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New WTIU Documentary On James Whitcomb Riley To Premiere Tonight
Updated August 9, 2017 11:42 AM
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(BLOOMINGTON) - During his lifetime (1849-1916), Greenfield, Indiana native James Whitcomb Riley was one of the most popular poets in America.

Now more than 100 years after his death, Riley remains one of the most famous literary figures from the Hoosier state. A new documentary produced by WTIU Public Television explores Riley's lasting legacy.

James Whitcomb Riley: Hoosier Poet premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on WTIU and also simultaneously on Facebook Live at The program follows the life, struggles, and massive success of the beloved literary icon.

The documentary examines Riley's early life in Greenfield and reveals how it influenced his writing. Some of his most famous poems, including "The Barefoot Boy," "The Old Swimmin' Hole," "The Raggedy Man," and "Little Orphant Annie," were inspired by actual people or events from his childhood.

Riley's dialect poems, combined with their often simple and nostalgic themes, helped contribute to his widespread popularity. The program speculates that Riley's early struggles with school, where he performed poorly and completed eighth grade at the age of 20, actually helped him in forming the simple and more relatable voice he was known for.

The program also details Riley's struggle for acceptance in the literary community, which continues today. Faced with rejection and scandal in his career, including writing a fake Edgar Allen Poe poem and his battles with alcoholism, he eventually found success in established literary outlets and lecture tours across the country.

Despite modern criticisms of Riley's poetry as overly sentimental and too simplistic, the documentary shows how he continues to be celebrated today. The annual Riley Festival in his hometown of Greenfield, two Indiana museums dedicated to his life and work, and the Indianapolis children's hospital named for him are all tributes to his enduring legacy.

More information, including a trailer of the program, is available at

WTIU is also offering a companion day trip experience next April to viewers of the James Whitcomb Riley documentary. This event will include a tour of some of the most important sites in Riley's life, including his boyhood home in Greenfield, the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home in Indianapolis's historic Lockerbie neighborhood, and the poet's final resting place atop the highest hill in Marion county. Visit for ticket information.

Production support for James Whitcomb Riley: Hoosier Poet is provided by Brabson Library and Educational Foundation, Hancock County Tourism Commission, IU Credit Union, and Smithville Fiber.

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