Image of James Whitcomb Riley


Lifetime: 1849 - 1916 Passed: ≈ 107 years ago


Writer, Poet


United States

James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley was an American writer, poet, and best-selling author. During his lifetime he was known as the "Hoosier Poet" and "Children's Poet" for his dialect works and his children's poetry. His poems tend to be humorous or sentimental. Of the approximately 1,000 poems Riley wrote, the majority are in dialect. His famous works include "Little Orphant Annie" and "The Raggedy Man".

Riley began his career writing verses as a sign maker and submitting poetry to newspapers. Thanks in part to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's endorsement, he eventually earned successive jobs at Indiana newspaper publishers during the late 1870s. He gradually rose to prominence during the 1880s through his poetry reading tours. He traveled a touring circuit first in the Midwest, and then nationally, appearing either alone or with other famous talents. During this period Riley's long-term addiction to alcohol began to affect his performing abilities, and he suffered financially as a result. However, once he extricated himself from a series of poorly negotiated contracts that sought to limit his earnings, he began to accumulate wealth and eventually became a financial success.

By the 1890s, Riley had become known as a bestselling author. His children's poems were compiled into a book illustrated by Howard Chandler Christy. Titled Rhymes of Childhood, it was his most popular and sold millions of copies. As a poet, Riley achieved an uncommon level of fame during his lifetime. He was honored with annual Riley Day celebrations around the United States and was regularly called on to perform readings at national civic events. He continued to write and hold occasional poetry readings until a stroke paralyzed his right arm in 1910.

Riley's chief legacy was his influence in fostering the creation of a Midwestern cultural identity and his contributions to the Golden Age of Indiana Literature. With other writers of his era, he helped create a caricature of Midwesterners and formed a literary community that produced works rivaling the established eastern literati. There are many memorials dedicated to Riley, including the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children.

Riley had become very wealthy by the time he stopped touring in 1895 and was earning $1,000 a week. Although he retired, he continued to make minor appearances. In 1896, Riley performed four shows in Denver. Most of the performances of his later life were at civic celebrations. He was a regular speaker at Decoration Day events and delivered poetry before the unveiling of monuments in Washington, D.C. Newspapers began referring to him as the "National Poet", "the poet laureate of America", and "the people's poet laureate". Riley wrote many of his patriotic poems for such events, including "The Soldier", "The Name of Old Glory", and his most famous such poem, "America!". The 1902 poem "America, Messiah of Nations" was written and read by Riley for the dedication of the Indianapolis Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.

The only new poetry Riley published after the end of the century were elegies for famous friends. The poetic qualities of the poems were often poor, but they contained many popular sentiments concerning the deceased. Among those he eulogized were Benjamin Harrison, Lew Wallace, and Henry Lawton. Because of the poor quality of the poems, his friends and publishers asked that he stop writing them, but he refused.

In 1897, Riley's publishers suggested that he create a multi-volume series of books containing his complete life works. With the help of his nephew, Riley began working to compile the books. There were eventually sixteen volumes, which were finally completed in 1914. Such works were uncommon during the lives of writers, attesting to the uncommon popularity Riley had achieved.

His works had become staples for Ivy League literature courses and universities began offering him honorary degrees. The first was Yale in 1902, followed by a Doctorate of Letters from the University of Pennsylvania in 1904. Wabash College and Indiana University granted him similar awards. In 1908 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters; in 1912 they conferred upon him a special medal for poetry.

Riley was influential in helping other poets start their careers, having particularly strong influences on Hamlin Garland, William Allen White, and Edgar Lee Masters. He discovered aspiring African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1892. Riley thought Dunbar's work was "worthy of applause" and wrote him letters of recommendation to help him get his work published.

Books by James Whitcomb Riley

Wind Of The Sea Cover image

Wind Of The Sea

Children Poems Life Verses Fortnightly Prose

James Whitcomb Riley was an American writer, poet, and best-selling author. During his lifetime he was known as the "Hoosier Poet" and "Children's Poet" for his dialect works and his children's poetry. His poems tend to be humorous or sentimental.

A Spring Song And A Later Cover image

A Spring Song And A Later

Beauty Nature Poems Reflection Life Observation Verses Fortnightly

The poem is centered around the beauty and wonder of nature, capturing the sights, sounds, and emotions of the changing seasons. From the joyous celebration of spring in "A Spring Song" to the contemplative reflection of autumn in "A Later Autumn," e...

Lockerbie Street Cover image

Lockerbie Street

Family Tradition Poems Friends Customs Classics Fortnightly Memory

The poem takes place on Lockerbie Street, a quiet and peaceful neighborhood where the speaker lived as a child. Through the poem, the speaker reminisces about his childhood and the happy memories he shared with his family and friends on Lockerbie Str...

Nye and Riley's Wit and Humor Cover image

Nye and Riley's Wit and Humor

Poetry Fiction Humour
Short Story Poems Humorous Fiction America Wisdom Verses United States

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend an afternoon with two of the funniest men in America? In Nye and Riley's Wit and Humor, you can! This collection of poems, stories, and essays by Edgar Wilson Nye and James Whitcomb Riley is sure...