Articles

Still an Inspiration: James Whitcomb Riley’s Legacy

by Lori Soard

Just east of Indianapolis; sandwiched between corn fields and soybean crops; a few hundred feet from the Old National Road (US 40) rests the James Whitcomb Riley Old Home and Museum. The poet was born in the house on October 7, 1849. The dwelling was originally a log cabin, but as his father’s law practice grew, and the family grew, the Riley’s replaced the cabin with a two-story home with green shutters.

Riley’s family had a huge impact on his future as a writer. He had five brothers and sisters: John, Martha, Elva May, Humboldt, and Mary. Humboldt and Martha died when they were very young. Riley doted on his baby sister, Mary. He often told her stories to entertain her. Riley’s father, Reuben was known as an excellent story teller as well, and James grew up sitting at his father’s feet and hearing the man he looked up to telling tales to company. James doted on his mother, Elizabeth, who had bright, blue eyes, and was kind and loving. She enjoyed telling stories as she baked over an open hearth and even penned some poetry of her own. Although his family wanted him to follow his father’s example and become an attorney, Riley had trouble focusing in school and spent his days dreaming and enjoying local pleasures, such as swimming in Brandywine Creek.

The Indiana poet’s childhood home attracts thousands of visitors every year. Author Edgar Lee Masters observed that Riley, put Indiana as a place and a people in the memory of America, more thoroughly and more permanently than has been done by any other poet before or since his day.

More than eighty-six years after his death, James Whitcomb Riley still inspires youth and adults with his poetry and gifted storytelling. Literary greats such as Mark Twain considered Riley to be one of the top poetry readers and wittiest storytellers in America. Rudyard Kipling composed a poem to J.W.R. and President Woodrow Wilson, on the occasion of Riley’s sixty-sixth birthday in 1915, wrote: “affectionate appreciation for the many pleasures [Riley] has given me, along with the rest of the great body of readers of English.”

Riley was known as the Poet of the People and created timeless pieces such as Little Orphant Annie. It is rare for a poet to be so loved and heralded during his lifetime. In Ben-Hur to Sister Carrie: Remembering the Lives and Works of Five Indiana Authors, biographer Barbara Olenyik Morrow gives some insight into just how popular the poet was: Known as The Hoosier Poet, he was in reality the people’s poet, a man whose poems were recited in homes and schoolhouses across the nation. In 1896, the writer Hamlin Garland said, He is read by people who never before read poetry in their lives.

Not only was his verse about everyday, familiar objects but he wrote in a dialect that sounded warm and friendly. Riley’s prose about Midwestern life touched the hearts of readers throughout the country. It is also said that Riley was an outstanding entertainer. In an era with no radio, television or movies, poetry readings were a popular form of entertainment. Riley could make people laugh until their sides hurt and they were in tears.

Most of the more than one thousand poems Riley wrote focused on ordinary, rural life in the Midwest, the kyouck and gobble of the struttin turkey-cock in When the Frost is on the Punkin, or the little old wobble-ly calf in The Raggedy Man, or the leaves that lift up to shake hands with the breeze in Lockerbie Street, the Indianapolis residence where Riley rented a room. Riley’s words preserved small town, Hoosier life, and the language of that time for future generations.

Many of his poems were intended for children, who still love the smooth flow of his words: “An’ all us other childern, when the supper things is done, We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest funA-list’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about, An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits youEf youDon’tWatchOut!”

During the winter of 1862, Mary Alice Allie Smith, came to live with the Riley family in Greenfield, Indiana. Allie was an orphan, a friend of the family, and the Rileys took her in to help with some of the work. On her first night in the house, Allie refused to go to sleep but kept returning to the front hall to walk up and down the curved, handmade staircase, talking to herself all the while. From time to time, she would kneel down and place her face close to a step as she patted it. She was so fascinated with the steps, she told the children that fairies lived under each tread and she made up names for each of the fairies.

“This one’s Clarabelle, and this one’s Annabelle, and here is Florabell.” Although the names of all the steps have been lost within the folds of the past, the tour guides at the home believe some of them may have been Biblical names because Allie’s mother had read the Bible to her daughter often.

One can imagine Allie as a bright, creative young woman bored with common household chores. To keep herself entertained, she made up wild tales about the world around her and shared them with the Riley children. Her stories had a huge impact on the poet and changed the way he looked at his surroundings. She amused the family often with her whimsical yarns.

When James was eleven, he asked Allie what he would be when he grew up.
“Perhaps you’ll be a lawyer, like your father,” she suggested.

“Maybe,” he said. But the young boy was apparently fascinated with her stories and views of the world. She ruffled his blonde hair. “Someday, you’ll be a great poet.”

Allie may have been the first to put this idea in James’ mind, although his mother and father were both gifted storytellers. According to Irene Shireman, a Greenfield historian, Allie was witty and her stories made quite an impact on all the children of the household, who were at once thrilled and horrified at her tales. She was so beloved that she was more like one of the family than a servant and even slept in a small cubby at the end of the children’s room. She certainly made an impression on Riley, for years later he wrote the poem, which he titled “Little Orphant Allie.” The publisher made an error and the poem was released with a typo–“Allie” became “Annie.” However, when James found out how successfully the poem was selling, he chose to leave the poem as it was and “Allie” was forever transformed into “Annie.”

The Riley home is filled with black walnut harvested from the original property. One can picture the deep brown, curving staircase when it was new, glistening in the morning sun with Allie sweeping the dirt off the steps and making up tales as she went about her work. If you pause at the bottom of the stairs, you can almost imagine you hear the fairy voices.

