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From the Bryant Room: Remembering William Cullen Bryant on his 218th Birthday

The following was written by former archivist Myrna Sloam for the Bryant Library November/December 2012 newsletter.

Bronze statue in Bryant Park

November 3rd 2012 marks the 218th birthday of William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), founder of the “Reading Room” in Roslyn, which in 1878, became the Bryant Library. Although Bryant’s influence as poet and social activist may have waned on the national scene, to those of us in Roslyn, he remains most dear. In light of this, and to celebrate his birthday, it is fitting to look back to the 1864 grand celebration held by the Century Club in New York City on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Though the Civil War was still ongoing, the artist community in New York came together to celebrate a man they considered a national treasure and one of their own.

Among his lifetime of civic and social activities, in 1847 Bryant became a founding member of the Century Club, which was designed to promote the fine arts and literature in New York City. The Century was an outgrowth of the Sketch Club, formed in 1829 with a similar purpose, and the Bread and Cheese Club which dated back to 1824. Bryant’s promotion of the arts, and his relationship to the artists and writers of his day is well documented. He is often remembered for his close alliance with the Hudson River School of painting, and his friendship with the painter Thomas Cole was memorialized in the painting “Kindred Spirits” by Asher B. Durand.

On the night of November 5, 1864 nearly 400 people attended his 70th birthday celebration, called the “Bryant Festival.” The proceedings of that night were published in a book entitled, “The Bryant Festival at the Century Club.” NY: D. Appleton and Co., 1864, and the details cited below are taken from this publication. The introduction was given by historian George Bancroft, President of the Club, and his words of praise are worth repeating. “The artists of our association, whose labors you have ever been ready to cheer, whose merits you have loved to proclaim, unite to bring an enduring memorial to your excellence in an art near akin to their own…. It is primarily your career as a poet that we celebrate. The moment is well chosen. While the mountains and the ocean side ring with the tramp of cavalry and the din of cannon, and the nation is in agony, and an earthquake sweeps through the land, we take respite to escape into the serene region of ideal pursuits which can never fail…. Every line which you have written may be remembered by yourself and by others at all times, for your genius has listened only to the whisperings of the beautiful and the pure…. You have derived your inspiration as a poet from your love of nature, and she has returned your affection and blessed you as her favored son…. Our tribute to you is to the poet; but we should not have paid it had we not revered you as a man. Your blameless life is a continuous record of patriotism and integrity; and passing untouched through the fiery conflicts that grow out of the ambition of others, you have, as all agree preserved a perfect consistency with yourself, and an unswerving fidelity to your convictions.”

The evening continued with tributes from those who were present, and with the reading of letters and poems from those who could not attend. There were letters from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry W. Longfellow, and poems from Julia Ward Howe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier. In addition to these written tokens of esteem, the artists of the Century Club prepared a special gift. They presented Bryant with a portfolio of 46 sketches made by members of the Club, including Albert Bierstadt, Frederick E. Church and Asher B. Durand. The presentation was made by Daniel Huntington, President of the National Academy of Design, who stated, “…. The artists love you very much, and you know it; we claim you as one of us….a brother of the pencil most dear to all our hearts…. There are none whose hearts glow with deeper joy and pride than do those of the artists who to-night take part in this festival solemnity. For many years, by mountain and stream, and in the stillness of the studio, we have been cheered by your vivid pictures of American scenery, and inspired by your songs of human freedom, and we pray that God may grant you yet many years to charm our hearts with new images of truth and beauty; and when this dark and bloody war-cloud shall have passed forever, in a serene evening of your life, to sing for our whole people the cradle-song of a new-born American Liberty.”

The Century Club continued to honor Bryant. He served as President of the Club from 1868-1878 and as early as 1883 (five years after his death) it proposed that a memorial to Bryant be erected in Central Park (NY Times, June 6, 1883). This was an appropriate site, since Bryant had been an early advocate of creating a grand park for the people of the City. In 1893, the Club again proposed a monument to Bryant in Central Park (NY Times, June 14, 1893), but sadly, neither of these memorials would be erected. Undeterred, in 1911, at the completion of the New York Public Library, the Club achieved its mission and unveiled the bronze statue of Bryant in Bryant Park (named for him in 1884), where it can still be seen.


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