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William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

The American poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) helped introduce European romanticism into American poetry. As an editor, he championed liberal causes. He was one of the most influential and popular figures of mid-19th-century America.

William Cullen Bryant was born on Nov. 3, 1794, in Cummington, Mass. His well-established New England family was staunchly Federalist in politics and Calvinist in religion. Encouraged to write poetry by his father, a physician of wide learning, the boy reflected in his earliest poems his family's political and religious attitudes. Bryant's Federalist satire on Thomas Jefferson, The Embargo, or Sketches of the Times (1808), by a "Youth of Thirteen" was published through his father's influence. In later years the liberal, democratic, Unitarian Bryant understandably wished to forget this youthful indiscretion, and he did not reprint it in any of his collections.

"Thanatopsis" and Other Poems

Bryant entered Williams College in 1810 and left after a year. In 1811 he wrote the first draft of his best-known poem, "Thanatopsis" (literally, view of death), reflecting the influence of English "graveyard" poets such as Thomas Gray.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of "Thanotopsis" is its anti-Christian, stoical view of death. There is no heaven or hell beyond the grave; death ends life, and that is all: "Thine individual being, shalt thou go/ To mix forever with the elements,/ To be a brother to the insensible rock/ And to the sluggish clod…. " Published in 1817, the poem was a marked success; it was reprinted in 1821 in the final, revised version familiar today.

A few years later Bryant modified his attitude to death in "To a Waterfowl," in which a "Power" (God) is omnipresent and beneficent. The later English poet Matthew Arnold considered this to be the finest short poem in the English language. As the 1876 poem "The Flood of Years" makes clear, Bryant held this view of death to the end of his life.

Shortly after Bryant wrote the first draft of "Thanotopsis," he came under the influence of the romantic British poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the opening lines of "Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood," Bryant conveyed a love of nature that he retained throughout his career: "Thou wilt find nothing here [in nature]/ Of all that pained thee in the haunts of men,/ And made thee loathe thy life." However, like Wordsworth and other romantics, Bryant saw the world of nature less as an escape from the evils of life in the city than as a positive, vital force in itself. He explored this idea in other poems of this period, such as "The Yellow Violet," "I Cannot Forget with What Fervid Devotion," "Green River," and "A Winter Piece," and later in "A Forest Hymn," "The Death of Flowers," and "The Prairies."

Following his year at Williams College, Bryant read for the law and in 1815 was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. From 1816 to 1825 he practiced law in Great Barrington, Mass. He also kept up his literary activities, writing poetry and essays. In 1821 he published his first volume, Poems, and read his Phi Beta Kappa poem "The Ages" at Harvard. That same year he married Frances Fairchild, his "Fairest of the Rural Maids."

In 1826 Bryant became assistant editor of the liberal New York Evening Post and in 1829 editor in chief. He served in this capacity for 50 years.

Poetic Theories

Bryant formulated his poetic theories in a series of four lectures on poetry, which he delivered in 1826 before the New York Athenaeum Society (they were published in 1884). He stressed, "The most beautiful poetry is that which takes the strongest hold of the feelings…. Important, therefore, as may be the office of the imagination [and of understanding, as well] in poetry, the great spring of poetry is emotion." (He expressed a similar view in the 1864 poem "The Poet.") Models from the past which the poet chooses to follow should be used only as guides to his own originality. While acknowledging that America's historical and cultural past was not as rich for the creation of poetry as England's, Bryant nevertheless felt that when America did produce a great poet he would draw on the best the young country had to offer.

The Editor

As an editor espousing liberal causes, Bryant had considerable impact on the life of New York and of the nation. Typical of his editorials was "The Right of Workmen to Strike" (1836), in which he upheld the workers' right to collective bargaining and ridiculed the prosecution of labor unions: "Can any thing be imagined more abhorrent to every sentiment of generosity or justice, than the law which arms the rich with the legal right to fix … the wages of the poor? If this is not slavery, we have forgotten its definition."

Similarly, Bryant was firmly committed to many other liberal causes of the day, including the antislavery movement, the "free-soil" concept, and free trade among nations. He also helped in the formation of the new Republican party in 1855.

Bryant published nine volumes of poetry from 1832 on. He also translated the Iliad (1870) and the Odyssey (1871-1872). He died in New York City on June 12, 1878.

Though Bryant was not a great poet, his poems were much admired in his own time, and a number of them are eminently readable today. As the guiding force of the Evening Post, he left his mark not only on the city his liberal paper served but on the nation as well.

