James Whitcomb Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana in 1849. As a youngster his teachers despaired that he’d ever learn anything – mathematics and history were not his strong suit! However, he did have a talent for story-telling and speaking in dialects and he could mimic any accent he had heard.
Riley began his career writing verses as a sign maker and submitting poetry to newspapers. With an endorsement from poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he eventually earned successive jobs at Indiana newspaper publishers during the latter 1870s.
He became known as “The Hoosier Poet” or “The Children’s Poet” while performing poetry reading tours across the country and soon became very popular. He wrote over one thousand poems, most of them in dialect. In 1894 his poems were reproduced into children’s books, with beautiful illustrations, and the royalties from these books made him a wealthy man.
Riley never married or had children, and regularly struggled with alcohol addiction, which became so bad in 1888 that he created a scandal when he became too drunk to perform. He retired from touring in 1895, but continued to write and hold occasional poetry readings until a stroke paralyzed his right arm in 1910. He died on July 22, 1916, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Three of his most popular poems are included here.: The Raggedy Man, Little Orphant Annie, and When the Frost is on the Punkin.