The Mellowness of Autumn: James Whitcomb Riley’s “When The Frost Is On The Punkin”

James Whitcomb Riley in Cincinnati in 1913.

James Whitcomb Riley in Cincinnati in 1913.

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 poet’s legacy seems to rest most securely in cultural memory based largely on his status as a Midwestern figure. On one hand, Riley and his poetry are still remembered, especially in Indiana. The state helps keep his reputation alive. Each year around his birthday in October there is a James Whitcomb Riley Festival in Riley’s hometown of Greenfield, Indiana, where the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum are located. The James Whitcomb Riley Home and Visitor Center in Indianapolis are popular historical tourism destinations as well.

The James Whitcomb Riley Home in Indianapolis.

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.

James Whitcomb Riley surrounded by school children.

James Whitcomb Riley surrounded by school children.

“When The Frost Is On The Punkin” is one of Riley’s best-known poems. Like the younger poet he influenced, Paul Laurence Dunbar of Dayton, Ohio, Riley wrote both dialect and standard English verse. Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana on October 7, 1849, the same day that Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore, Maryland. Riley’s father was a lawyer who served as a Democratic representative in the Indiana legislature and later as an officer in the Union army during the Civil War. Riley was especially close to his mother, who died when he was only twenty and was especially supportive of his interests in theater and literature. Riley was a town boy, but the country was only a stone’s throw away in those days in many places around the United States, and Riley from early on was an observer of the farm people who came into town on weekends.

Riley was an indifferent student at best and left school at the age of sixteen, although he was an avid reader and demonstrated a facility for creating poetry. He briefly read law in his father’s office, but abandoned this to become paint signs on barns and fences, often for traveling theatrical companies, and later worked for traveling shows as an actor and musician. This wandering through the Midwest gave Riley more exposure to people of both town and country. In 1877 he became editor of the Anderson Democrat in Anderson, Indiana, but was later fired from this paper for publishing a poem called “Leonainie” in the Kokomo Dispatch that was supposedly a lost piece by Edgar Allan Poe. The hoax was exposed and caused embarrassment for Riley and the Anderson Democrat, and Riley would always regret the incident.

Sign created by Riley in 1871 advertising his services.

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.

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Riley reached that audience not only as poet, but also as performer. Riley appeared on stages across the country with the popular humorist Bill Nye, and with other celebrated performers on the lecture circuit, including Mark Twain. Despite this popular success, Riley soon had trouble. He was an alcoholic who didn’t always show up to perform, much like country signer George Jones in the 1970s, who for a while earned the nickname “No Show Jones.” Riley was also trapped in a brutal contract that had him on the road for weeks on end with little time off for rest. This frustration and exhaustion fed Riley’s addiction to the bottle. However, the revelation of Riley’s unfair working conditions actually created public sympathy for the poet despite the absences that had occurred. He was eventually able to get out of this arrangement and work on his own terms.

Advertisement for Bill Nye and James Whitcomb Riley on tour.

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.

Autumn in Chillicothe, Ohio (author's photo).

Autumn in Chillicothe, Ohio (author’s photo).

But there is one image that comes to mind first. One October morning years ago I was driving west out of Cincinnati, bound for Missouri. I looked out the window to my right. A road ran perpendicular below the highway I was on, curving past a hillside farm. At the top of the hill sat on an old farmhouse with an ancient barn nearby. Something about the sight—the old farmhouse in the golden light of autumn early morning, the gray wood of the old barn, the cut grass of the field–made me think of Riley’s poem, and of the mellow richness and quiet peace of autumn in the Midwest.

Here is Riley’s beloved poem:

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;

Pumpkins for sale at Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio (author's photo).

Pumpkins for sale at Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio (author’s photo).

O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

(author's photo)

(author’s photo)

They’s something kindo harty-like about the atmosphere,
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

(author's photo)

(author’s photo)

The husky, rusty tussel of the tussels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo’ lonesome-like but still
A-preachin’ sermons to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover overhead!—
O, it sets my heart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

(author's photo)

(author’s photo)

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’s ‘s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and sausage,
too!
I don’t know how to tell it—but ef sich a thing could be
As the angels wantin’ boardin,’ and they’d call around on me—
I’d want to ‘commodate ‘em—all the whole-indurin’ flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

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Patrick Kerin

Sources:

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.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Norma Gardner on December 7, 2016 at 2:30 am

    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.

    • buckeyemuse on December 7, 2016 at 3:08 am

      Thank you for your interest and your comment. I’m glad you all discussed his poem, and what a great connection you have to the world evoked in his poem. I look forward to exploring Riley a lot more on this blog. Hope you check back!

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