Further Reading

Parke Godwin, Bryant's son-in-law, edited the standard editions of both The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant (2 vols., 1883) and Bryant's Prose Writings (2 vols., 1884). The best one-volume edition of the poems is Henry C. Sturges and Richard Henry Stoddard, eds., The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant (1903). The standard biography of Bryant is Parke Godwin, A Biography of William Cullen Bryant, with Extracts from His Private Correspondence (2 vols., 1883). A more balanced assessment is Harry H. Peckham, Gotham Yankee: A Biography of William Cullen Bryant (1950). Tremaine McDowell edited and wrote an excellent introduction to William Cullen Bryant: Representative Selections (1935). Allan Nevins, The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism (1922), discusses Bryant as an editor. Recommended for general background are Roy Harvey Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry (1961), and Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets, from the Puritans to the Present (1968). □

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Bryant, William Cullen

William Cullen Bryant (brī´ənt), 1794–1878, American poet and newspaper editor, b. Cummington, Mass. The son of a learned and highly respected physician, Bryant was exposed to English poetry in his father's vast library. As a boy he became devoted to the New England countryside and was a keen observer of nature. In his early poems such as "Thanatopsis," "To a Waterfowl," "Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood," and "The Yellow Violet," all written before he was 21, he celebrated the majesty of nature in a style that was influenced by the English romantics but also reflected a personal simplicity and dignity. Admitted to the bar in 1815 after a year at Williams and private study, Bryant practiced law in Great Barrington, Mass., until 1825, when he went to New York City. By that time he was already known as a poet and critic. He became associate editor of the New York Evening Post in 1826, and from 1829 to his death he was part owner and editor in chief. An industrious and forthright editor of a highly literate paper, he was a defender of human rights and an advocate of free trade, abolition of slavery, and other reforms. He also holds an important place in literature as the earliest American theorist of poetry. In his Lectures on Poetry (delivered 1825; published 1884) and other critical essays he stressed the values of simplicity, original imagination, and morality. During his later career Bryant traveled widely, made many public speeches, and continued to write a few poems (e.g., "The Death of the Flowers," "To the Fringed Gentian," and "The Battle-Field" ). His blank verse translation of the Iliad appeared in 1870, that of the Odyssey in 1872.

See biographies by P. Godwin (2 vol., 1883; repr. 1967), J. Bigelow (1890, repr. 1970), H. H. Peckham (1950, repr. 1971), and C. H. Brown (1971).

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Bryant, William Cullen

Bryant, William Cullen (1794–1878) US poet and editor. His debut volume, Poems (1821), contained some of his most famous verse, including “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl”. In 1826 he joined the New York Evening Post, soon rising to editor (1829) and part-owner. Under his editorship, the Post emerged as a powerful liberal voice. Later volumes include The Fountain (1842) and Thirty Poems (1864).

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Bryant, William Cullen

Bryant, William Cullen

(1794-1878)
New York Evening Post

Overview

William Cullen Bryant enjoyed one of the longest and most influential careers in American journalism, but the New York Evening Post editor was really a poet at heart and achieved literary fame while still in his 20s. A leading personality in his day, Bryant's leadership of one of the most widely read populist newspapers in American history was noted for his dedication to liberal politics. His editorials were widely read and reflected trends in American thought that would later gain constitutional protection. Vernon Louis Parrington, in Main Currents in American Thought (a tome written in the 1920s but never completed), called him "the father of nineteenth-century American journalism as well as the father of nineteenth-century American poetry."

Personal Life

William Cullen Bryant was born into a conservative Massachusetts family of Puritan beliefs—though his father, a physician, had broken from tradition and was of the far more liberal Unitarian faith. Bryant's grandfather, however, was a strict, tradition-minded farmer of Calvinist faith. Calvinism, founded by a sixteenth-century French theologian, was unique to Protestant sects with its doctrine that souls are born either good or bad. Whatever religious differences plagued the Bryant family, they were united in their devotion to Federalist politics. As the late eighteenth-century political party of Alexander Hamilton, Federalists believed in the need for a strong centralized government, one that supported industry, wealthy merchants, and landowners; the Federalists were also pro-British.

