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  • Writer's pictureLocal History Collection

Another Side of William Cullen Bryant

When William Cullen Bryant and his wife, Frances, purchased the Roslyn Harbor property that would become Cedarmere in 1843, they became the neighbors of Eliza Seaman Leggett (1815-1900) and her husband, Augustus W. Leggett. Although the Leggett's moved to Michigan in 1852, Eliza maintained a correspondence with Bryant and many of the other literary figures she met during her visits to Cedarmere.

Celebrated in Michigan as an abolitionist and suffragist, Eliza had fond memories of her years in Roslyn. Reminiscences of her time spent there with William, Frances and their many guests, abound in letters she wrote during the late 1880s to her grandchildren, Emma and Augustus.

In a letter to Emma, Eliza describes her excitement upon learning William Cullen Bryant would be moving to Roslyn:

We had been here some time when father [Augustus W. Leggett] came home to say the “Kirk” house next door was sold. I was so happy. Who to? I cried. To Bryant, he said. I asked, the great Bryant? Father answered – “there is only one Bryant but I’m sure my arm is black and blue, thee has squeezed it so hard.” Well, Mr. and Mrs. Bryant did move in and what wonderfully fine neighbors and very dear friends they proved to be.

She recalls:

We played games, sang songs, had plays and bazaars, read books and poetry together and met each other’s friends.

While researching in the Local History Collection for materials to share on our Bryant Portal, we came across numerous photographs and drawings that show William Cullen Bryant as the serious and sedate journalist revered literary figure. However, reading Eliza’s recollections showed us another side of Bryant. According to Eliza:

Mr. Bryant was very quiet and shy outside his own home but with close friends he was jolly and full of fun… I know that with us he was different than in his New York life – his wife said he was. There was an entire absence of formality.

In a 1988 letter to her grandson Augustus, Eliza recalls a playful encounter between Bryant and his good friend, Unitarian minister Orville Dewey (1794-1882):

"We went over to Spring Bank – this was the name that Mr. Bryant gave to his house when he came to own it. … - now I think it will be called Cedar Mere – this name was given by the poet.

Mr. Bryant delighted to bend down a vigorous sapling like boys would do and getting on it ride up and down as rapidly as they could; in the backyard were two good sized ones and [the] afternoon that we went over we found on the back piazza

Mr. Bryant and Orville Dewey, they laughed like boys who had been caught, told us how they had been riding and each declared that he had beaten – nothing could be pleasanter than to listen to these friends, comrades we would call them now.

Always Bryant would rush away to get something to illustrate the talk – this was his habit … . It was getting toward twilight, a little bird in the tree close by the piazza began his evening song. “Ah ha,” said Dewy, “Who is this little bird, who taught you to sing so sweetly, was it your brother songster who lives here, or was it you who taught him?”

Then when Mr. Bryant came with a bound, he had found what he wanted, Dewy caught him by the tail of his coat, “See here my friend, see here my friend there is a little tell tale in the tree, hark, now be honest, is it true that you taught him or did he teach you,” still pulling at his coat. Then they laughed and Bryant said, “I think the bird has won the day."

Eliza’s observations of Bryant at home at Cedarmere also provide insight into Bryant’s relationship with nature, a feature that infuses his poetry. Supporting her impressions with words attributed to Frances Bryant, Eliza writes:

As Mrs. Bryant used to say, “William has the two entirely separate lives, one as a writer one as the man at home or under the trees.” I know him under the trees, racing around his piazza, tearing down grapevines in the woods to make impromptu swings, going with his shoes unlaced, and a hole in his hat, leaping over his garden fence, and again over the half door of his house to get a string to tie up a bunch of roses.


Often Mrs. Bryant told me so, saying, “William loves to sprawl on the grass and really believes he is a boy."

Thank you, Eliza Seaman Leggett, for revealing another dimension of our Library’s namesake!

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