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Prominent Poet, Eminent Editor


ISSUE:  Winter 1994
The Letters of William Cullen Bryant. Volume 1: 1809—1836, Volume 2: 1836—1849, Volume 3: 1849—1857, Volume 4: 1858—1864, Volume 5: 18651871, Volume 6: 1872—1878. Edited by William Cullen Bryant II and Thomas G.Voss. Fordham.$65 each volume, $300 a set.

The New York Post is a sordid newspaper, on a par with trash television shows that currently addle the minds of America’s masses. It may come as a surprise then that this paper, which barely survives from one year to the next and may not be alive when this article appears, was once a distinguished and influential journal. For 52 years it was edited by one of the country’s greatest poets, William Cullen Bryant, a man who counted among his friends, acquaintances, and correspondents Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, George Bancroft, Samuel F.B.Morse, Walt Whitman, and the Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole and Asher B.Durand.

Like Elvis Presley, William Cullen Bryant lives! He does so in a recent no-nonsense academic anthology presenting “the 500 greatest poems in our language” (The Top 500 Poems, edited by William Harmon, Columbia, 1992), nebulously in the newspaper that has gone from first class to declassed and in public betterments that he suggested and championed and that endure to this day, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Manhattan’s Central Park.

Now a collateral descendant, William Cullen Bryant II, in collaboration with Thomas G.Voss (on volumes 1 through 4), has compiled in six volumes The Letters of William Cullen Bryant, a work of superior scholarship that will be especially welcomed by historians searching for additional information about the 19th century.

Bryant’s career began early. Born in 1794 in Cummington, Massachusetts, he was a precocious child, writing promising poetry at the age of 13 and at 14 making “surprising progress” through Virgil’s Aeneid, Eclogues, and a part of Georgics. He also showed proficiency as an artist. But poetry was his primary claim, and in 1817 the North American Review published two of his most notable poems, Thanatopsis and To a Waterfowl (both published in the Columbia anthology).

It might be noted in this journal published in the heart of Jeffersonian veneration that Bryant wrote a “juvenile masterpiece” that scored President Thomas Jefferson, whose policies were roundly derided throughout New England. The poem, The Embargo, first published anonymously in 1808 at Boston “By a Youth of Thirteen,” was hailed by Jefferson’s Federalist opponents, who relished such lines as

Go, wretch, resign the presidential chair, Disclose thy secret features foul or fair, Go, search, with curious eyes, for horned frogs, ‘Mongst the wild wastes of Louisianian bogs. . . .

Later in his life, as editor of a newspaper that had been founded by Alexander Hamilton to counter Jeffersonian programs, Bryant may have regretted his youthful lampoon, since in maturity he greatly admired Jefferson.

Bryant’s decision to enter journalism came about after a brief stay at Williams College, where he found the “faculty and curriculum dull and the students addicted to indolence and mischief,” and after an attempt to pursue a career in law. But he could not abide what he called the profession’s “legal chicanery” and “disagreeable drudgery.” And so in 1825, following his marriage to “a poor young lady” (“Rich girls are hardly ever worth marrying,” he wrote his sister, “. . .the vulgar pride of wealth from which they are rarely free taints the whole moral constitution”), he departed rural Massachusetts for growing New York City.

A year later, after a stint with a literary review called the New York Review, he joined the Evening Post, assuming its editorship in 1829 (the influence of Hamilton, who was shot to death by Aaron Burr in 1804, had long since dissipated). He was to remain with the newspaper until his death in 1878 in his 84th year. There were some, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who regretted Bryant’s decision to become a journalist instead of concentrating his efforts on his poetry. But as he wrote to his friend Richard Henry Dana, “Politics and a bellyful are better than poetry and starving.”

And what a sensational editor he turned out to be! He was an early advocate for the abolition of slavery, he demanded that labor be given the right to strike for a minimum wage, he railed against discriminatory treatment of aliens, and he vigorously opposed federal subsidies of railways, protective tariffs, and banking monopolies. Most important of all, he was a leading champion of the rising politician Abraham Lincoln. After the last of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Bryant wrote in an editorial that “no man of this generation has grown more rapidly before the country than Mr. Lincoln.” He charged that Democrat President James Buchanan held “a blind devotion to the interests of the slaveholders.”

During this period Bryant continued to write his poems, although they were few in number, and eagerly pursued other objectives, such as the development of Central Park. He had urged the park for 15 years and was one of those who endorsed Frederick Law Olmsted to supervise its construction.

In February 1860 a significant invitation was extended by Bryant and other leading New York Republicans to Lincoln, inviting him to speak at Cooper Union in Manhattan. It was the Illinois politician’s first appearance in the Northeast and “contributed largely to Lincoln’s nomination three months later” as the Republican candidate for the United States presidency. After the nomination, Bryant wrote: “Whatever is peculiar in the history and development of America, whatever is foremost in its civilization, whatever is good in its social and political structure, finds its best expression in the career of such men as Abraham Lincoln. . . . It is written on the tablet of destiny that Lincoln is to be the next President of the United States.”

