On August 13, 1881, the Indianapolis Leader published “The Land of Used-To-Be” by James Whitcomb Riley.
Born on October 7, 1849 to Reuben and Elizabeth Riley in Greenfield, Indiana, James Whitcomb Riley became one of the most popular authors of his time and belonged to the Golden Age of Indiana Literature.
When Riley was 16 years old, he dropped out of school and began working a variety of jobs until he achieved success as a poet. He found success as a sign painter but quickly tired of the mundane work. Riley found more pleasure when he worked for traveling travel medicine shows because he was able to perform impressions, play the guitar, sing, recite stories, and hone his writing skills. However, the work was unstable and Riley often had to scrounge for money in order to support himself.
In 1877, The Anderson Democrat, a newspaper in Anderson, Indiana, hired Riley as an editor. Within weeks of him starting, the newspaper’s circulation doubled and Riley’s editing style was a hit with the newspaper’s readers. However, Riley’s true passion was writing poems, not editing newspapers. He constantly submitted poems to newspapers, but was frequently rejected. This did not deter Riley from continuing to submit poems, though. Rather, he devised a plan with John Henderson, the editor of the Kokomo Dispatch, a newspaper in Kokomo, Indiana, to publish his poem, “Leonainie” in the Kokomo Dispatch under the name of E.A.P., the initials of Edgar Allen Poe. Excited over the lost Poe poem, newspapers across the country republished “Leonainie,” which sparked interest and controversy over the poem’s style and lyrics. Ultimately, another local newspaper exposed Riley as the poem’s author and disgruntled people across the country condemned and chastised Riley for his actions.
The negative press contributed to Riley’s success and led him to become one of the most celebrated Indiana writers. After the scandal, the Indianapolis Journal hired Riley as the newspaper’s full-time poet and in the winter of 1880-1881, Riley toured Indiana, reciting his poetry wherever he was welcomed.
In 1883, Riley wrote and published his first book, The Old Swimmin’-Hole and ‘Leven More Poems, in what would become his iconic style of writing, the “Hoosier dialect.” By using language that resonated with the every day man and woman and Indiana culture, landscape, and people as his subject, the state of Indiana quickly fell in love with Riley and he became known as “The Hoosier Poet.”
Even though the Midwest recognized Riley for his talent, the literary elites on the east coast, who ultimately had the power to determine if a poet was or was not successful, did not recognize Riley’s talent. It was not until 1887 when the east coast literary critics recognized Riley’s poetic gift. In 1887, the International Copyright League invited Riley, among other writers such as Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, to speak at a program. Originally, Riley was only to speak one night, but after he read his poem, “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” the League asked Riley to recite another poem the following evening. Riley enchanted other several highly respected poets that night, including James Russell Lowell, who introduced Riley on his second night reciting his poems. Ultimately, Lowell’s approval of Riley was what sparked the east coast literary elites to acknowledge Riley for his talents.
Throughout his lifetime, James Whitcomb Riley published over 90 books and wrote more than 1,000 poems. Some of his most well-known poems include, “Little Orphant Annie,” “The Raggedy Man,” “The Runaway Boy,” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin.” Riley died on July 22, 1916 in Lockerbie, an Indianapolis neighborhood, and buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.
In June 1912, Victor Talking Machine Company recorded James Whitcomb Riley reading roughly twenty of his poems. However, the Victor Talking Machine Company only released a limited number of recordings. The Indianapolis Public Library digitized seventeen previously unreleased recordings on its website, including “When the Frost is on the Punkin.” To listen to Riley read some of his most beloved poems, click here.
The Indiana State Library Treasures collection contains a wealth of sources pertaining to James Whitcomb Riley and is accessible to the public here.
The Indianapolis Leader, volume 3, number 1, August 13, 1881, page 3. Accessed August 12, 2014.
About The Kokomo Dispatch (Kokomo, IN). Chronicling America: Historic American Newspaper. Library of Congress. Accessed August 12, 2014.
Indiana State Museum. Uncovering an Indiana Treasure: James Whitcomb Riley. Accessed August 12, 2014.
The Indianapolis Public Library. “James Whitcomb Riley Recordings,” in the Digital Recordings. Accessed August 12, 2014.
Lilly Library at Indiana University. “‘…and touch the universal heart.’: The Appeal of James Whitcomb Riley.” Accessed August 12, 2014.
“The Land of Used-To-Be”
by James Whitcomb Riley
And where’s the land of Used-to-be, does little baby wonder?
O, we will clap a magic saddle over papa’s knee,
And ride away around the world, and in and out and under
The whole of the golden sunny summer-time, and see!
Leisurely and lady-like we’ll jostle on our journey.
And let the pony bathe his hooves and cool them in the dew,
As he slides down the shady way, and lags along the ferny
And the green grassy ledges of the lane we travel through
And then we’ll canter on to catch the bubble of the thistle
As it bumps among the butterflies, and glimmers down the sun,
To leave us laughing, all content to hear the robin whistle.
Or guess what Katydid is saying little Kathy’s done.
And pausing here a minute, where we hear the squirrel chuckle
As he darts from out the underbush, leaves and honeysuckle
To wreathe around our forheads, riding into Used-to-be;
For here’s the very rim of it that we go swinging over—
Don’t you hear the fairy bugles, and the tinkle of the bells?
And the baby bumble-bees that tumble in the clover,
And dangle from the titled pinks and tipsy pimpernels?
And don’t you see the merry faces of the Daffodillies,
And the jolly John-jump-ups, and the butter-cups a-glee,
And the low, lolling ripples ring around the water-lilies,
All greeting us with laughter to the land of Used-to-be?
And here among the blossoms of the blooming vines and grasses,
With a haze forever hanging in a sky forever blue,
And with a breeze from over seas to kiss us as it passes,
We will romp around forever as the little fancies do;
For all the elves of earth and air are swarming here together—
The prankish Puck, King Oberon, and Queen Titania, too;
And dear old Mother Goose, herself, as sunny as the weather,
Comes dancing down the dewy walls to welcome you and me.