In the past two years I have heard three people reference one of Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley’s most famous poems—“When The Frost Is On the Punkin.” Two were people I know who mentioned the poem—by referencing its title–in casual conversation about fall weather; the other was a television weatherman who mentioned it when discussing the appearance of morning frost. It’s a rare thing for any poet to lodge just one line, let alone an entire poem, in the minds of people a century after his death: it was one hundred years ago, in June of 1916, that the beloved Riley died at the age of sixty-six. It’s also noteworthy since Riley was a popular homespun American poet whose greatest fame was in the 1890s and early twentieth century. Nevertheless, simply saying “frost on the punkin” can strike a familiar note.
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The James Whitcomb Riley Home in Indianapolis.
There are memorials to him and places named for him around the country. A quick look at Amazon and Goodreads demonstrates that Riley still has readers. Other popular versifiers of his time have fallen completely by the wayside, but there are still fans of homespun verse who enjoy Riley’s work, including me. Americans who grew up in the forties, fifties and sixties using the literature anthologies of the time can likely recall Riley. On the other hand, it seems safe to say that while Riley is not in total obscurity, he is a faded figure. His name would have been more easily recognized among the reading public in the mid twentieth century.
Sign created by Riley in 1871 advertising his services.
Rather than being banished from newspaper work altogether, Riley eventually found a job on the much larger Indianapolis Journal. Here he worked as a reporter and began writing the dialect poems that helped make his reputation. These poems were published under the name “Benjamin F. Johnson (of Boone).” Riley created a rustic alter ego in the form of Benjamin F. Johnson—a man who wrote in a sentimental and nostalgic style about the joys of country life and the good times of long ago. Riley’s first poems were collected in a volume called “The Old Swimmin’ Hole, and ‘Leven More Poems, by Benj. F. Johnson of Boone.” Riley and the Journal’s business manager financed the publication of the book, which became a success, and others followed. Riley was prolific, and the audience was there for his work.
Advertisement for Bill Nye and James Whitcomb Riley on tour.
Riley’s success as a popular poet is unlike anything we would see in today’s world. As Arthur W. Shumaker notes in A History of Indiana Literature, Riley was “first a curiosity and celebrity, then an accepted, loved, and famous writer and entertainer, and finally an institution, a tradition, and practically a myth.” Riley was a guest at the White House during the administrations of an assortment of Presidents, and when he died his body lay in state in the capitol building in Indianapolis. An estimated thirty-five thousand people filed past his coffin to honor the beloved poet.
For me this poem does summon memories of autumn in the Midwest—long fields full of dried corn stalks; the sharp air of October and November; frost-glint on pumpkins in the morning; dry leaves rustling and crunching underfoot; the deep quiet of fall in fields and forests; the feeling that the year is ending and that winter will soon arrive. But I also find that it evokes the vigor of the season—the cool, clean air after the long heat of the summer; the crispness of an autumn evening; the urge to rake and clean; to stow away the things of summer for another day.
James Whitcomb Riley: A Life by Elizabeth J. Van Allen, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1999–an excellent biography of Riley.
A History of Indiana Literature by Arthur W. Shumaker, Indiana Historical Society, 1962. (Subtitled “With Emphasis on the Authors of Imaginative Works Who Commenced Writing Prior to World War II”).
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One–The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Entry on Riley by Arthur W. Shumaker. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.
Wikipedia article on James Whitcomb Riley.
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Posted in Uncategorized and tagged "No Show Jones", "When The Frost Is On The Punkin", Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone, Bill Nye, Edgar Allan Poe, George Jones, Greenfield (Indiana), Indiana, Indianapolis, James Whitcomb Riley, James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum, James Whitcomb Riley Festival, James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home
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Thank you for all of this valuable information. I belong to writers group (Central Indiana Writers Association) that has been meeting for 40 years in Indianapolis. At our November meeting at Barnes and Nobles in Greenwood, Indiana, everyone was ask to bring their work and share at the meeting. I do not write poetry and I did not have anything else written. But a few days before my sister had sent me an email sharing James Whitcomb Riley’s poem,, When the Frost is on the punkin. She lives on a farm close to Crawfordsville, Indiana. In the email she wrote some lines telling about the farmers out gathering corn in the cornfields that morning. I shared with the members the today farming and the farming of James Whitcomb Riley’s day. Several people took turns reading a verse of his well known poem. It was enjoyed by everyone. There was so much beauty in his written words.
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