The Bryants were fixtures in the western Massachusetts town of Cummington. By all accounts Bryant was a gifted child and began writing poetry at a young age. When he was 13, one of his first poems was published under somewhat sensational circumstances. It was a satirical piece on Thomas Jefferson, who was president at the time. Jefferson had founded a party to oppose Hamilton and the Federalists that later became the Democratic Party. He also declared a ban on trade with England because of political tensions. Bryant's poem, The Embargo, or Sketches of the Times, skewered the president and the act and was published by his father, then a Massachusetts state legislator.

Yet in his adulthood, Bryant leaned increasingly toward liberal politics, and these and other early politicalthemed works were not included in later collections of his work. He enrolled in Williams College in Williamstown, but left after a year. Bryant had wished to attend a larger "name" school, like Yale, but one of his biographers theorized that the Bryant's could not afford the steep tuition of an Ivy League college. He did, however, begin studying law with an established attorney not far from Cummington, as was the custom in the day for a legal education. In 1815, Bryant was admitted to the bar at the age of 20.

When he was 26, Bryant married Francis Fairchild; by then he was already established as both a lawyer and talented American poet. Their first child, Frances, was born in 1822 and another daughter, Julia, arrived almost 10 years later. In 1825 the family moved to New York City when Bryant decided to make writing his primary career. His daughter Frances Bryant would later marry a journalist who worked for her father at the newspaper.

From 1844, the family's base was a house they called Cedarmere, near Roslyn on Long Island's Hempstead Harbor. It was a place where Bryant could enjoy the rural landscape and take long walks in the forest, one of his favorite pastimes. On his estate he planted numerous exotic trees and plants, some carried back from his extensive travels. The family frequently sailed to Europe, and from his time both abroad and in North America he penned two travelogues. On one sojourn in Italy, his wife became sick there and he treated her with homeopathic remedies, in which he was a firm believer. Bryant's wife died in 1866. He survived her by another 12 years, and even in his 70s was known for to climb the 10 flights of stairs to his editor's office in New York. A figure of national renown at the age of 80, on his birthday in 1874, the editor and poet was honored with a Tiffany-made silver vase embellished with details from his life. The object was then placed in the permanent collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a fall in May of 1878, the venerated writer, still helming the Post, suffered a stroke and died on June 12, at the age of 83. His papers are at the New York Public Library. His family home, Cedarmere later became the William Cullen Bryant Library in the 1970s, and his childhood home in Cummington is a National Historic Landmark.

Career Details

Bryant spent several years as a lawyer beginning in 1816 until his move to New York City. He had a practice first in a village called Plainfield, and later another in Great Barrington. He reportedly disliked the legal profession immensely; he often had to work long hours, and would be troubled when he witnessed injustice in the court system and could not correct wrongs done to those whom he believed innocent. He had never given up his early literary ambitions. In 1811, when he was just 17, he began a long poem that would bring him great acclaim a few years later when he finally revised it and sought a publisher. That poem was "Thanatopsis," taken from the Greek term for "view of death." It was a classical language which Bryant had studied, as was the custom of the day. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of "Thanatopsis," according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, "is its anti-Christian, stoical view of death." Exploration of such abstract ideas in literary works was becoming popular in the culture of Western civilization at the time, and death was a common theme for poets of this era in England. Bryant was also greatly influenced by English Romantic poets, especially William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

"Thanatopsis," published in 1817, launched Bryant as a new and important American writer. The established U.S. literary figure Washington Irving was so impressed by Bryant's talents that he helped broker a deal for the work to be published in England, where it met with favorable reception. The first full volume of Bryant's poetry, Poems, was published in the United States in 1821. Around 1823, he won a contract with the United States Literary Gazette to provide 100 lines of verse per month. Other successes included the publication of his essays in the North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal. When he and his family moved to New York in 1825, his first job outside practicing law was as cofounder of the New York Review and Atheneum. He and his partner could not make the magazine thrive, however, and it folded after just a year.

Still, Bryant's reputation as a man of "letters" was growing. In 1826 he gave a series of memorable lectures at the New York Athenaeum Society, later published in full, and he continued to write poetry. He also published nine volumes in all, including The Fountain and Other Poems in 1842, The White-Footed Deer and Other Poems in 1844, and Thirty Poems in 1864. He penned tales of his journeys, such as Letters of a Traveler; or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America published in 1850, and in his advanced years translated two classics of ancient Greek literature, the Iliad 1870, and the Odyssey, 1871-72, which he worked on in his spare time after the death of his wife in order to keep his mind occupied. In this era Bryant also became a sought-after speaker, and delivered eulogies at the funerals of novelist James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F.B. Morse, a leading figure in the development of telegraph communications.

