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Parke Godwin on William Cullen Bryant

In late 1836, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), noted poet and editor of the New York Evening Post newspaper, invited a young lawyer to join the staff of the Evening Post. Neither Bryant, nor the young attorney, Parke Godwin (1816-1904), could have known that this invitation would lead to a life-long professional and personal relationship. Godwin would retain ties to the Post, even though he would at times pursue other literary avenues, and, in 1842, he would marry Bryant’s eldest daughter, Frances (1822-1893). In the years that followed, both men, along with their families, would maintain homes in Roslyn Harbor, and they and their descendants would have an impact on the Roslyn area.

Though noted on the national scene as a poet and journalist, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) is also considered Roslyn’s most famous former resident. He is remembered in Roslyn for founding the Reading Room, which after his death, in 1878, became the Bryant Library. Less well known are Bryant and Godwin family members who also had an impact on the Roslyn area. Bryant’s youngest daughter, Julia (1831-1907), gave the Reading Room to the newly formed Bryant Library Association after her father’s death. Parke Godwin served as Trustee and first President of the Library. Godwin and Frances’ son, Harold, rebuilt Bryant’s home, Cedarmere, after the 1902 fire. Harold Godwin was also instrumental in saving the Grist Mill in Roslyn Village and erecting the paper mill replica in Roslyn (Gerry) Park. Other descendants stayed active in both library and civic affairs in Roslyn for more than one hundred years and it was a great granddaughter of William Cullen Bryant, Elizabeth Love Godwin (1891-1976), who, upon her death, deeded his former home, Cedarmere, to Nassau County.

Bryant’s literary reputation is well established and his political views are also well documented. It is more challenging however, to locate first-hand accounts of how he was perceived, on a personal level, in his lifetime. In a previous article [Bryant Library Newsletter, March/April 2011] Edgar Allan Poe added a personal description of Bryant to his review of Bryant’s poetry. The following account, written by Bryant’s associate and son-in-law, Parke Godwin, presents a unique opportunity to see Bryant through the eyes of someone who was more intimately connected to him. Excerpted from Godwin’s two volume biography of Bryant entitled, “The Life of William Cullen Bryant,” published in 1883, Godwin describes his first meeting and early impressions of Bryant:

“A briefless barrister in the great city, I had been led to a modest boarding-house at No. 316 Fourth Street, where for some time I was almost the only inmate. But one evening, on entering the common room, the owner, a native of Great Barrington (MA), introduced me to a gentleman, whose name I did not hear, as about to become a member of our small and select family. He was of middle age and medium height, spare in figure, with a clean-shaven face, unusually large head, bright eyes, and a wearied, severe, almost saturnine expression of countenance. One, however, remarked at once the exceeding gentleness of his manner, and a rare sweetness in the tone of his voice, as well as an extraordinary purity in the selection and pronunciation of English. His conversation was easy, but not fluent, and he had a habit of looking the person he addressed so directly in the eyes that it was not a little embarrassing at first. A certain air of abstractedness in his face made you set him down as a scholar whose thoughts were wandering away to his books; and yet the deep lines about the mouth told of struggle either with himself or with the world. No one would have supposed that there was any fun in him, but, when a lively turn was given to some remark, the upper part of his face, particularly the eyes, gleamed with a singular radiance, and a short, quick staccato, but hearty laugh acknowledged the humorous perception. It was scarcely acknowledged, however, before the face settled down again into its habitual sternness. Of public affairs this gentleman spoke with great decision—as one who thoroughly comprehended them, and had no fear of the ultimate issues. I was not told, until he had gone, that this was Mr. Bryant, the poet and journalist….

When his family, consisting of wife and two young daughters, came back from Europe, in the autumn of 1836, he showed himself more sociable. Mrs. Bryant was a person of such lively sympathies, and so breezy a cheerfulness, that she seemed to inspire him, as she did others, with some of her own animation. He became chatty and playful, but never familiar. Even in telling a story or anecdote he maintained his reserve, which seemed to say, Do not presume upon it if I deign to jest with you. His children, of whom he was fond, he treated with great consideration and tenderness, but he always exacted their obedience. He prattled with them commonly in the foreign language which they happened to be learning, and he amused them and himself very much by turning the old nursery rhymes or the popular songs of the day into idioms of France, Germany, Spain or Italy….

After several months of casual intercourse, I had formed no real intimacy with him, nor had I reason to suppose that he took the slightest interest in my affairs; when one day he surprised me not a little by saying: “My assistant, Mr. Ulshoeffer is going to Cuba for his health; how would you like to take his place?” I replied that I had never been inside of a newspaper office in my life, and would make a sorry fist at the business. “Well,” he replied, in a friendly was, “ you can learn; and I think you are the very man for it.” He then went on to say that he had been a lawyer himself, but had found the life of an editor quite as agreeable, and infinitely more useful. “Come and try.” I went to the office within a few days, and tried, and the result was, as young Ulshoeffer died in the interval, that I have remained there ever since—now nearly fifty years….”

This article by former LHC Archivist Myrna Sloam was originally published in the July/August 2011 Bryant Library Newsletter.


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