Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Weekly MUSE: James Whitcomb Riley

Professor Watermelon with a statue of James Whitcomb Riley at the Riley Museum Home

Last week, I took you on an adventure through Crown Hill Cemetery. At the very top of Crown Hill is the grave of Indiana’s favorite poet, James Whitcomb Riley. He is also known as the Children’s Poet.

This week, I want to take you on another journey – a journey through the life of this fascinating man.

So, hold on to your top hats, and get ready for this week’s MUSE!

James Whitcomb Riley!

James Whitcomb Riley
I had the grand opportunity to visit the Riley Museum Home – the home where Mr. Riley lived the final 23 years of his life. He didn’t own the home but was an honored guest of the Nickum and Holstein families.

The James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home on Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis, IN
At the museum I learned all about this very intriguing man, and I can’t wait to share it with you!

James Whitcomb Riley was born on October, 7th 1849 in the small Indiana town of Greenfield.

He had a happy childhood, although he wasn’t very fond of school. Little James didn’t like math, history, or science. But he LOVED books and writing! Maybe that is because his mother (Elizabeth Riley) was also a poet and storyteller.
Elizabeth Riley would entertain her six children with fantastic fairytales and funny stories, which certainly inspired James Whitcomb Riley’s writing.

Reuben Riley (James’ father) was a lawyer and politician, and he was a great public speaker, too.

With parents like these, no wonder James Whitcomb Riley became one of the country’s most beloved orators. (An “orator” is a public speaker, especially one of great eloquence.)

James Whitcomb Riley dropped out of school by the age of sixteen and before he became a famous poet he had some very interesting jobs. He painted signs and houses, he traveled with a medicine show, and he worked for various newspapers.

But during this time, Mr. Riley kept writing. Finally, in 1883, he published his first book of poetry. He soon found his fame and became what we call today a “rock star.”
James Whitcomb Riley traveled the country with other “rock stars” like Mark Twain.

I’m calling these men “rock stars” because in today’s terms, that is what they were. In the late 1800’s, radio and television had not been invented. People looked towards live theatre and books as their main source of entertainment. When a famous author or poet came to town, auditoriums would be sold out like a Justin Bieber concert today.
James Whitcomb Riley was one of these poets.

Some of Mr. Riley’s most famous poems are “The Raggedy Man”, “When the Frost is on the Punkin” and “Little Orphant Annie”.
That last poem probably sounds quite familiar, huh? Here is a recording of this famous poem. Somebody has taken a photograph of James Whitcomb Riley and animated his face. This is not his real voice (wink).

This poem has inspired comic strips, radio shows, musicals, and films. Take a look at the trailer for the 1982 film “Little Orphan Annie.”
Mr. Riley’s poem, “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie” inspired Johnny Gruelle to create the beloved stories of Raggedy Ann and Andy. Do you recognize her?

Raggedy Ann
Photo by: Chefrandon
James Whitcomb Riley LOVED children. He never had any children of his own, but he adored his nieces and nephews and the school children who would visit him for storytimes at his Lockerbie home. Here is an OLD reel of Mr. Riley welcoming some school children to his home – the same home that remains a museum today.

Did you see the dog? That was one of Mr. Riley’s closest companions. Guess what the dog’s name was… Lockerbie.
Shortly after Mr. Riley’s death in 1916, a group of prominent citizens who knew Mr. Riley started a memorial association in his honor. The Riley Children’s Foundation was born. In 1922, the foundation opened the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children. To this day, Riley Hospital is ranked one of the leading children’s hospitals in the world.

Every summer, the Riley Children’s Foundation also holds Camp Riley at Bradford Woods. Over 250 children with disabilities come to Camp Riley to participate in activities designed to empower their confidence.

No wonder James Whitcomb Riley is still revered today as the Children’s Poet. What an EXTRAORDINARY legacy to leave behind.

James Whitcomb Riley, the Children's Poet

With this new knowledge, what kind of story could you write? Maybe these what if questions will help you get started.

WHAT IF your main character was Mr. Riley’s dog, Lockerbie? Could you write a story through Lockerbie’s perspective?

WHAT IF you wrote your own rendition of a little orphan named Annie? How would you make your story different?
WHAT IF your main character was boy or a girl who lived in present time, but he/she was given the top hat of James Whitcomb Riley? What if they wore the hat every day? What if the hat was enchanted?

The possibilities are endless, and please leave your own what if questions in the comment section below. I’d love to see what you come up with.
So, grab a pencil and a piece of paper, and let’s begin. With your imagination, we can go anywhere. I look forward to seeing where you take us.

With Imagination,
Professor Watermelon

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