See biography by M. Dickey (Youth, 1919; Maturity, 1922); study by P. Revell (1970).
James Whitcomb Riley (Greenfield, Indiana, October 7, 1849 – July 22, 1916) was an American writer and poet. Known as the "Hoosier Poet", "National Poet" and the "Children's Poet," he started his career in 1875 writing newspaper verse in Indiana dialect for the Indianapolis Journal. His verse tended to be humorous or sentimental, and of the approximately one-thousand poems that Riley published, over half are in dialect. Claiming that “simple sentiments that come direct from the heart” were the secret of his success, Riley satisfied the public with down-to-earth verse that was "heart high. Although Riley was a bestselling author in the early 1900s and earned a steady income from royalties, he also traveled and gave public readings of his poetry. His favorite authors were Robert Burns and Charles Dickens, and Riley himself befriended bestselling Indiana authors such as Booth Tarkington, George Ade and Meredith Nicholson. Many of his works were illustrated by the popular illustrator Howard Chandler Christy.
Riley was never a great student. Before he dropped out of school at age sixteen, a former teacher encouraged him to appreciate nature. He attempted to study law in his father Reuben's office. However, he found that the law was not for him, whereupon he took several different jobs in rapid succession. Riley had his first published poem in 1870, at age twenty-one. He would begin to start writing for several newspapers, eventually landing in Indianapolis, Indiana working for the Indianapolis Journal, writing miscellaneous articles, versifying whenever possible.
Riley's big break came with the private publishing of a thousand copies of The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems in 1883 under the pseudonym of "Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone". The book rapidly sold all of the first printing, causing Indianapolis book publisher Merrill, Meigs and Company to quickly contract with Riley to publish the second edition of The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems. Riley would continue to work with the publishing company as it eventually became Bowen-Merrill and finally Bobbs-Merrill. The 1886 publishing of The Boss Girl began a regular publishing of new Riley literature. This also led him to begin to regularly tour the United States giving lectures, starting in the mid-1880s.
In 1893 he was invited to live at the residence of Charles and Magdalena Holstein within the Indianapolis neighborhood of Lockerbie. He would call this his permanent residence for the last twenty-three years of his life, although he would eventually purchase his childhood home, and allow his brother, John Riley, to live within.
Riley would remain in demand throughout his life, including the White House. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1912 the National Institute of Arts and Letters gave him the gold medal of poetry, the first poet so honored. He also received several honorary degrees.
Riley loved children, but he never had any of his own; he also never married. Evidence points that he regretted his bachelorhood and childlessness. Many believe that his poems about and for children were written due to this regret. Others attribute his poems to his regrets over alcoholism and his possible affliction with syphilis.
Indiana honored Riley after his death in 1916 by burying him in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. The site of his grave is atop Strawberry Hill, the highest point in Indianapolis, offering a spectacular view of the city. Although Riley's poetry has fallen out of popularity, a few of his poems, such as Little Orphant Annie and Lockerbie Street, continue to be taught in schools in Indiana.
The foundation also purchased the poet's domicile in his later years in downtown Indianapolis; it is maintained as a museum and today, the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home is the only late-Victorian home in Indiana that is open to the public, and the country's only late-Victorian preservation, featuring authentic furniture and decor from that era. His birthplace and boyhood home, now the James Whitcomb Riley House, is in nearby Greenfield, Indiana.
In 1950, the foundation organized Camp Riley a summer camp in south central Indiana for children with disabilities. Also in 1924, James Whitcomb Riley High School opened in South Bend, Indiana. In 1950, there was a James Whitcomb Riley Elementary School in Hammond, Indiana, but it was torn down in 2006. (Its student body merged with Woodrow Wilson Elementary School to form Frank O'Bannon Elementary School.) During its heyday, East Chicago, Indiana had a Riley School at one time, as did neighboring Gary, Indiana.
In 1968, a young reporter at The Greenfield Daily Reporter, named Dick Baumbach, took of picture of a large sign at the Old Swimming Hole closing it because of pollution. The photograph was published nationally and subsequently Sports Illustrated carried a very negative article that the people of Greenfield let Riley down by not caring for the Old Swimming Hole.
In 1999, the Indiana University Press published the book James Whitcomb Riley: A Life authored by historian Elizabeth J. Van Allen.
As a lasting tribute, the citizens of Greenfield hold a festival every year in Riley's honor. Taking place the first weekend of October, the Riley Festival traditionally commences with a flower parade in which local elementary school children place flowers around the statue of Riley on the county courthouse lawn, while the Greenfield-Central High School band plays lively music in honor of the poet. The larger Riley parade is on that Saturday and is a fall attraction. The Greenfield-Central High School band also holds their annual Riley Marching Festival on that same day.