Birth Of James Whitcomb Riley
Author and poet James Whitcomb Riley was born on October 7, 1849, in Greenfield, Indiana.
Named after Indiana governor James Whitcomb, Riley was the third of six children. His mother taught him to read before he went off to school, but he had little interest in his classes. He developed an interest in poetry largely from his uncle who contributed poems to local newspapers. Though he disliked most of his teachers, one of them recognized his interest in poetry and encouraged him to write. Riley would attend school off and on, eventually graduating from grade eight at the age of 20.
Riley found inspiration all around him growing up. His father frequently brought home clients (he was a lawyer) and other disadvantaged people to help them. Riley used their stories and dialects as the basis for several of his works. Most notably is his poem “The Raggedy Man,” based on a German tramp his father hired to work in their home.
When Riley was a teenager, his family took in 12-year-old Mary Alice “Allie” Smith, whose father had been killed in the Civil War. In the evenings, Allie would tell Riley and his siblings stories. Her stories would later serve as the inspiration for Riley’s poem, Little Orphant Allie.” A mistake at the printer changed the poem’s title to “Little Orphant Annie.”
Following his mother’s death in 1870, Riley left his family’s home and worked odd jobs, including painting houses and selling Bibles. He then opened his own sign business – some of his earliest known poems were advertisements on these signs. Riley also began submitting his poems to newspapers, the first of which was published in 1872. For a time, he also joined a company of traveling salesmen, calling himself the “Painter Poet.” He wrote and performed poetry at these shows and then sold their tonics after his readings.
Though he had some success in advertising, Riley was always drawn back to poetry. In 1875, he sent some of his work to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, hoping his endorsement might help him gain greater attention. Longfellow responded that his work shoed “a true poetic faculty and insight,” and Riley sent copies of the letter with his poems, hoping it would help him get published. Soon his poems were published in several local newspapers, though he struggled to gain recognition from the larger eastern publications.
In 1878, Riley joined a traveling lecture circuit, which allowed him to read his poems aloud to a captive audience. His readings were well received and this helped him to gain greater attention. By 1880, his poems began appearing in national publications and grew increasingly popular. Riley was also encouraged to start collecting his poems in books, which helped him grow more financially stable.