Riley lived in the family home until he turned twenty-one. Shortly after that, the family lost their much-loved residence on Old National Road. Riley’s father fought in the Civil War, but his legal practice suffered while he was gone. Upon his return, he was faced with a dwindling economy, fewer clients, more attorneys in the area, and a bevy of back taxes. The family was forced to sell the home. Riley re-purchased the house in 1891, after he was a successful poet. He had published around 1,000 poems by this time, many of which began to appear in book-length anthologies.

Mary Alice may have believed in Riley’s future, but the obstacles he sometimes encountered as a young poet frustrated him. During the 1870s, newspaper and magazine editors on the east coast consistently rejected Riley’s poems. He believed these rejections were not because of the merit of the poetry but because he wasn’t a well-known writer. Determined to prove his theory, Riley enlisted the help of two close friends and the editor of the Kokomo Dispatch.

In a letter dated July 25, 1877, Riley wrote, I will prepare a poem; carefully imitating the style of some popular American poet deceased, and you man give it to the world for the first time thru the columns of your paper,–prefacing it, in some ingenious manner, with the assertion that the original manuscript was found in the album of an old lady living in your town and in the handwriting of the poet imitated.

Riley penned a poem in the style of Edgar Allen Poe, which he called, Leonainie. The release of the poem in an obscure Indiana newspaper started discussion among critics and scholars. While the poem didn’t receive rave reviews from everyone, Riley’s letters back and forth to Oscar Hendersen, the owner of the Dispatch, show that the poet was having great fun at the expense of the literary world.

When the hoax was exposed, Riley wrote not one but two parodys poking fun at himself. He sent one to Charles Philips of the Kokomo Tribune and the other to The Indianapolis Saturday Herald. Writing two such parodies so quickly was quite easy for Riley, who often wrote verse for advertisements as well as for personal notes. When he would stop to visit someone and they were not home, he often left rhymed messages, many of which are still in existence today.

Although numerous literary critics denounced Riley as an unscrupulous young man and Riley once described the time after the hoax as one of the most dismal of his life, he did benefit from the notoriety. When he resumed his poetry readings, he found that he was well known around the state of Indiana and the crowds had grown considerably.

Even today, many modern critics consider Riley’s poems to be only mediocre at best. But he was very serious about writing in the Hoosier dialect and recording the way the Indiana villagers and farmers spoke in the mid-1800s. He often argued with editors and would not allow them to change odd spellings of words or grammatical eccentricities. The poet wanted to preserve the language from an Indiana time period that he felt was quickly fading. Historians such as Irene Shireman believe that we wouldn’t have as much insight into Hoosier life and speech in the 1800s without Riley’s work. According to Irene, when Riley grew up in Greenfield, there were only around three hundred and fifty people living in the town. That type of small town atmosphere gave the poet a unique perspective on the people and things around him. He noticed the small, seemingly inconsequential things, such as chickens being shooed off the side porch. In retrospect, these are the details of everyday life that would be lost forever without his poems to remind us.

Riley recorded life in the Middle West, in a rural community, in the decade immediately preceding the Civil War, and historians might do well to consult his work, Dorothy Russo, a biographer commented. Out of his poetry there emerges a pattern of people, scenes and customs that ring true, because of all these things it is possible that his work will live on in the hearts of generations to come.

And despite the condemnation of some detractors, they can hardly argue that few poets have been as loved or widely read by the public. Riley was so adored during his life that children followed him through the streets of Indianapolis each morning as he walked downtown to see his publisher; he knew them all by name. In his later years, once the automobile had been invented, children still tried to follow him and would climb onto the sides of the car to get a closer look at the poet who wrote the stories they loved.

While Riley was still alive, people began to celebrate his birthday on October seventh by bringing flowers to him and placing them in the yard of his home on Main Street in Greenfield, Indiana. The tour guides at the James Whitcomb Riley Old Home and Museum mentioned that on this day the Riley family would sit on the long, country porch facing the national road. Indeed as one looks at the rocking chairs facing the street, you can picture Riley in his later years, looking very scholarly and regal with flowers being laid upon his lawn.

It was in 1915 that Governor Ralston declared there would be Riley Day. After Riley died on July 22, 1916 from a stroke, school children all over the country donated dimes in celebration of his work. That money was used to build the statue that now sits in front of the Courthouse in downtown Greenfield.

“Riley Day” soon included an official Parade of Flowers, now around sixty-seven years old. Irene Shireman, a tour guide at the museum, remembers traveling by school bus during the Depression to participate in the annual parade. “The parade has been going on for many years. I must have been in fifth grade when I participated,” she says with a wistful smile. “These days, when the children march past, I think they’re very sweet.”

Riley is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. The large, white columned monument erected in his honor still draws hundreds of visitors every year. It sits on the summit of a gently rolling hill. Tours are offered on Sundays during the summer, with guides sharing additional details of the poet’s life and work.

Not only is James Whitcomb Riley a beloved writer, and an American icon, he’s still inspiring others. School children are inspired to march several blocks to lay flowers at the feet of his statue. Joan Ream, another guide at the Riley Museum, is inspired to write poetry of her own, some of which has appeared in local newspapers. Rose Huffman is inspired to share the history of the Riley home. Rose’s appreciation for Riley and his home show in the detail of her information and the joy shining out of her eyes as she recites a bit of his poetry from Little Orphant Annie.

“I love this place,” she says.”I love this poet.”

And that sentiment sums up the feelings of thousands of Riley’s fans, who to this day discover the magic of his words in schools, libraries and homes across the nation.

The Riley Home is open March 31 – November 8, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and is closed on Sundays and holidays. More information at The Riley Home or by calling (317) 462-8539.