Biography James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley

photo of James Whitcomb Riley
  • Time Period1849 - 1916
  • PlaceIndiana
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

James Whitcomb Riley was born on October 9, 1849, in Greenfield, Indiana, to local attorney Reuben A. Riley and his wife, Elizabeth (Marine) Riley, in a small cabin. His parents named him after James Whitcomb, the governor of Indiana. James Whitcomb Riley was their third child. He lived on the same property until he was 21. Riley was influenced by many of the visitors to his father's home. In particular, he was able to pick up the cadence and character of the dialect of central Indiana and the travelers along the old National Road, which came through in the many poems he went on to write. One particular visitor was Mary Alice Smith, who eventually stayed on to live with the Rileys. Mary Alice ("Allie") Smith influenced Riley's poem, Little Orphant Annie, which was originally to be called Little Orphant Allie but a typesetter's error changed the name of the poem.

Riley was never a great student. Before he dropped out of school at age 16, a former teacher encouraged him to appreciate nature. He attempted to study law in his father's law office, however he found that the law was not for him, whereupon he took several different jobs in rapid succession.

Riley wrote his first poem in 1870 when he was 21. He began writing for several newspapers, eventually working for the Indianapolis Journal in Indianapolis, Indiana 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 continued to work with the publishing company which eventually became Bowen-Merrill and finally Bobbs-Merrill. The 1886 publishing The Boss Girl began to publish new Riley literature regularly. As a result he began to 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 23 years of his life, although he eventually purchased his childhood home, and allowed his brother, John Riley, to live there.