During the post Civil War
era James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) was an American poet, whose writings idealize youth, the rural community, and the plain folks of the pioneer times. Even though Riley was extremely popular in his time, his poems are rarely read today.
Born in Greenfield, Indiana his father Reuben Riley was a civil war veteran, lawyer and politician and a great success as a political speech maker. His mother Elizabeth frequently amused her children with comical stories and fairy tales. Both parents’ attributes would add greatly to their son’s achievements as both poet and narrator.
When Riley was 16 he left school and joined a group of itinerant painters. Later he acted in a patent medicine show and worked for a newspaper. By the age of 28 he began a his career in journalism, initially in Greenfield, and in April 1877, Riley joined the staff of the Anderson Democrat as an associate editor. Within two years he was its resident verse-humorist writing under the fictitious name of ‘Ben J. Johnson’.
He steadily wrote poetry many of which were printed in other newspapers throughout central Indiana. Annoyed, though, at his verse being repeatedly rejected by eastern publications, Riley invented a plan to demonstrate that for a poem to become accepted it had to be composed by "a genius known to fame." In an effort to mimic Edgar Allan Poe, he penned a poem, "Leonainie and signed it “E. A. P." Riley then persuaded the editor of the Kokomo Dispatch to print it in his newspaper. Here is a little snippet:
Leonainie -- Angels named her;
And they took the light
Of the laughing stars and framed her
In a smile of white;
And they made her hair of gloomy
Midnight, and her eyes of bloomy
Moonshine, and the brought her to me
In the solemn night.
Promptly circulated, this was the proofing the pudding for Riley's “a genius known to fame” theory. Revealed as a hoax, he was lambasted by rival newspapers and eventually fired from his Anderson
job but not because of the deception. It was the editor the Kokomo Dispatch
who had linked it as a long-lost Poe poem catching the eye of the editors at the Anderson Democrat
who thought they deserved the publication rights.
From the Anderson Democrat Riley went on to theIndianapolis Journal and sometime during this period between 1877 and 1885 he began developing his Hoosier dialect. One 1907 biographer Jacob Pitt Dunn relates an anecdotal quote by James Whitcomb Riley explaining the origins of the dialect:
"These stories commonly told about the origin of the word 'Hoosier' are all nonsense. The real origin is found in the pugnacious habits of the early settlers. They were vicious fighters, and not only gouged and scratched, but frequently bit off noses and ears. This was so ordinary an affair that a settler coming into a bar room on a morning after a fight, and seeing an ear on the floor, would merely push it aside with his foot and carelessly ask, 'Who's year?'"
Numerous sources attribute Riley with creating the story because he was tired of explaining the beginning of "Hoosier" to the curious. Dunn simply tells the account adding, "this theory is quite as plausible, and almost as well sustained by historical evidence, as any of the others."
Riley, whose books were regularly published by Indianapolis's Bobbs-Merrill Company, became one of the most beloved rhymesters in America. He hit his stride in the contemporary social trends leading the American poetry scene up to the industrialized Gilded Age, during which nostalgia for the simple agricultural frontier boosted his sentimental verse.
Several of his poems were collected in The Ole Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems (1883) a volume that achieved great recognition. Among his most well liked poems are Little Orphant Annie and The Raggedy Man. Eventually through the advertising efforts of his publisher and of Riley himself he became an entertainer on platforms throughout the nation “before movies, radio, television, or rock and roll, Riley was the 19th century precursor of the 20th century pop culture celebrity”. It was an era when authors were greeted with rock concert style crowds and shortly after his book published, he began touring with the likes of Mark Twain and Bill Nye. His constant battle with alcoholism terminated one tour, but Riley overcame that blot on his name and within a decade he was a bigger draw on the stage bill than Mark Twain eventually the recipient of an honorary degree from Yale University.
James Whitcomb Riley remained single his entire life and spent most of his days of renown as a renter in a Lockerbie Street home in Indianapolis. He lived there from 1893 until his death in 1916. The residence became a regular stopover for Indiana schoolchildren and famous figures “Riley's personality grew so great that students celebrated his birthday across the country. When he passed away from a series of strokes on July 22, 1916, more than 35,000 people filed past his casket as it lay in state under the dome at the Indiana State Capitol.”
Marcus Dickey, Riley's personal manager, published a two-volume story of his life shortly after his death, Riley's fame and sales as America's most-read poet, notable for his unsophisticated vernacular verse, he eclipsed that of Longfellow, Whittier, and Whitman. Not only did Riley’s verse appeal to his readers, his jovial sense of humor, combined with his personal understanding of life in the Midwest made him a sure fire hit and a figure worth reading about.
The Works of James Whitcomb Riley
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Riley, James Whitcomb,” Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
About James Whitcomb Riley :
Dunn, Jacob Piatt. "The Word Hoosier." Indiana Historical Society Publications, Volume IV, number 2, 1907.
James Whitcomb Riley: The Hoosier Poet
Lost Indiana's In Grave Condition: James Whitcomb Riley:
Outpost 10F - Poetry Guild - James Whitcomb Riley:
Selected Poetry of James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916)