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James Whitcomb Riley

the "Hoosier Poet"

James Whitcomb Riley

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 career.

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.

His Work

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"
"The Werewife"
"On Quitting California"
"John Golliher's Third Womern"
"The Dismal Fate of Tit"
:The Old Man and Jim"

Riley published several collections of his poems, including:
The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems (1883)
The Boss Girl, A Christmas Story and Other Sketches (1884)
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
The Poetry Foundation

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 19th Century

This page was last updated on 07/21/2018.