James Whitcomb Riley Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Above all, James Whitcomb Riley was a poet; he did, however, try his hand (apparently with little success) at other literary forms. His second book, The Boss Girl, a Christmas Story, and Other Sketches, published in 1886, was a collection of prose pieces that went largely unnoticed. Reprinted in 1891 under the title of Sketches in Prose and Occasional Verses, it still attracted no appreciable attention. Other prose sketches were included in his Pipes o’ Pan at Zekesbury. As Riley’s commentator, Peter Revell (James Whitcomb Riley, 1970), points out, these “abortive” efforts at prose show Riley experimenting in an amateurish fashion with various forms of social and psychological realism. Riley also wrote one verse drama in three acts, The Flying Islands of the Night (pb. 1891), which his publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, advertised as “a weird and grotesque drama in verse.” Apparently begun in the 1870’s, The Flying Islands of the Night is a fantastic amalgam of fairy tales, Maurice Maeterlinck, and William Shakespeare. Although Riley was already an established, enormously popular writer by the time The Flying Islands of the Night was published, the drama was quite ignored. Finally, with humorist Bill Nye, Riley coauthored Nye and Riley’s Railway Guide (1888).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although his nickname, the Hoosier Poet, would suggest that he was writing for and about only Indianans, James Whitcomb Riley was probably the most popular poet in the United States during the late 1880’s, the 1890’s, and throughout the early years of the twentieth century. In addition to several honorary degrees at institutions of higher education, he received many significant honors: membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters among them. In 1911, the American Academy of Arts and Letters gave him the Gold Medal for Poetry. Attesting to his great popularity were the public celebrations of his birthday, and in 1915, the National Committee of Education institutionalized this practice by directing that his birthday be observed by all public, private, and parochial schools in the United States.

His more than one thousand poems were eagerly purchased, read, and treasured not only by the rural midwesterners for whom he ostensibly wrote but also by the increasingly large numbers of Americans living in urban centers on the east and west coasts. Many of his poems were memorized by several generations of schoolchildren, and Riley so perfectly captured and expressed the pastoral myth of the American Eden that a number of his poems have become a permanent part of the collective American psyche.

Indeed, it would probably come as a surprise to many Americans that the now largely forgotten Riley was responsible for such familiar phrases and images as “When the frost is on the punkin,” “Little orphant...

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Confident Years, 1885-1915. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952. Riley played an important role in the time covered here. In the Midwest, where later writers would describe darker visions, Riley and Lewis Wallace expressed “smiling aspects.” More important writers than Riley himself had a great liking for Riley’s writing, including Eugene Field and Theodore Dreiser. Supplemented by footnotes and an index.

Crowder, Richard. Those Innocent Years: The Legacy and Inheritance of a Hero of the Victorian Era, James Whitcomb Riley. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957. Crowder asserts that the significance of Riley transcends his Indiana reputation. The author narrates the poet’s career in eleven chapters. From the “westward movement” beginning in 1819, through recognition by 1885, to the “apotheosis” of his death at the age of sixty-seven, Riley is described not only as heroic but also godlike.

George, Philip Brandt. “’An the Gobble-uns’ll Git You.’” American History 40, no. 4 (October, 2005): 68-70. This profile of Riley looks at his life and the poem “Little Orphant Annie,” describing the actual orphan girl who lived with the Riley family.

Kindilien, Carlin T. American Poetry in the Eighteen Nineties. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1956. This study...

(The entire section is 484 words.)