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Friday, June 20, 2008

William Cullen Bryant: Author of America

An 1862 engraving of William Cullen Bryant, the poet and man of letters.

William Cullen Bryant: Author of America
By Gilbert H. Muller
(State University of New York Press, 410 pages, $30)

When poet and newspaperman William Cullen Bryant died in June 1878, the mayor of New York ordered the city's flags lowered to half mast, but the official gesture of mourning was hardly necessary. Bryant's death sparked a spontaneous outpouring of affection. His portrait, one friend recalled, "was displayed in all the shop windows, and his writings were in special demand at every bookstore and library." Walt Whitman, who was in Philadelphia when he read a notice of Bryant's death, left for New York within hours to attend the funeral. So many New Yorkers thronged the Unitarian Church of All Souls, where the memorial was held, that police had to be called in to help force Bryant's coffin into the chapel.
[Bryant on stilts, one of several New York newspaper editors said to be practicing 'Muscular Journalism.']
Print Collection, The New York Public Library
Bryant on stilts, one of several New York newspaper editors said to be practicing 'Muscular Journalism.'

It was the kind of funeral that might have been accorded a statesman in Bryant's day, or a pop star in our own. For 19th- century Americans the 83-year-old Bryant had become something of both. Though he never held a significant public office and wrote poetry that has since disappeared from the American literary canon, Bryant was revered throughout the country and routinely sought out by politicians and writers, from Abraham Lincoln to Charles Dickens. Some six years after his death, New York's Reservoir Square, between 40th and 42nd Streets, was renamed Bryant Park in his honor.

How this now largely forgotten figure came to occupy such a prominent place in the national psyche is the subject of a captivating biography, "William Cullen Bryant: Author of America," by Gilbert H. Muller, a literary critic and cultural historian who would like to see Bryant restored to the stature he once enjoyed.

Bryant's poetry accounted in large part for his popular acclaim. Both at home and abroad he was recognized as the pioneer of a distinctly American literary style, the first voice, as Charles H. Brown put it in his 1971 biography, "to sing of native birds like the brown thrasher and bobolink rather than the skylark and nightingale, of the spicebush or the late-blooming fringed gentian rather than Britain's gorse or primrose." Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that Bryant had "written some of the very best poetry that we have in America." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called him "my master in verse."

Fifteen years after he had first proposed it, Bryant's dream of a park for the people was coming to fruition.
• Read an excerpt from "William Cullen Bryant: Author of America"1

By his own report, Bryant was still a teenager living in his native Cummington, Mass., when he wrote the bulk of "Thanatopsis," the blank-verse meditation on death that remains his most influential poem. Already he displayed a knack for delivering weighty Romantic sentiments in plain language drawn from the natural world. In 80-odd lines the poem moves from an acknowledgment that death entails a loss of the self to a transcendent identification with nature. It's our fate, Bryant says, to "mix forever with the elements, / To be a brother to the insensible rock / And to the sluggish clod." But in "Thanatopsis" he turns this dissolution into a restful communion with nature, approaching death "Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch / About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."

Mr. Muller's account highlights the range of Bryant's later work, a body of poetry marked by some of the period's most vivid writing about nature -- in poems like "Earth" and "To the Fringed Gentian" -- and topical poems on subjects ranging from Greek independence to the plight of American Indians. (Bryant also wrote a raft of less durable verse in response to the political squabbles of his day.) His often overlooked translation of the "Iliad," published late in Bryant's life, is a masterful synthesis of classicism and Romanticism that uses colloquial language and blank verse to re-create the energy of Homer's original poem. Despite Bryant's accomplishments, however, there were those who believed that he had squandered his poetic gifts. When he was still in his 40s, Emerson wrote to a friend: "I saw Bryant, but his poetry seems exterminated from the soil not a violet left."
The conventional view is that what threatened to exterminate Bryant's poetry was the journalism career that immersed him in public affairs. When he arrived in New York in 1825, after a year at Williams College, he drifted into literary journalism, becoming a contributor to the North American Review and the editor of the short-lived New York Review and Athenaeum Magazine. But when the Review and Athenaeum folded, he turned to the mainstream press, taking a position that opened at the New York Evening Post when its longtime editor was injured in a carriage accident.

The career shift came at a key moment in the history of New York City. It was a time when foxes still roamed lower Manhattan and hunters shot ducks in Chelsea. But with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York was on its way to becoming the nation's commercial and, eventually, cultural center, and Bryant found that he liked the rising stage he had stumbled on. He spent the next 50 years at the Evening Post, promoting the interests of the city's growing working class, arguing against slavery and reporting on contemporary life in the U.S. and abroad.

As a newspaperman, Bryant held strong opinions, and he wasn't shy about making them known. (In one bizarre incident, he bullwhipped a rival editor in the middle of Broadway.) But he was also inclined to look at contemporary debates from all sides. His positions during the Civil War are a case in point. A lifelong opponent of slavery, he toured the South in 1843 to see it for himself and found that, while he abhorred the institution, the Southerners were "very agreeable and intelligent men." Nevertheless, he was among the earliest and most outspoken supporters of the Union in the New York press. In the same way, he had publicly supported Abraham Lincoln's campaign in 1860 but challenged the president two years later for being slow to recognize the failure of George McClellan as general in chief of the Union Army.
[book cover]

Although Emerson and others saw journalism as an impediment to Bryant's literary development, Mr. Muller suggests that the two pursuits were in fact intertwined. In journalism as much as in poetry, Bryant honored Wordsworth's injunction toward ordinary speech. (At the Evening Post he warned writers off the kind of elevated language that other papers favored, recommending begin over commence, for example, and fire over devouring element.) And he used language for the same ends in both fields. From the beginning Bryant had believed that "the emotions raised by poetry," as Mr. Muller puts it, "could guide readers to the springs of moral conduct." In his editorials at the Evening Post he believed he was simply using a different medium to do the same job for the country's democracy.

But it may be that Bryant's most potent medium was neither poetry nor journalism. Bryant was beloved as much for what he represented as for what he did. "He grew to be not only a citizen, journalist, thinker, poet," Edmund Clarence Stedman, a poet who wrote for a rival newspaper, once said, "but the beautiful, serene, majestic ideal of a good and venerable man."

That Bryant's reputation was bound up with the man himself may account for the decline it has suffered in the century since his death, but it also makes his biography -- especially one as richly researched and readable as Mr. Muller's -- all the more valuable.

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