Biography of James Whitcomb Riley, 1849-1916

Biographical Sketch by Wendi Capehart

James Whitcomb Riley is known as "The Hoosier Poet," because he is from the state of Indiana, and Indiana is the Hoosier State. Nobody knows for sure what Hoosier meant, although there are many guesses. One is that in the frontier days, it was customary to stand outside the door of a cabin and shout "Who's here?" There's an Indiana accent or dialect that isn't quite southern but isn't northern either, and "who's here" does sound a little bit like "hoosier." But there are at least half a dozen other guesses, and none has more support than another. Whether that is the source of Hoosier or not, Riley certainly popularized this dialect in many of his regional poems.

Dialect poetry is poetry that attempts to reproduce a specific accent or regional style of speech. It can be very difficult to read if you are not familiar with how the dialect sounds in real life.

I once sat in a university course on children's literature where the professor said that Riley's dialect poems were making fun of the speech of freed slaves; but this could hardly be more false. Riley isn't making fun of anybody. Authentic dialect poetry is almost never mocking people, but is warmly and affectionately attempting to preserve and reproduce the real speech patterns of people the poet knows and loves. Riley's poems really do represent the way many country people spoke, and sometimes still do speak in Indiana. If the dialect in those poems gives you trouble, if it is at all possible, look for a recorded performance of some of the dialect poems, done by somebody who knows the sound of the Hoosier country accent.

Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana. He was one of six children. His father was a lawyer who often brought interesting guests home for dinner--some famous, and some destitute and in need of help. His mother read to the children often, and fairy tales, folk tales, and ghost stories were among their favorites. This gave young James and his siblings exposure to all kinds of people.

The family moved to Indianapolis to be closer to the father's work, but they kept the family farm for food and extra income. This was fortunate, since later, after the Civil War, Mr. Riley Senior was unable to find work consistently, and the family had to return to the farm and eke out a living there.

James Whitcomb Riley was, at best, an indifferent student. He hated school and played truant often. He preferred spending his time at the old swimming hole and other haunts which would later show up in so many of his poems. For this reason, he didn't finish school until he was twenty, and even then, his last completed full grade was only the eighth grade. He had very little to say about his teachers, except for his last teacher, who encouraged him to read good books.

When he finished his school, his father wanted him to become a lawyer, but he was not well equipped for any work requiring discipline and education. His father and he argued often, and at last he left home to join a traveling medicine show as a huckster. He also made some money from painting signs for stores and taverns for a while. Eventually he settled down to writing little articles for the local paper.

Newspapers at the time often published poems, and poetry was popular then. Riley attempted to get his poems published this way. However, his poems were seldom accepted by the larger papers, so his efforts weren't paying enough to support him.

He thought his poems were really very good, but they weren't being accepted just because he wasn't already famous, so he decided to play a little trick on the editors of the papers. He wrote a poem after the style of Edgar Allan Poe, and submitted it to the paper as a newly discovered Poe poem. He expected to see his work widely accepted. That is not what happened. The first paper published the poem as a Poe discovery; but other papers either did not bother to publish it at all, or published it only to challenge its authenticity. Most scholars pointed out that it was inferior to Poe's work. This must have been a crushing blow to his ego.

He continued to write poems, improving them little by little. Meanwhile, he was struggling with both his home life and his work life. His mother died, and he blamed his father, who had come back from his service in the war a changed man, and not for the better. He and his father were estranged, and James Whitcomb Riley turned to alcohol and developed a serious drinking problem which he never overcame.

He continued to write and submit his poems. He also began performing on the public circuit, as the poet Eugene Field had. He carefully groomed his public persona, changing his dress from the more flamboyant styles he had previously preferred to more homespun appearance. He basically recreated himself as a country poet, changing his clothing and demeanor to match the fictional character he had created. His public performances were received well by the public. All poetry is best when read aloud, dialect poetry, more than other forms, is best when read aloud well. He was very popular. He began to make enough money to fully support himself in comfort, and he was even able to support two of his sisters and their children (one sister was divorced, one widowed).

His poems were often based on real people and places he had known. "The Raggedy Man" was a German hired hand who had worked for his father. "Little Orphant' Annie" was a real person, an orphan girl who came to work for the family when their father left for the Civil War. Her real name was Allie, but a printer's error altered it to Annie, and Riley didn't correct it. Allie grew up, married, and lived in the area for the rest of her life, and returned to help out in the Riley home many times in her adult life.

Riley died in 1916, and though he had many personal flaws, he was a devoted brother and a doting uncle, and his poetry delighted and amused thousands of families during his lifetime, and for many years afterward.

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