In a letter a month later Bryant advised candidate Lincoln about the danger of making firm pledges in advance of election, a letter that candidate Bill Clinton 132 years later might have found advantageous to his presidency.”I have observed,” wrote Bryant, “that those candidates who are most cautious of making pledges, stating opinions or entering into arrangements of any sort for the future save themselves and their friends a great deal of trouble and have the best chance of success.” Lincoln replied: “I appreciate the danger against which you would guard me; nor am I wanting in the purpose to avoid it. I thank you for the additional strength your words give me to maintain the purpose.”

But Bryant and the Evening Post did not provide unwavering support to the new president. Lincoln’s plan for gradual emancipation of the slaves was rejected by Bryant. Assuming the presidency of the Emancipation League of New York, Bryant declared at a meeting: “Must we consent that the number of the victims shall be gradually diminished? If there are a thousand victims this year, are you willing that nine hundred should be sacrified next year, and eight hundred the next, and so on until the lapse often years it shall cease? No, my friends, let us hurl this grim image from its pedestal.”

Throughout the Civil War Bryant pressed Lincoln to push forward vigorously against the Confederacy. In July of 1862 Bryant proposed conscription, nine months before a draft was adopted, as the way to maintain the strength of the Union Army. But as the first conscripts were called to duty a year later violent riots swept New York City. Blacks were killed in the streets, and the Evening Post building was attacked. Bryant ordered his staff to barricade the doors and windows and turned live steam from the presses into hoses mounted at the upper windows at the rioters.

As the Civil War progressed year after year there were calls in some quarters of the North, particularly by those in finance and trade but also in various newspapers, for compromise with the South. Bryant was a firm opponent to any early settlement that might have led to two nations. On June 25, 1861, he wrote: “Grant anything that looks like compromise and you only minister to the arrogance of the rebels.” And in late 1864, learning that the editor of The New York Times was urging Lincoln to sue for peace without victory, Bryant wrote a strong editorial entitled “No Negotiations with the Rebel Government.”

After Lincoln was assassinated, Bryant composed a much admired elegy that was read to a crowd of mourners when the President’s coffin was brought to New York on its way to Illinois for burial.

        OH, slow to smite and swift to spare,
          Gentle and merciful and just!. . .
        Thy task is done; the bond are free;
          We bear thee to an honored grave
        Whose proudest monument shall be
          The broken fetters of the slave.

The majority of Bryant’s more than two thousand letters, mostly to friends and relatives, create a sort of autobiography of the man, as the editors point out, and are of general interest to future biographers. But some are of special interest, such as those to Richard Henry Dana assuring him that he was working diligently to convince a reluctant bookseller to publish Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s manuscript, Two Years Before the Mast.

For this reviewer, and I think for the casual reader, the most interesting letters are those that Bryant wrote for his newspaper as he traveled about the United States and Europe.

In April/March of 1843 he visited Washington and observed the Congress in action. He noted that in the House of Representatives “the members no longer sat with their hats on. Whether they had come to the conclusion that it was well to sit uncovered in order to make up, by this token of mutual respect, for the too frequent want of decorum in their proceedings, or whether the change has been made because it so happens that all the members are talking together, the rule being that the person speaking must be bareheaded, or whether, finally, it was found, during the late summer sessions, that a hat made the wearer really uncomfortable, are questions which I asked on the spot, but to which I got no satisfactory answer. I visited the Senate Chamber, and saw a member of that dignified body, as somebody calls it, in preparing to make a speech, blow his nose with his thumb and finger without the intervention of a pocket-handkerchief. The speech, after this graceful preliminary, did not, I confess, disappoint me.”

In a visit to South Carolina, he reported that “the city of Charleston strikes the visitor from the north most agreeably. He perceives at once that he is in a different climate. The spacious houses are surrounded with broad piazzas, often a piazza to each story, for the sake of shade and coolness, and each house generally stands by itself in a garden planted with trees and shrubs, many of which preserve their verdure through the winter. . . . The inhabitants, judging from what I have seen of them, which is not much, I confess, do not appear undeserving of the character which has been given them, of possessing the most polished and agreeable manners of all the American cities.”

And in South Carolina’s Barnwell District he listened to the singing of slaves as they shucked plantation corn:

                Johnny come down de hollow,
                                Oh hollow!
                Johnny come down de hollow,
                                Oh hollow!
                De nigger-trader got me,                                 Oh hollow!
                De speculator bought me,
                                Oh hollow!
                I’m sold for silver dollars,
                                Oh hollow!
                Boys, go catch de pony,
                                Oh hollow!
                Bring him round de corner,
                                Oh hollow!
                I’m goin’ away to Georgia,
                                Oh hollow!
                Boys, good-by forever!
                                Oh hollow!

Mr. Bryant II and Mr. Voss have put together an excellent “autobiography” of William Cullen Bryant. Now the time has come for a scholar to write a new and solid biography of this exceptional poet and editor as the bicentennial of his birth approaches. The scholar will use for the biography’s foundation these two thousand or so letters and the 19th-century issues of the Evening Post that are housed in the New York Public Library. When taking a break for luncheon, the scholar may perhaps enjoy a sandwich while sitting on a bench in the recently renovated tree-lined lawn that stretches behind the library towards Times Square. The lawn is called Bryant Park. Why this is so is a complete mystery to most New Yorkers.

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