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Considered the most accomplished poet of his time in the United States, William Cullen Bryant was the first American poet to receive substantial international acclaim. He was also an influential journalist and liberal editor who campaigned vigorously for free trade, free speech, and an end to slavery.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Early Talent
Bryant was born in Cummington, Massachusetts, and grew up under the conflicting influences of his father, a liberal Unitarian physician, and his maternal grandfather, a conservative Calvinist farmer. As a boy, Bryant read the Bible, eighteenth-century English literature, and the English Romantic writers, particularly William Wordsworth. in addition, he studied and was influenced by the writings of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Sir Walter Scott, and the Scottish associationist philosophers Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart. These philosophers supported the notion that the world should be viewed through the lens of common sense as opposed to abstract ideas about what is real.
His talent asserted itself quite early. He wrote and was published while still a child; under his father’s tutelage, he had learned to write carefully and to revise well. With the publication of The Embargo; or, Sketches of the Times; A Satire; by a Youth of Thirteen (1808) William Cullen Bryant began his remarkable career as an important figure in American politics, literature, and journalism. The poem drew much attention from critics who doubted it had actually been written by one so young. Bryant s first writing captured the nation s imagination, and American readers continued to view Bryant as a political commentator for the rest of his life.
Lawyer, Poet, Journalist
In 1810, Bryant studied at Williams College, but he returned home because of financial difficulties. In 1811 he wrote his first major work of poetry, ”Thanatopsis, which was eventually published in 1817. Poetry was Bryant’s first choice for a career, but he knew that the vocation as a poet would not support him. in 1815 he was admitted to the bar and started his law practice in Plainfeld, Massachusetts. He married Frances Fairchild in 1821 and continued to practice law and publish poetry until 1825.
Feeling encouraged by some of his earlier literary successes, Bryant abandoned his law practice in 1825 and traveled to New York to try to build a literary career. He succeeded instead in becoming one of the era’s most influential journalists and editors. He co-founded the New York Review and Atheneum Magazine and became associated with the Knickerbocker group that included such authors as Washington Irving, Fitz-Greene Halleck, James Fenimore Cooper, and Gulian Verplanck, in addition to the artists Asher Durant and Thomas Cole. In 1829 Bryant became the editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post, a position he held for the rest of his life—a period of nearly fifty years. Under Bryant’s leadership, the Post became a leading liberal newspaper. Bryant’s support for such causes as free speech, workers’ rights, abolitionism, and the Union cause during the American Civil War made him a prominent and controversial public figure.
The Issue of Slavery
Bryant’s political development in the 1840s and 1850s came to hinge, as did national politics, on the overriding issue of slavery. The evolution of the Post’s position can be said to parallel that of advanced Northern opinion from tacit coexistence with slavery to, ultimately, the realization that it had to be extinguished. After breaking with the Democratic Party over support for the Free Soilers in 1848, Bryant became one of the founders of the American Republican party. Still, it took years more for him to break definitively with the Democrats. In 1852 the Post supported the Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, but in 1856 it vigorously championed John C. Fremont, the first Republican candidate for president, instead.
As the slavery crisis deepened in the late 1850s, Bryant’s position on slavery grew ever firmer. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case in March 1857, which ruled that slaves could not enjoy the rights of citizens anywhere in the United States, brought forth eight straight days of editorials on that topic. In 1860, Bryant endorsed the nomination of Abraham Lincoln for the presidency, but two years later denounced him for timidity in prosecuting the war. Although Bryant did not label himself an abolitionist at the time, he criticized the president for a lack of zeal for the cause of abolition.
An Elder Statesman
Bryant remained politically active throughout his life and struggled to encourage liberal political causes, but he began to withdraw from active participation in the business of the Post shortly after the end of the Civil War. His withdrawal was hastened when, after a long, painful illness, his wife died in July 1866. Although still enjoying his own scrupulously pre served good health, he absented himself from daily operations of the Post to devote his time to a translation of Homer, the ancient Greek epic poet.
Despite his retirement from the Post, Bryant was considered an elder statesman for the rest of his life. Until his death on June 12, 1878, Bryant was regarded as one of the nation’s wise men. As a poet, politician, journalist, and grand old man of letters he strove to create an original identity for his maturing nation.
Works in Literary Context
Bryant’s historic importance as a poet rests chiefly on the fact that he was the first American poet to gain international notoriety. Shortly after reaching adulthood he gained a reputation as the best poet in America when his authorship of “Thanatopsis” became known. This judgment was subsequently affirmed when, in 1821, he issued the first of many collected editions of his slim body of verse. Washington Irving secured publication of his work in England, and the critics there as well as those at home recognized his considerable talent. Bryant devoted most of his life to making a living, first as a lawyer and then as an editor. Consequently, he did not complete the ambitious kinds of projects which might have brought him enduring fame as a poet of the first rank. Nevertheless, he became a popular writer in his own day, and he produced a handful of poems of lasting significance.
