Old Aunt Mary's 1903

His Pa's Romance 1903

A Defective Santa Claus 1904

Gems From Riley 1904

The Raggedy Man 1907

The Orphant Annie Book 1908

A Hoosier Romance, 1868 1910

When the Frost Is on the Punkin, and Other Poems 1911

Down around the River 1911

Knee-Deep in June, and Other Poems 1912

Away 1913

When She Comes Home 1914

The Old Soldier's Story 1915

The Name of Old Glory 1917

The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley 1993

The Boss Girl: A Christmas Story, and Other Sketches (short stories and sketches) 1886

Nye and Riley's Railway Guide [with Edgar Wilson Nye] (sketches) 1888

Fun, Wit, and Humor [with Edgar Wilson Nye] (sketches) 1890

The Poems and Prose Sketches of James Whitcomb Riley 16 vols. (prose and poetry) 1897-1914

The Lockerbie Book (prose and poetry) 1911

The Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley 6 vols. (prose and poetry) 1913

The Hoosier Book (prose and poetry) 1916

Letters of James Whitcomb Riley (letters) 1930

The Best of James Whitcomb Riley 1982

Criticism

James Whitcomb Riley and Hamlin Garland (interview date February 1894)

SOURCE: Garland, Hamlin. “Real Conversations—IV: A Dialogue Between James Whitcomb Riley and Hamlin Garland.” McClure's Magazine 2, no. 3 (February 1894): 219-34.

[In the following interview, local color writer Garland discusses Riley's work with the poet and gives a vivid sense of the performative elements of both Riley's poetry and his artistic persona.]

Riley's country, like most of the State of Indiana, has been won from the original forest by incredible toil. Three generations of men have laid their bones beneath the soil that now blooms into gold and lavender harvests of wheat and corn.

The traveller to-day can read this record of struggle...

(The entire section is 6812 words.)

Meredith Nicholson (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: Nicholson, Meredith. “The Hoosier Interpreted: James Whitcomb Riley.” In The Hoosiers, pp. 156-76. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1900.

[In the following essay, Nicholson argues that Riley is both an important regional and an important national writer.]

Crabbe and Burns are Mr. Riley's forefathers in literature. Crabbe was the pioneer in what may be called the realism of poetry; it was he who rejected the romantic pastoralism that had so long peopled the British fields with nymphs and shepherds, and introduced the crude but actual country folk of England. The humor, the bold democracy, and the social sophistication that he lacked were supplied in his own...

(The entire section is 3865 words.)

Albert J. Beveridge (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: Beveridge, Albert J. “Address by Albert J. Beveridge.” In In Honor of James Whitcomb Riley: A Meeting of Indiana State Teachers' Association, pp. 10-18. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1906.

[In the following speech, Indiana Senator Beveridge's hails Riley as “the people's poet,” suggesting that Riley is not only a Hoosier poet but has a universal appeal.]

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen—It would seem that Indiana and the Middle West, the center of the republic geographically, the center of the republic numerically, is becoming the center of the republic intellectually. Only in America could the center of culture follow close on the heels...

(The entire section is 1657 words.)

Marcus Dickey (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: Dickey, Marcus. “Vision of His Mission.” In The Youth of James Whitcomb Riley: Fortune's Way With the Poet From Infancy to Manhood, pp. 271-82. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1919.

[In the following essay, Dickey describes how as a young man of twenty-seven, Riley had a vision in which he was called to be a voice for “the inarticulate masses.”]

Walking one April morning through an orchard with a friend, his eyes on the blossoming trees and his thoughts in the sky, Riley suddenly pitched forward into a post-hole. In the twinkling of an eye the Tennysonian sentiment came to his lips:—

O let the solid ground
Not fail beneath my...

(The entire section is 3481 words.)

Henry A. Beers (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: Beers, Henry A. “The Singer of the Old Swimmin' Hole.” In The Connecticut Wits and Other Essays, pp. 31-43. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920.

[In the following essay, Beers extols the simplicity and sentimentality of Riley's verse, arguing that while Walt Whitman might be “the poet of democracy,” James Whitcomb Riley is “the poet of the American people.”]

Many years ago I said to one of Walt Whitman's biographers: “Whitman may, as you claim, be the poet of democracy, but he is not the poet of the American people. He is the idol of a literary culte. Shall I tell you who the poet of the American people is just at present? He is James...

(The entire section is 2782 words.)

Daniel L. Marsh (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: Marsh, Daniel L. “Practical Religion: Humble Service.” In The Faith of the People's Poet, pp. 205-29. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1920.

[In the following essay, Marsh reads Riley's poetry against Biblical stories and aphorisms to suggest that the down-to-earth, everyday qualities of his poems provide a foundation for daily religious practice.]

In his poem entitled “My Philosofy,” Riley declared

No man is grate tel he can see
How less than little he would be
Ef stripped to self, and stark and bare
He hung his sign out anywhare.

In this instance his “Philosophy” squares with that of other great thinkers....

(The entire section is 5120 words.)

Edith Wyatt (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: Wyatt, Edith. “James Whitcomb Riley.” In Great Companions, pp. 182-90. New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1922.

[In the following essay, Wyatt examines dialect in Riley's poetry and states that “music enters at the spaces left by all those hard g's and gutteral word-endings he cuts out so gracefully.”]

In a delightful conversation quoted in an essay entitled “The Dusk of the Gods” in a recent Atlantic Monthly, George Moore says, “If there be a future for the English language, which I doubt, it is in America. A great deal of your speech is Elizabethan, and what is not you have invented. You are still inventing a language, while we...

(The entire section is 1740 words.)

