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James Whitcomb Riley: A Life (Indiana) Hardcover – October 22, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

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

(H-Net Reviews)

"... new, thorough and highly readable..." —Indianapolis Star

(Indianapolis Star)

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Product Details

  • Series: Indiana
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press; 1st Ed. edition (October 22, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0253335914
  • ISBN-13: 978-0253335913
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,761,654 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 26, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The Kirkus review of James Whitcomb Riley: A Life is hardly a fair one. It criticizes the book because of two opinions of the reviewer that clearly the author had no hope of changing:
1. The facts about Riley are not as interesting as the myths about his life.
2. He was not the author of great literature.
It is, of course, the duty of the serious biographer to present the truest picture possible of the life of the biography's subject. To this end, Elizabeth Van Allen has done a prodigious amount of research in documents relating to the life of Riley. The result is a scholarly but readable and interesting book. She rightly puts to rest the myths about the poet, intriguing though they may be. Furthermore, as a historian, Van Allen discusses the significance of Riley's poetry but does not attempt to defend it as outstanding literature.
Certainly, the biography of Riley will be most popular in Indiana where he is still revered by many, but it also will be of interest to anyone who is interested in American cultural history. In presenting the context for Riley's early years, the author paints a clear picture of life in the Midwest in the second half of the 19th century. As Riley rises to national fame, the reader learns of the role of newspapers as a purveyor of literature in the late 19th century, the national importance of regional literature in that century, and the important role of the national lecture circuit as mass entertainment of the period.
As an immensely popular entertainer on platforms throughout the nation and later through the marketing efforts of his publisher and of Riley himself, before movies, radio, television, or rock and roll, Riley was the 19th century precursor of the 20th century pop culture celebrity.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Ross E. Nelson on September 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There was a time when I thought I was the last American still reading James Whitcomb Riley's poetry. Wrong, of course, and eventually I stumbled upon Elizabeth J. Van Allen's biography of the man. From knowing practically nothing of him, other than William Lyon Phelps' introductory remarks in one of Riley's anthologies, I've come to better understand him through Van Allen's detailed look at the poet.

Her biography is heavily footnoted in the modern way and is somewhat dry reading. The latter is probably partly due to the subject matter--unlike bios of the great and famous who wrestled with huge decisions in dramatic circumstances, Riley led a relatively subdued life. She also takes a reasonably even-handed view of his life and doings, both exposing Riley's feet of clay (alcoholism, dilatory treatment of his fiancees and ultimate hard-hearted indifference, and his endless melodramatic outbursts over his life's circumstances) and the sources of his popularity first with Hoosiers, then the rest of America.

Van Allen is at pains to establish that Riley lived during a transitional time in America, from the sturdy yeoman farmer era to a progressive, industrialized and increasingly centralized existence, an unsettling time in which many Americans looked back and pondered what they were losing. Almost too much so, as her repeated editorial comments on the changes in sexuality, class and caste, middle class expectations, etc. in Riley's day become almost incessant.

And though she is surely correct that Riley chose a certain point of view in his poetry while ignoring the rest--the uplifting over the darkness of life--she goes to excess to claim Riley wrote of a fictive past.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By KLN on April 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
the life and times of James Whitcomb Riley are as fascinating as the poetry he left for us to enjoy. This particular book, "James Whitcom Riley; A Life (Indiana) shows behind the scene photos seldom found in a mere poetry. The more that is learned about this man of great talent, the more his poetry is appreciated.
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