Field was born in St. Louis, Missouri where today his boyhood home is open to the public as The Eugene Field House and St. Louis Toy Museum. After the death of his mother in 1856, he was raised by a cousin, Mary Field French, in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Field's father, attorney Roswell Martin Field, was famous for his representation of Dred Scott, the slave who sued for his freedom. Field filed the complaint in this famous case (Dred Scott vs. John Sandford [sic], referred to as the lawsuit that started the Civil War) on behalf of Scott in the federal court in St. Louis, Missouri, which is how the case got to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Field attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. His father, Roswell Martin Field, died when Eugene was 19, and he subsequently dropped out of Williams after eight months. Next he went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, but dropped out after a year. Then he went to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, where his brother Roswell was also attending. He tried acting and studied law with little success, and also wrote for the student newspaper. He then set off for a trip through Europe but returned to the United States six months later, penniless. Field then set to work as a journalist for the St. Joseph Gazette in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1875. That same year he married Julia Comstock, with whom he had eight children. For the rest of his life he arranged for all the money he earned to be sent to his wife, saying that he had no head for money himself.
Field soon rose to become city editor of the Gazette.
He became known for his light, humorous articles written in a gossipy style, some of which were reprinted by other newspapers around the country. It was during this time that he wrote the famous poem Lovers Lane about a street in St. Joseph, Missouri.
From 1876 through 1880 Field lived in St. Louis, first as an editorial writer for the Morning Journal and subsequently for the Times-Journal. After a brief stint as managing editor of the Kansas City Times, he worked for two years as editor of the Denver Tribune.
In 1883 Field moved to Chicago where he wrote a humorous newspaper column called Sharps and Flats for the Chicago Daily News. His column is credited with being the first to have the author's name or "byline" appearing with the column. His home in Chicago was near the intersection of N. Clarendon and W. Hutchinson in the neighborhood now known as Buena Park.
He first started publishing poetry in 1879, when his poem "Christmas Treasures" appeared in A Little Book of Western Verse. Over a dozen volumes of poetry followed and he became well known for his light-hearted poems for children, perhaps the most famous of which is "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod." Field also published a number of short stories, including "The Holy Cross" and "Daniel and the Devil."
died in Chicago of a heart attack at the age of 45. He is buried at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois. His 1901 biography by S. Thompson states that he was originally buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, but his son-in-law, Senior Warden of the Church of the Holy Comforter, had him reinterred on March 7, 1926.
Several of his poems were set to music with commercial success. Many of his works were accompanied by paintings from Maxfield Parrish. His former home in St. Louis is now a museum. A memorial to him, a statue of the "Dream Lady" from his poem, "Rock-a-by-Lady" (see lyrics, below), was erected in 1922 at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. There is also a park and fieldhouse named in his honor in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood.
Field has his own star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Numerous elementary schools throughout the Midwest are named for him, e.g. Eugene Field Elementary School in Wheeling, Illinois,(Rock Island, Illinois) Park Ridge, Illinois, St. Joseph, Missouri, Hannibal, Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, Neosho, Missouri, Poplar Bluff, Missouri, Webb City, Missouri, Manhattan, Kansas Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Beaumont, Texas. There is also a Eugene Field Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Littleton, Colorado, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Chicago, Illinois, Altus, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and San Diego, California. A dormitory in the Orchard Hill residential area at the University of Massachusetts Amherst also bears Field's name.
Field has been credited with one of the most devastating witticisms in the history of dramatic criticism. Reviewing an actor named Creston Clarke in the title role of King Lear, Field commented of Clarke's performance that he "played the king as if under momentary apprehension that somebody else was about to play the ace".
There is also an apartment building in Denver, Colorado's Poet's Row named after him.