After repeated requests from his readers, William Carleton, a 1869 graduate of Hillsdale College and internationally-recognized poet, editor, and lecturer, described the inspiration for his most well-known poem:
“Over there to the west, in Hillsdale, there stood in the old days a county poorhouse,” he said. “Sometimes, I used to visit the inmates there and hear their troubles. And sometimes I used to see old people … who had out their property in the hands of their children, passing up the road on their way to the poorhouse on the other side of the hill.”
The poem “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse” exemplifies the simple storytelling that would enthrall readers with the ballads and speeches of this Michigan native, a man who would make a career of speaking to and for rural people at the turn of the 20th century.
Published in June 1871, the poem has a setting that is right out of Carleton’s childhood as the son of a Hudson, Michigan, farmer. Carleton enrolled at Hillsdale College in 1858 after being rejected by the Union Army at age 15, and then left college after a year when his sparse knowledge of the classics and his finances bottomed out.
But Carleton wasn’t finished. He became a teacher, earned money to pay for tuition, studied Greek and Latin in his off hours, and returned to Hillsdale a few years later. The second time around, the 19-year-old was a whirlwind: he composed essays in verse, joined literature and forensics clubs, formed a brass band, and wrote for out-of-town newspapers for pocket change. For his graduation, he composed a poem entitled “Rifts in the Cloud,” and was sent off with a triumphant tribute when the president of the college threw a bouquet of flowers. According to his later retellings, the gesture caught him off guard and knocked him over.
Writing for newspapers tossed Carleton into politics, where he read his poem “Fax” at rallies during the vice-presidential campaign of a man named Schuyler Colfax. The 500-line poem warned voters to follow the “facts” and vote against the “Democratic rascals.” The pamphlet sold for 15 cents and paid for much of Carleton’s tuition for his senior year at Hillsdale.
But despite his early successes in politics and oratory, it was his down-home voice that sold audiences on the young poet. When Harper’s Illustrated Weekly — one of the country’s two biggest publications at the time — published “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse” in 1871, Carleton’s readers were drawn to the story of a dignified farm wife who fell on hard times. The poem begins in Carleton’s signature homey voice:
“Over the hill to the poor-house I’m trudgin’ my weary way — / I, a woman of seventy, and only a trifle gray — / I, who am smart an’ chipper, for all the years I’ve told, / As many another woman that’s only half as old.”
The poem’s use of vernacular dialects was somewhat unusual at the time; Carleton told stories about proofreaders who tossed an early copy of one of his poetry submissions in the trash bin, thinking it junk mail from an aspiring “poet” who couldn’t spell. But it is this country talk that made his work a hit. After the success of “Poorhouse” and “Betsey and I Are Out,” Harper’s Illustrated Weekly published Carleton’s second collection of poems — his first, with typical Carletonian pluck, had been essentially self-published two years earlier — and sold 100,000 copies of the young poet’s “Farm Ballads.”
This was followed by “Farm Festivals,” and then by “City Ballads” and “City Festivals” when Carleton moved to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1878 and then to New York in 1882. The poet enjoyed happy endings that still reflected the lives of the people, and so “Poorhouse” had a sequel called “On the Road from the Poorhouse,” and Carleton’s stories followed the rural people as they migrated into the city, just as he had done.
In New York, Carleton started a magazine called Everywhere, and kept up a lecture schedule that nearly took him there, as he spoke and read his poetry in England, Canada, and throughout the United States. And it was as a lecturer and storyteller that Carleton shone; people came from farms, towns, and city neighborhoods to hear their poet tell stories that sounded much like their own lives.
And they read his magazine, too: though the publication was no huge success, it did allow Carleton to publish his own work, to travel, and to persuade the likes of Andrew Carnegie to give money to various philanthropic campaigns. His biographer Jerome A. Fallon noted that Carleton fronted a fundraiser for the hymnwriter Fanny Crosby when he heard she had fallen on hard times in Brooklyn. There would be no poorhouse for Crosby with Carleton around. And when Carleton returned to Hillsdale for a commencement address in 1892, the town overflowed with admirers.
It is perhaps more this notoriety than the merits of his verse that kept Carleton’s poetry in the spotlight. Fallon said Carleton’s poetry was analogous to the popular but trite paintings of Norman Rockwell: “Some say that Will Carleton was not a great poet, but a journalist who wrote about the social issues of his time in poetic fashion. But Carleton reached millions of American minds and hearts, changing attitudes and behaviors in a way that few ‘great’ poets have ever done.”
And Carleton himself spoke humbly of the poem that brought him success with its story of hardship: “Many a more elaborate poem, with which was taken ten times the care, has failed to produce as much impression upon the public heart.”
Perhaps, but the heads of many loyal readers of “Farm Ballads” would have nodded in agreement with the obituary that ran in Harper’s Weekly after Carleton’s death in 1912: “There is hardly an English-speaking home in America … where ‘Over the Hill to the Poorhouse’ and ‘Betsey and I Are Out’ are unknown … if he occupied a comparatively small space in the columns of the periodical press it was because he had been known so long that he had been accepted as an institution.”