Over half of Riley's works are written in the "Hoosier" dialect. It is this speech pattern which created the mass appeal and enthusiasm for Riley's work. The simple, sentimental, colorful language reminded audiences of an idyllic time of more "natural" philosophy and less care. Riley has been credited with inventing the Hoosier persona, and although he has been labeled the National Poet and the Robert Burns of America, it is as the Hoosier Poet that he is best known.
Riley's use of dialect jarred the sensibilities of literary
critics on the east coast, who felt that the English language was
pure and supple and should not be denigrated by such a low use as
dialect. Yet, Riley reveled in it on the platform and on the
printed page. He was close friends with Joel Chandler Harris
(Uncle Remus) and Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain), two
other masters of dialect. It was the success of the Uncle Remus
stories published in 1880 which stimulated a public interest in
dialect literature. Riley's first collection of dialect poems,
The Old Swimmin'-Hole and 'Leven More Poems, was published by
George Hitt & Company in 1883. Riley's use of the dialect was
highly influential. The African American poet Paul Laurence
Dunbar (1872-1906) was strongly influenced by Riley's work.