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Riley, James Whitcomb, 1849-1916



  • Existence: October 7, 1849 - July 22, 1916

Biographical Information

James Whitcomb Riley was born in a log cabin on October 7, 1849 in the little Greenfield, Indiana. Riley's best poems recollect his childhood and youth in Greenfield.

Riley attempted to study law and become a lawyer as his father wished but he could not apply himself to law books. He wandered the American Middle West as a sign painter. He could not settle down. Sometimes he traveled with a "Miracle Medicine Show." Drama was another of his interests. He often played roles of those he had seen in his travels and mimicked their speech.

Entertainment proved to be his forte. Riley's first published poems were written for newspapers. Although Riley's pieces were picked up from one newspaper to the next and were much copied around the country, Riley felt his reputation as a poet had no chance because he came from the American "frontier" Midwest and not the East. To prove his point Riley wrote a hoax poem called "Leonanie" said to have been written by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem was immediately reproduced in newspapers with great fanfare. His point was made when James Whitcomb Riley was exposed as the author. Then Riley became very adept at presenting his poems on stage. In fact Riley's great popularity first arose from his performances on the Lyceum Circuit. He traveled around the country in every large city, reciting his increasingly popular poems reflecting his Hoosier youth.

Later in life Riley's poems were reproduced in illustrated books which attracted national and international readership. The royalties from these books enriched Riley to the point where he became the wealthiest writer of his time. Riley became not only: The "Hoosier Poet" but also America's "Children's Poet." In his fifties Riley suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side and he kept mostly to his Indianapolis "Lockerbie Street" home. His life drew to a close a week after his last visit to his hometown of Greenfield. He had returned there for the funeral of a boyhood friend, Almond Keefer. His own death of a stroke fell on July 22, 1916.

President Woodrow Wilson sent a note of sorrow to Riley's family upon his death which expressed the feeling of the whole country: "With his departure a notable figure passes out of the nation's life; a man who imparted joyful pleasure and a thoughtful view of many things that other men would have missed."

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

George Ade papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSA 4
Scope and Contents The George Ade papers (1878-1947; 29 Cubic ft.) document the personal and professional life of author, humorist, and playwright George Ade. The collection includes original writings, manuscripts, personal correspondece, photographic materials, and artifacts. Notable persons include: John T. McCutcheon, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, James Whitcomb Riley, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Elsie Janis, Theodore Dreiser, "Chick" Evans, Orson Welles, Kin Hubbard, Theodore...
Dates: 1878 - 2007; Majority of material found within 1890 - 1943

Collection on James Whitcomb Riley

 Collection — Box: 1
Identifier: MSP 52
Scope and Contents The Collection on James Whitcomb Riley consists of a group of four letters written by James Whitcomb Riley: one autographed, signed letter to fellow poet Henry Abbey; and a group of three autographed, signed letters, all to Mrs. Anna Smith Brown of Indianapolis, all in regards to "an old lisping jingle." There are six letters written by Marguerite Young to Miss Lesley Payne (Riley's niece) in Indianapolis. These long letters are about her writings, a novel, and a biography of James Whitcomb...
Dates: 1891 - 1951