James Whitcomb Riley was born on October 7, 1849 (some sources erroneously list the year as 1853), in the village of Greenfield in Hancock County, Indiana. Although is was small (it had a population of three hundred in 1844), Greenfield had some cultural pretensions, and in Riley’s youth, it saw the establishment of several schools, a library, and a dramatic society. This is important to bear in mind, for although Riley cultivated a public image as a sort of folksy cracker-barrel sage, he would scarcely qualify as one of the rural types whom he depicted so frequently in his verse and for whom he ostensibly wrote. Similarly, his father Reuben (or Reubin) Alexander Riley, far from being a farmer, was a prosperous attorney who had hoped that James (the third child of six, and the second son) would pursue a career in law.
A Pennsylvanian of Dutch ancestry, Reuben had established himself as a leading citizen of Greenfield virtually from the town’s founding. He edited Greenfield’s local newspaper in 1847 and even became its first mayor in 1852. Politically astute and evidently ambitious, he named his second son for Governor James Whitcomb, under whom Reuben served as a member of the Indiana State Legislature beginning in 1844.
Not surprisingly, his father had little patience with James, a frail, sensitive boy who did rather poorly in school and who evinced no inclination toward any sort of professional or business career. The boy apparently was temperamentally much closer to his mother, Elizabeth Marine Riley, who enjoyed music and published her poems in local newspapers, and to Captain Lee O. Harris, a teacher who reportedly abandoned all efforts to teach arithmetic to young Riley and instead encouraged his interests in reading and acting—two skills that in the nineteenth century were frequently combined in the form of “declaiming”: the memorization and dramatic recitation of passages of literature.
Captain Harris’s encouragement proved fruitful in more ways than he could foresee, for through his reading, Riley came to emulate such writers as Robert Burns and Charles Dickens, who shared with him an awareness of the literary potentialities of “humble” people. He apparently was especially impressed with The Biglow Papers (1848) of James Russell Lowell, a work that may well have inspired those attempts at the recording of Hoosier dialect that ultimately became his poetic trademark, and his talents in declaiming eventually led to his remarkably successful career as a poet/entertainer on the lecture circuit throughout the United States. Captain Harris, however, who was to become his lifelong friend, was unable to nurture in young Riley an appreciation for formal education, and at sixteen, Riley left school to engage in such inauspicious pursuits as clerking in a shoe store and selling Bibles.
In 1870, Riley’s mother died, and in September of that year, he published in the Greenfield Commercial “The Same Old Story Told Again,” the first of several poems to be printed in local newspapers during this period of uncertainty about his future. At this time, his concerned father apprenticed him to a house and sign painter, an experience that provided a temporary outlet for young Riley’s creativity and that led to his forming a partnership with two other youths. Collectively known as the Graphics, they traveled throughout Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio painting signs. The experience was an ideal one for the future Hoosier Poet, for it exposed him to the rural types and dialect that he would incorporate into his verse. So, too, with his experience as an assistant to a traveling vendor of patent medicines, for whom he painted signs and enlivened the “medical lectures” by playing his banjo and reciting dialect poems of his own composition.
It was during this period (approximately 1872-1875) that Riley seemed to be actively embarking on a career as a professional actor. He performed solo as a “humorist” throughout central Indiana, as well as with the Adelphian Society, the local dramatic club of Greenfield. In 1875, Riley’s alarmed father managed to pressure him into studying law, but the son, now in his late twenties, could tolerate the law for only one year. By 1876, he was on the road again, this time with the Wizard Oil Company, another patent medicine business, and the peripatetic Riley came to realize that, with his success as a “recitationist,” actor, and packager and seller of products (be they patent medicines or his own poems), he could make a career out of publishing and reciting poetry.
Back in Greenfield early in 1877, he became associated with the local paper as well as with the Anderson Democrat, the circulation of which Riley is credited with increasing sixfold by virtue of his commercial jingles, comic renderings of local news, and such regular features as the column he dubbed “The Rhyme-Wagon.” Feeling more confident about his abilities as a writer, Riley began to make serious efforts to publish his poems in local newspapers, but his verses were not always well received. In a rather spiteful response to this cool reception, he decided in the summer of 1877 to prove his point that any poem would become successful and popular if the author were assumed to be “a genius known to fame” by perpetrating a literary hoax: He wrote a poem he titled “Leonainie,” signed it with the initials E.A.P.,...
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