James Whitcomb Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana which is in Hancock County. He was reared, educated, and spent his boyhood there; however, he was connected with the local press as a reporter for the Anderson Democrat. This was during the time that Todysman and Croan were publishers of the newspaper from 1876-80. During this short stint at the paper, Mr. Riley developed into a local poet. Thus, he is entitled to a place in the history of Madison County.
His first published work was entitled Leonainie. This was supposedly an unpublished poem by Edgar Allen Poe, which for years had been lost, and found among his papers. Mr. Riley had this poem published in the Kokomo Dispatch. Meanwhile, the editor of the Anderson Herald, who had on many occasions belittled Riley’s poetic talents, gave a large space to its publication, and great praise to its sentiment, oblivious to the fact that it was from Riley himself. When the secret was out and many people gave him praise, his once-time critic joined in giving him the accolades it deserved.
His genial disposition and spartan ways made him a favorite in Anderson. The man in the street was treated with cordial respect. His verses demonstrated that his heart was with the common man.
Madison County, Indiana does not claim Mr. Riley as a native son, but glorifies in the fact that he once lived and worked within its bounds. The following is an excerpt from a composition he held dear.
OUT TO OLD AUNT MARY’S
Wasn’t it pleasant, O brother mine,
In those old days of the lost sunshine
Of youth–when the Saturday’s chores were through,
And the “Sunday’s wood” in the kitchen, too,
And we went visiting, “me and you,”
Out to old Aunt Mary’s?
“Me and you”–and the morning fair,
With the dewdrops twinkling everywhere;
The scent of the cherry-blossoms blown
After us, in the roadway lone,
Our capering shadows onward thrown–
Out to old Aunt Mary’s!
This poem continues for some 17 more paragraphs and ends with these lines:
For, O my brother so far away,
This is to tell you–she waits to-day
To welcome us: — Aunt Mary fell
Asleep this morning, whispering–“Tell
The boys to come.” . . . And all is well
Out to old Aunt Mary’s.
James Whitcomb Riley lived to see his works accepted, read, and marveled at by the common man he wrote for throughout his career.