A Rock Star Poet
November 1, 2016
Topics: Museum Home
James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier Poet, died 100 years ago this year. Just how famous was he? Even before television and the internet, Mr. Riley was often recognized on the street. No poet has achieved the same level of financial success and national popularity since Mr. Riley. He drew large audiences across the country who traveled to see him perform his poetry.
Perform poetry? This was a popular form of entertainment. By the 1890’s he was selling out massive theaters across the country along with thousands of anthologies of his poetry, earning nearly $3 million during this lifetime. He gave the rest of America a peek into life in the Midwest. Fans loved the Hoosier dialect, a slow-cadence drawl with vernacular specific to the region, which his poetry featured. During the height of his popularity, people were moving from rural areas into the growing cities, and they missed and romanticized their rural childhoods. Riley’s use of Hoosier dialect and celebration of rural values and humorous farm characters tapped directly into that nostalgia.
His incredible popularity can also be attributed to cheaper printing techniques and the growing transcontinental railway network that allowed him to reach a larger audience than authors who came before him. In addition, Mr. Riley understood the importance of networking. His first stop in a new city on a lecture tour would often be at the main office of the local newspaper, and he befriended reporters across the country.
Riley’s ambition, talent, and winning personality combined with the perfect atmosphere of growing cities, cheaper books, and rural nostalgia and he became one of the most successful authors of the nineteenth century. He rose to rock star status before rock stars even existed.
When he died on July 22, 1916 he lay in state in the Indiana State Capitol rotunda while more than 35,000 people paid their respects. Days later, a group of powerful and influential friends and colleagues formed the Riley Memorial Association (which has since been renamed Riley Children’s Foundation) with a mission to memorialize him. The idea for Riley Hospital for Children was born—an enduring legacy for the great Hoosier poet, and a lifesaving resource for the children of Indiana and beyond.
Did you know the Riley Children’s Foundation owns and operates the James Whitcomb Riley Home in the Historic Lockerbie Neighborhood section of Indianapolis? Learn more at RileyMuseumHome.org.
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