James Whitcomb Riley 1849-1916
American poet, humorist, essayist, short story writer, and journalist; also wrote under the pseudonym Benjamin F. Johnson.
The following entry provides criticism from 1894 to 1999 on Riley's life and poetry.
One of the most popular and best-loved American poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Riley, the “Hoosier Poet,” was celebrated for writing uncomplicated, sentimental, humorous verse. His poetry was often written in dialect and invoked a nostalgic longing for halcyon days and childish pleasures at a time when the United States was undergoing rapid industrialization and explosive social change. A prolific writer who achieved mass appeal partly due to his canny sense of marketing and publicity, Riley published over fifty books of verses, humorous sketches, and stories. He achieved renown as a performer of his own work on the stage. Seldom anthologized today, in his time Riley was so beloved that in 1915 Indiana declared his birthday a state holiday.
Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana, on October 7, 1849, to Reuben and Elizabeth Riley. Reuben, a lawyer, had served in the Indiana State Assembly and named his second son after Indiana Governor James Whitcomb, whom he admired. As a child, Riley was influenced by his father's powerful oratorical style. Elizabeth, who wrote poetry and supported Riley's early attempts at writing, died when the poet was twenty. A gifted musician and actor, Riley was a poor student who preferred to read dime novels and write poetry rather than focus on schoolwork. After briefly working his father's law office, Riley traveled around the countryside as a sign painter before becoming an advance-man for a traveling patent-medicine show. In 1873, he returned to Greenfield, where he worked for the town newspaper and published his poems in Indiana newspapers. In 1877, frustrated that his poems were being rejected by eastern periodicals, Riley concocted a hoax in which the editor of the Kokomo Dispatch published one of his poems, “Leonainie,” and claimed it was long-lost work by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem created a sensation, and although it was written in Poe's style, many critics nevertheless questioned its quality. After the fraud was exposed, Riley was fired from the Anderson Democrat but found a position with the Indianapolis Journal. In his column, Riley published rustic poems under the name Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone, which he suggested were submitted to the newspaper by a semi-literate farmer. His “Johnson of Boone” poems, published as “The Old Swimmin'-Hole,” and 'Leven More Poems (1883), sold 500,000 copies, and Riley spent the next ten years increasing his fame and wealth through his appearances on the lecture circuit with Edgar Wilson Nye. Riley charmed audiences with his oratorical skills, and his imitation of rural Indiana dialects earned him the nickname “Hoosier Poet.” At the height of his career, he made himself a commercial brand, complete with Riley cigars and “Hoosier Poet” canned fruits, vegetables, and coffee. Riley's birthday was declared an official holiday in Indiana, 1915; his home on Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis and his birthplace have been made into public memorials.
James Whitcomb Riley is best remembered for humorous, sentimental poems featuring memorable characters and written in dialect, such as “The Raggedy Man” (1890), “Little Orphant Annie” (1899), and selections from A Child-World (1897). In these poems, he often assumes a childish persona that evokes a world of “long-ago.” In “Little Orphant Annie” and “The Raggedy Man,” two of his most popular poems, he affectionately and humorously wrote about the Riley family's “hired girl” and one of his father's clients. It was typical of Riley to write biographically, and the poems from A Child-World and “The Old Swimmin'-Hole” and 'Leven Other Poems recall moments from childhood when he played circus with his friends, went swimming, listened to his mother's stories, and got excited when his grandmother visited. These poems are exuberant, performative, and often display Riley's penchant for using humorous characterization, repetition, and dialect to make his poetry accessible to a wide-ranging audience. Riley gently mocked high-brow tastes with homey poems such as “Rubáiyát of Doc Sifers” (1897), which recounted the philosophy and deeds of a country doctor. In addition to playful poetry, he also wrote sentimental poems, immensely popular for his time, about poverty, the death of a child, and disabilities, such as “Little Mandy's Christmas-Tree,” “The Absence of Little Wesley” (1888), and “The Happy Little Cripple.” Although Riley also wrote gentle, romantic poems in standard English, such as “An Old Sweetheart of Mine” (1875) and “Old-fashioned Roses” (1888). His “straight” poems, clearly derivative of John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, were never as popular as his “Hoosier” dialect poems. In his later years, Riley wrote many occasional poems commemorating important occasions in American history.
Immensely popular in his day, Riley's contemporaries hailed him as “America's best-loved poet.” Many critics celebrated his supposed ignorance, which Riley did not discourage. In 1920, Henry Beers praised Riley's poetry as natural and unaffected, with none of the “discontent and deep thought” of “cultured song.” In 1917, Michael Monahan wrote, “I doubt if a single intelligent voice the whole country over would deny him this merited title and distinction [of America's best-loved poet],” and that “[n]o writer in our time has won to the hearts of the plain people with anything like the success of Riley.” Monahan called “A Life-Lesson,” a poem from Afterwhiles (1887), a “Masterpiece” that “speak[s] to the heart.” Riley's work was also praised by Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Hamlin Garland, who recognized a “genuine authenticity” and idealism in his poetry. Riley's critical acclaim was greatly enhanced by his abilities as a performer, and he was generally held to be an outstanding performer of his own work. Famous Shakespearean actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry praised Riley's ability to become the characters in the poems he recited. However, other critics, such as Ambrose Bierce, felt that Riley relied too much on dialect and that dialect “cover[ed] up faulty construction … and ungainliness of structure.” A fellow regionalist, Edgar Lee Masters, faulted Riley's work for its superficiality, lack of irony, and narrow emotional range. Although critics at the turn of the century felt that Riley would always remain “America's best-loved poet,” by the 1930s public opinion had changed. Contrasting Monahan's 1917 praise of “A Life Lesson,” in 1951, James T. Farrell called the poem a “cliché of safe emotion.” Critics at the end of the twentieth century tended to find Riley a “minor” poet, whose work—provincial, sentimental, and superficial though it may have been—nevertheless struck a chord with a mass audience in a time of enormous cultural change. What interests modern critics is not Riley the poet, but Riley as a “protomodern figure” who, in the words of Thomas C. Johnson, “understood how to commodify his own image and the nostalgic dreams of an anxious nation.”