Bryant’s poems express ideas derived from the Enlightenment, from English Romanticism, and from his study of German, Spanish, and Portuguese poetry. The recurring themes of these poems include mutability, loneliness, and the passing of innocence, and both Bryant’s prose writings and his poetry attest to his interest in politics, folk themes, the American landscape and history. Commentators on Bryant’s poetry have singled out simplicity, instructional purpose, idealism, and a conscious concern for craftsmanship as the most prominent features of Bryant’s poetic style.
Bryant’s chief stylistic hallmark is his treatment of nature, especially his belief that it consoles as well as provides lessons about history and divine purpose. His poetry embodies an acceptance of the cycles of change in nature and in life and a belief that change is providential because it leads to an individual’s spiritual progress and moral improvement. His poetic treatment of the themes of nature and mutability identifies him as one of the earliest figures in the Romantic movement in American literature.
Bryant’s journalistic career was fully as important as his work as a poet. At a time when most editors of the political press backed candidates because of their party labels alone, Bryant let principle determine to whom he would give his support. Bryant brought to journalism not only the argumentative and rhetorical skills of the lawyer but the sensibility of the poet, and his journalism possessed a civility and literary quality that was generally lacking in the newspaper writing of his contemporaries. He left the imprint of a liberal and humanitarian on nearly every major national issue of his time, and he is remembered as a liberal editor whose campaigns for free trade, free speech, and free men started early and continued throughout his tenure as editor of the New York Evening Post.
Works in Critical Context
Bryant’s critical reputation has varied over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact, Bryant’s place as the most eminent American poet was generally unquestioned until the middle of the nineteenth century. Though most critics agree that Bryant’s earliest poems are his best work, there has been some variation in critical opinion about his work in general. Edgar Allan Poe, Edmund Clarence Stedman, and Gay Wilson Allen have praised Bryant’s skillful and often innovative handling of prosody.
Other critics single out Bryant’s sincerity and simplicity of tone as his best trait, while Walt Whitman valued Bryant’s high moral tone above all of his other qualities. James Russell Lowell and Henry B. Sedgwick, Jr., however, perceived a lack of passion in Bryant’s poems. He has also frequently been criticized for the lack of flexibility and depth in his poetic subjects and themes, as well as for his over-reliance on didactic endings— lessons or instructional messages directed at the reader. The question of whether Bryant’s sensibility is more Puritan or Romantic is often debated. Norman Foerster and Fred Lewis Pattee assert that Bryant’s Puritan traits dominate his style, whereas Tremaine McDowell and Albert F. McLean, Jr. emphasize Bryant’s Romantic characteristics. Stedman praised Bryant’s journalistic prose, as did Vernon Louis Parrington, who proposed that Bryant’s editorial contributions are equal in importance to his poetry.
Several critics, Charles Leonard Moore and Stedman among them, consider Bryant second only to Poe in literary importance during the pre-Civil War period in America. He is recognized as one of the first poets in the United States to challenge the dominance of traditional eighteenth-century poetic styles. His development of lofty philosophic themes, his editorial contributions, and his verse experiments with iambic rhythm make Bryant an important, if somewhat forgotten, figure in American literature.
“Thanatopsis,” which means ”a view of death,” was Bryant’s most famous poem. Composed in 1811, it was not published until 1817. After the North American Review published ”Thanatopsis,” the magazine discontinued its verse department, fearing that the standard Bryant’s poems had set was so high that no other contributors could equal it. ”Thanatopsis” did not assume its final form until its appearance in Bryant’s volume Poems (1821), however, and the differences in the versions has led commentators to note an evolution toward a view of death in which man becomes one with all the processes of nature. As E. Miller Burdick put it in 1976, Bryant ”chose to cut himself loose from the ego-sustaining nurture of the Romantic universe and to flounder, at least momentarily, in an unsafe agnosticism.”
- Bigelow, John. William Cullen Bryant. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1890.
- Bradley, William A. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Macmillan, 1905.
- Brown, Charles H. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Scribners, 1971.
- Curtis, George W. The Life, Character, and Writings of William Cullen Bryant. New York: Scribners, 1879.
- Godwin, Parke. A Biography of William Cullen Bryant, with Extracts from His Private Correspondence. New York: Appleton, 1883.
- Johnson, Curtiss S. Politics and a Belly-Full: The Journalistic Career of William Cullen Bryant. New York: Vantage Press, 1962.
- McLean, Albert F., Jr. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Twayne, 1964.
- Nevins, Allan. The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1922.
- Peckham, Henry Houston. Gotham Yankee. New York: Vantage Press, 1950.
- Wilson, James Grant. Bryant and His Friends: Some Reminiscences of Knickerbocker Writers. New York: Fords, Howard & Halbert, 1886.
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