From Kirkus Reviews
An unvarnished, dutiful, rather dull life of the 19th-century ``Hoosier Poet,'' author of ``Little Orphant Annie'' and ``When the Frost Is on the Punkin.'' When Riley's personal manager, Marcus Dickey, published an official two-volume biography shortly after his death, Riley's popularity (and sales) as America's most-read poet, celebrated for his folksy vernacular verse, eclipsed that of Longfellow, Whittier, and Whitman. Now, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, van Allen's authoritative if humdrum biography must contend not only with the fame-obscured details of Riley's life but with the precipitous decline in his literary reputation. Van Allen's Riley supersedes earlier portraits of the poet as a boozing colloquial rhymester and an upstanding embodiment of midwestern virtues, but her more measured account is correspondingly less engaging. In the post-Civil War Midwest, Riley sowed a few wild oats as an itinerant sign-painter and medicine show assistant, but apart from his hoax in producing a posthumous Edgar Allan Poe poem, ``Leonainie,'' his is a fairly conventional success story. Although Riley's lack of formal education goaded his poetic industry, his ambition for celebrity and money bound him to the successful formula of his top-selling The Old Swimmin'-Hole and `Leven more Poems and the down-home humorous vignettes he read on the lucrative lecture circuit. By 1894 he was a bigger draw on the stagebill than Mark Twain, though a few years earlier his persistent battle with the bottle had terminated another tour. Riley overcame that blot on his reputation, however, and lived to receive an honorary degree from Yale and to have his birthday celebrated as a public event. Historian Van Allen adroitly situates Riley in the contemporary social trends leading up to the industrialized Gilded Age, during which nostalgia for the simple agricultural frontier boosted his sentimental, sententious verse, but she cannot erase Ambrose Bierce's verdict against his ``dreary illiterature.'' The life of a literary local heroof mostly local interest. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
"... a thorough biography that should supplant all previous attempts to understand the man." —H-Net Reviews
"... new, thorough and highly readable..." —Indianapolis Star