James T. Farrell (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: Farrell, James T. “The Frontier and James Whitcomb Riley.” In Poet of the People: An Evaluation of James Whitcomb Riley, by Jeannette Covert Nolen, Horace Gregory, and James T. Farrell, pp. 63-106. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1951.

[In the following essay, Farrell analyzes the sociological significance of Riley's sentimentality and nostalgia at a time when America was becoming increasingly urban and industrial.]

II

One of the problems of cultural history and analysis which is all too infrequently dealt with in America is this—how does the consciousness of writers evolve, develop, take shape in this country? Here,...

(The entire section is 3862 words.)

Carlin T. Kindilien (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: Kindilien, Carlin T. “The Continuing Tradition: Sentimental Humor.” In American Poetry of the Eighteen Nineties, pp. 56-9. Providence: Brown University Press, 1956.

[In the following excerpt, Kindilien catalogues those attributes that make Riley's poetry sentimental, notes the enormous popularity of sentimental literature in the late Victorian era, and ultimately dismisses Riley's “hundreds of verses” as having “no claim to distinction as poetry.”]

Most of the poetry of the Nineties was a sentimental expression. The successful poets had learned in newspaper offices that the sympathetic emotion could be marketed and they were willing to accentuate...

(The entire section is 1444 words.)

Dale B. J. Randall (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Randall, Dale B. J. “Dialect in the Verse of ‘The Hoosier Poet.’” American Speech 35 (1960): 36-50.

[In the following essay, Randall provides a linguistic analysis of dialect in five poems by Riley, noting a controversy around whether Riley invented or faithfully reproduced his particular Hoosier dialect.]

An admirer of James Whitcomb Riley has claimed that ‘for his dialect poetry he kept notebooks as accurate as a scientist's. … The philologist of the future, studying Middle-Western colloquialisms of the late-nineteenth century, may depend on Riley's transcription of them as the most exact ever made.’1 Yet another reader maintains that...

(The entire section is 6206 words.)

Peter Revell (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Revell, Peter. “The Victorian Poet.” In James Whitcomb Riley, pp. 57-73. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.

[In the following essay, Revell examines several key Victorian influences on Riley's poetry, noting that on several occasions the poet's verse very closely resembles the work of such “fireside poets” as Eliza Cook.]

In replying to a request from W. D. Howells for contributions to The Cosmopolitan, Riley asked: “But do you want dialect—or serious work—or both.”1 The implication that work in dialect could not be serious is more typical of the general critical attitude of the late nineteenth century than of Riley's...

(The entire section is 5945 words.)

Peter Revell (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Revell, Peter. “The Middle Western Pastoral.” In James Whitcomb Riley, pp. 106-29. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.

[In the following essay, Revell explicates the ways in which Riley's pastoral poems, particularly the “Johnson of Boone” poems, follow and adapt the generic formula of the pastoral.]

Riley's work in the pastoral form came to represent for his age “the essential Riley” and is, with a few exceptions from the rural narratives, the part most worth preserving of his total oeuvre. There are pastoral elements in much of his other work in dialect and even some pastoral poems in modern English. Riley was not above attempting to...

(The entire section is 8616 words.)

Paul H. Gray (essay date November 1984)

SOURCE: Gray, Paul H. “Poet As Entertainer: Will Carleton, James Whitcomb Riley, and the Rise of the Poet-Performer Movement.” Literature in Performance 5, no. 1 (November 1984): 7-12.

[In the following essay, Gray argues that Riley was primarily an entertainer and that his poetry was performance art.]

Spectacular as Carleton's meteoric career had been, the reputation he established in the 1870s was eclipsed in the very next decade by another poet-performer from the Midwest, James Whitcomb Riley. Though the Indiana poet was just four years younger than Carleton, his career developed at a far more leisurely pace. When “Betsy and I Are Out” thrust Carleton into...

(The entire section is 2861 words.)

Burton Raffel (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Raffel, Burton. “James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916).” In Politicians, Poets, and Con Men: Emotional History in Late Victorian America, pp. 135-50. Hamden: Archon, 1986.

[In the following essay, Raffel proposes that Riley's drive for money and success—and a skill at marketing—helped the poet commodify his poetry, producing a mass market phenomenon.]

In 1899 William Dean Howells declared, in the pages of one of the oldest and most august of American magazines, the North American Review, that James Whitcomb “Riley has known how to endear himself to a wider range of American humanity than any other American poet.”1 Sales figures fully...

(The entire section is 5859 words.)

David Robertson (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Robertson, David. “Re-Forming Frontier Values: The Dialect Poetry of James Whitcomb Riley.” Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor 19, nos. 1-2 (1999): 14-27.

[In the following essay, Robertson provides close readings of “The Frost is on the Punkin,” “Rubáiyát of Doc Sifers,” and “The Good, Old-Fashioned People” to show how Riley uses character and warmth to evoke a comfortable humor that is filled with common-sense aphorisms.]

James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) was not a great poet. Indeed, he is almost forgotten today. At the turn of the century, however, he was one of the most popular poets, if not the most popular poet, in America.1 In...

(The entire section is 5924 words.)

Harold K. Bush, Jr. (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Bush, Jr., Harold K. “‘Absorbing’ the Character: James Whitcomb Riley and Mark Twain's Theory of Performance.” American Literary Realism 31, no. 3 (spring 1999): 31-47.

[In the following essay, Bush explains Mark Twain's theory of performance, comments on the novelist's respect for Riley's performed poetry, and posits that both authors saw the absence of any critical space between poet and persona as responsible for the success of Riley's sentimental poems.]

Much recent work on Mark Twain, including all or parts of influential volumes by Susan Gillman, Randall Knoper, and Richard Lowry, has been preoccupied with Twain's theories of...

(The entire section is 7745 words.)