|James Whitcomb Riley
the "Hoosier Poet"
James Whitcomb Riley was born
in Greenfield, Indiana, on October 7, 1849, the
third of six children born to a lawyer. He was
educated in the local grammar school, where he
was frequently in trouble and from which he was
just as frequently truant. He finally graduated
from the eighth grade at the age of 20, and he
left the family home the following year. He
subsequently worked as a sign painter in
Greenfield, and, in 1872, joined a traveling
medicine show as an actor. In his spare time he
composed songs and revised plays for the company.
Although he had been a very
poor student in school, Riley developed a love
for literature, thanks primarily to his mother
reading him stories when he was young, and
desired to become a professional poet. His first
poem was published in the Indianapolis Mirror
on March 30, 1872, under the pseudonym "Jay
Whit", and the paper subsequently published
another twenty-plus of his poems published in
that paper, including one on the front page. In
1873, he and several friends formed an
advertising company and travelled around Indiana
creating large billboard-like signs on the sides
of buildings and barns. He returned to Greenfield
in early 1874 so he could focus on his writing
In February of 1874, Riley
submitted the poem "At Last" to the
Danbury (Conn) News, which not only
published it but also paid him for; it was the
first time he ever got paid for one of his poems.
He continued to submit poems to the News
until 1875, when the paper shut down. The loss of
income led Riley to join another medicine show
while he looked for a new publisher.
In 1875, Riley sent some of his
poems to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom he admired. An encouraging reply
from Longfellow inspired Riley to begin writing
again, and he was soon submitting poems to
various regional newspapers, under the pen name
"Benj. F. Johnson of Boone." He finally
found a new publisher when the Indianapolis Journal
accepted and published some of his poems, but he
was still unable to support himself financially
through writing alone. He was hired as a reporter
by the Anderson (Indiana) Democrat in
1877, for which he also wrote poems. Although he
was by then on the verge of becoming a
professional poet, Riley still had difficulty
making ends meet financially, so in 1878 he paid
to join a travelling lecture circuit. His only
play, Flying Islands of the Night, was
published and performed for the first time that
same year, and its popularity helped get his
poetry published in more papers. Riley also found
himself very well suited to the lecture circuit,
as he was able to captivate audiences with his
dramatic readings of his poetry, and by 1879 he
was one of the circuit's most popular speakers.
He joined the Indianapolis Journal as a
society columnist and poet in November of 1879,
but was able to leave that job in 1888 because he
no longer needed that paycheck. He began
publishing under his own name in 1881.
Despite his rising literary
success, one thing still eluded Riley --
publication in a major national literary
magazine. That accomplishment was finally
achieved after a very successful speaking
engagement in Boston in February of 1882, when Century
Magazine published his "In Swimming
Time" in its September 1883 issue. His first
collection of poems, The Old Swimmin' Hole
and 'Leven More Poems, was published that
same year, and his income from its sales allowed
him to finally cut back on his busy speaking
schedule and focus more on his writing. He
retired from touring altogether in 1895, but
continued writing until his right arm was
paralyzed by a stroke in 1910. He died in
Greenfield on July 22, 1916.
Known as the "Hoosier
Poet," James Whitcomb Riley authored
approximately 1,000 poems in his lifetime, many
of them based on people and places from his
childhood and life and written in the dialect of
his home state. Some of his best-known poems are:
"The Old Swimmin' Hole"
"The Barefoot Boy"
"Little Orphant Annie"
"The Raggedy Man"
"When We First Played 'Show'"
"A Childhood Home of Long Ago"
"Tom Johnson's Quit"
"On Quitting California"
"John Golliher's Third Womern"
"The Dismal Fate of Tit"
:The Old Man and Jim"
Riley published several collections of his
The Old Swimmin' Hole and
'Leven More Poems (1883)
The Boss Girl, A Christmas Story and Other
Old-Fashioned Roses (1888)
Pipes o' Pan at Zekesbury (1889)
Rhymes of Childhood (1890)
Poems Here at Home (1893)
Book of Joyous Children (1902)
Poem Hunter http://www.poemhunter.com/james-whitcomb-riley/biography/
The Poetry Foundation http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/james-whitcomb-riley
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