One of the most beloved Hoosiers of all time is James Whitcomb Riley, a poet born in nearby Greenfield, Indiana who spent the last decades of his life in Indianapolis. Known as the Hoosier poet of the people, and also the Children’s Poet, James Whitcomb Riley’s most famous work is his poem called “Little Orphant Annie,” first published as “The Elf Child,” in 1885.
This poem inspired not only the Little Orphan Annie legacy but also the now-legendary Raggedy Ann dolls that have been family heirlooms for generations. James Whitcomb Riley is inextricably a part of the overall culture of Indianapolis and its environs.
Interestingly, “The Elf Child” was supposed to be re-entitled as “Little Orphant Allie,” named for a little girl named Allie Smith who was part of the Riley household when he was growing up in Greenfield. An error by the typesetter changed Allie to “Annie,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
James Whitcomb Riley was named after the then governor of Indiana, James Whitcomb. He was born in the family’s little cabin in 1849, third child to the Rileys. He left home 21 years later, the same year his first poem was published. His first serious opportunity, however, was with the publication of his first book, The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems, some 13 years later. This book he published under the pseudonym of Benjamin Johnson. It was an instant hit, garnering Riley a contract for another edition.
Within a few years, Riley was quite the well-known speaker and down-home raconteur. He began touring and presenting lectures and readings around the country, a welcome and entertaining guest wherever he went. He was the first poet in America to receive the gold medal of poetry from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and he was an honored and regular guest at the White House.
The overall style and highly recognizable cadence of Riley’s poetry reflects a typical central Indiana dialect of the time. His work is whimsical and direct, as if he were telling fireside stories to children with his poetry.
The Hoosier bard passed away in 1916, and his remains are buried on Strawberry Hill in Indianapolis’ famous Crown Hill Cemetery. Every year the people of his hometown Greenfield celebrate their most famous native with the Riley Festival, complete with a parade honoring his statue on the courthouse lawn.
The popular Indianapolis attraction known as the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Located in downtown Indianapolis, this important piece of nostalgia is open to the public as an Indianapolis museum and an official national historic landmark. The beloved poet himself is today a treasured part of the fabric of Indianapolis history, among the most famous people of Indianapolis.
James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home
528 Lockerbie St
Indianapolis, IN 46208