But it was Bryant's 50 year career at New York Evening Post that elevated him to not just a literary figure but to a position of influence and authority in American business. The paper had been founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton, and Bryant was hired as assistant editor in 1826; three years later he was made editor in chief. As such, he was able to guide the paper into a place in liberal politics; its editorial focus would reflect the great changes of the United States during the mid-nineteenth century.

Bryant championed liberal causes and was a firm believer in "laissez-faire," a doctrine that held an economic system functioned at its best when left alone by government rules and regulations. In his editorials, Bryant spoke up for the fledgling labor union movement and workers' right to strike, both of which were quite radical ideas in the 1830s and 1840s. He also wrote disapprovingly, though not antagonistically, of the institution of slavery in his Post editorials. Because of this view, he grew dissatisfied with Democratic politics (the Democratic Party was a stronghold in the southern states), and became involved in the founding of the Republican Party in 1855.

Social and Economic Impact

Though his literary reputation fell in the years after his death, Bryant was one of the first American poets to achieve international renown. The themes of nature central to his poetry were part of an early literary movement that would later bring other U.S. notables such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to fame. Bryant was friends with many prominent writers of the day, including Irving and Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) and both Emerson and Walt Whitman wrote approvingly of Bryant's literary efforts.

The posthumous decline of Bryant's literary reputation was sometimes pinned to what critics termed a lack of passion in his verse, but Bryant appeared to apply his heart to polital matters. In his editorials, he opposed the expansion of slavery in the American West as the territories entered statehood. This was known as the "Free Soil" movement, and he gave the Free Soil Party of 1847 to 1848 enthusiastic editorial support in the Evening Post. "The federal government represents the free as well as the slave states," Bryant wrote in one editorial, "and while it does not attempt to abolish slavery in the states where it exists, it must not authorize slavery where it does not exist."

Chronology: William Cullen Bryant

1794: Born.

1808: Published first book, The Embargo.

1811: Began studying law with Elias Howe.

1817: Published famous poem "Thanatopsis."

1821: Married Frances Fairchild.

1825: Moved to New York and began editing New York Review and Atheneum Magazine.

1829: Became editor of New York Evening Post.

1855: Threw paper's editorial weight behind the newly formed Republican party.

1870: Began another career as a public speaker.

1878: Died.

In 1860, the Evening Post endorsed Abraham Lincoln and his Republican candidacy. Bryant had met Lincoln the year before when the Illinois senator arrived to speak in New York City; Bryant escorted him to the rally and introduced him before a crowd of 1,500. In one editorial, Bryant declared: "The Evening Post means to do all the good it can during the coming presidential canvass. It means to elect Lincoln. It means to oust the present most corrupt of administrations, and install an honest administration in its stead." When the Civil War began in 1861, Bryant became an advocate for the total abolition of slavery—which he had not espoused prior to this—and called for its end in his paper. During the war years, the paper's circulation doubled.

A poet at heart, Bryant and his transition into journalism reflected the growing importance of newspapers in a still-young democracy. As urban populations increased during the early decades of the nineteenth century, so did access to a free public education, and literacy rates rose. During Bryant's tenure at the Post, newspapers began to play an expanded role in the political experiences of the average American. Mainstream papers like the Post offered readers a decidedly liberal viewpoint, but in some instances Bryant's editorial stance brought difficulty to the paper as a business enterprise. The paper sometimes lost lucrative advertisers, as well as subscribers of more conservative opinions, but it was a favorite of New York City's working classes and was known for its debunking of new economic theories. Throughout his tenure as editor, Bryant stuck to his laissez-faire beliefs and argued against protective tariffs and other indications of government interference. He was also a great critic of speculative investments, which were a new trend in U.S. economic life in the era.

Bryant, wrote Parrington in Main Currents in American Thought, "reflected in the Evening Post a refinement of taste and dignity of character before unequaled in U.S. journalism. The lucidity of his comment and the keenness of his humanitarian criticism set (Bryant) apart from shriller contemporaries, and made him a power for sanity in a scurrilous generation."

Sources of Information

Bibliography

Byers, Paula K., and Suzanne M. Bourgoin, eds. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928-1936.

Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1985.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1987.

Nevins, Allan. The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1922.

Nineteenth Century Literary Criticism, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1984.

Tomlinson, David. "William Cullen Bryant." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1979.

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