As the days grow brisker and the leaves take on brilliant hues, many Americans of a certain generation are wont to characterize the season with an expression born in Indiana. “When the frost is on the punkin” is the opening phrase of a classic poem by James Whitcomb Riley. Remembered as the “Hoosier Poet” and the “Children’s Poet”, Riley was one of the “Big Four” writers at the heart of Indiana’s “Golden Age” of literature, as the period between 1880 and 1920 has been dubbed. Born in Greenfield, Indiana in 1849, Riley left school at 16 to try his hand at various artistic endeavors, settling upon writing.
Frustrated in his early attempts to get published, Riley passed along one of his works as a lost masterpiece by Edgar Allen Poe, and promptly saw it published in the Kokomo Tribune. Though he was quickly unmasked, Riley went on to find his literary niche behind another nom de plume. Appearing in the Indianapolis Journal under the byline “Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone” were poems populated by a folksy set of characters professing sentimental themes and homespun philosophy in a rural vernacular. Published in 1883, Riley’s first collection The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems went on to sell a half a million copies. Along with “Little Orphant Annie,” that collection contained Riley’s celebrated description of fall in the Midwest—
They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums 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.
Although Riley’s populist verse has been commonly accepted as quintessentially Midwestern, critics in the intervening years have pointed to the poet’s remove from the pastoral existence he romanticized. His best-selling poetry collections and appearances on the lecture circuit netted him an enormous income; he held honorary degrees from Eastern universities; was welcomed into many national literary organizations, and had so clearly arrived socially that his portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent.