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Who Was James Whitcomb Riley?
James Whitcomb Riley’s story began on October 7, 1849, in the sleepy town of Greenfield, Indiana. Born the second son and third out of six children to Reuben and Elizabeth Riley, James inherited gifts from both parents that would later contribute to making him Indiana’s most beloved poet.
Reuben Riley—civil war veteran, lawyer and politician—was in great demand for his extraordinary political speeches. Elizabeth, a poet and storyteller, often entertained her young children with fairy tales and funny stories. These combined talents would later contribute to their son’s successful career as both a poet and orator.
Like his contemporary Mark Twain, some of Mr. Riley’s best-loved writing recalled the rich texture childhood in a growing Indiana town—a time where boys spent their days swimming, fishing, stealing watermelons and playing Indians in the woods.
By age 16, Riley gave up his struggle with arithmetic and history and quit school. He and some friends started traveling Indiana’s countryside painting signs, houses and ornamental pictures. The crew dubbed themselves “The Graphic Company.”
Riley left the short-lived sign painting company when he published one of his poems and then started traveling with a medicine show, painting and reciting his poems.
When the tour ended, Riley returned to Greenfield and took a position editing the local paper.
Over the years, Riley had developed the “genius known to fame” theory. He was convinced a poem could become popular only if an already-famous writer wrote it. To test this, he wrote a poem following Edgar Allen Poe’s style and called it Leonainie. It printed in the Kokomo Dispatch. Once Riley revealed he was the author, backlash from rival newspapers resulted in his loss of position.
This proved only a minor detour. In 1878, he came to Indianapolis, was hired by the Indianapolis Journal and remained there until his first book of poetry was published in 1883.
Riley’s work skyrocketed in popularity. Soon after his book published, he began touring with the likes of Mark Twain and Bill Nye. It was a time when authors were greeted with rock concert style crowds clamoring to hear the poems and stories.
When Riley finally stopped touring and settled down, he did so at 528 Lockerbie Street. The Nickum and Holstein families invited him to become a houseguest and he spent the remaining 23 years of his life there.
On July 22, 1916, Mr. Riley passed away from complications of a stroke. His body was taken to the state house where 35,000 people came to pay their last respects during a six-hour period. He was later buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. His tomb sits on one of the highest points in Marion County, leaving a lasting legacy for generations to come.
James Whitcomb Riley was one of the most significant Hoosiers of all time. Bring him into your classroom with this Indiana Department of Education-approved curriculum guide.