William Cullen Bryant: Choosing a Literary Life
A version of the following article by former LHC Archivist Myrna Sloam was originally published in the November/December 2009 Bryant Library Newsletter.
November 3rd 2009 is the 215th birthday of William Cullen Bryant. Remembered in Roslyn as the founder of the first Reading Room (which later became the Bryant Library) and as an early resident of Roslyn Harbor, Bryant was one of the premier literary and cultural figures of 19th century America.
A renowned poet, he was also the owner and editor-in-chief of the respected New York Evening Post newspaper. His friendships with the Hudson River School of painters such as Thomas Cole and Asher Durand led to him being immortalized in Durand’s painting, “Kindred Spirits.”
Based on excerpts from Bryant’s letters, this article follows his journey from his small law practice in Massachusetts, to his arrival on the literary scene in New York City in 1825.
Bryant's 1808 poem, “The Embargo, or Sketches of the Times—A Satire. By a Youth of Thirteen,” concerning Thomas Jefferson’s policies, was published in Boston where it brought him critical attention. It is interesting to note that even at this early age Bryant was already exploring the two pursuits that would occupy him for most of his life: poetry and politics.
Bryant entered Williams College in 1810, at age 16. After a short stay, he withdrew, hoping to transfer to Yale. Family finances prohibited this move, and instead, his father arranged for him to privately study law with Samuel Howe, a family friend. Bryant was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar on August 15, 1815 and then entered into a law partnership in Great Barrington. Throughout this time, however, he was still writing poetry and had completed “To a Waterfowl,” one of his poems that would be best remembered.
Although successful at the law, Bryant’s May 27th 1817 written comments to William Baylies (a Massachusetts Congressman with whom Bryant had briefly studied law) are revealing of his true desire to pursue a literary career:
“You ask whether I am pleased with my profession— Alas, Sir, the Muse was my first love and the remains of that passion which not rooted out yet chilled into extinction will always I fear cause me to look coldly on the severe beauties of Themis. Yet I tame myself to its labours as well as I can, and have endeavored to discharge with punctuality and attention such of the duties of my profession as I was capable of performing….” That same year, Bryant’s father submitted two of Bryant’s poems, one of which was “Thanatopsis,” to the North American Review and they were published anonymously in the September 1817 issue. Written around 1811, when Bryant was 17 years old, “Thanatopsis” was to become the most read and most remembered of all of Bryant’s poems.
Bryant’s first visit to New York City was in June 1818 on a law related matter. On that trip however, he had contact with William Coleman, who was to become his future employer at the New York Evening Post newspaper. On January 11, 1821 Bryant married Frances Fairchild (1797-1866), who he had met in Great Barrington, and in September of that year, his first book of poems was published. In January of 1822, their first child, Frances (Fanny) was born. By April of 1824 when Bryant made his second trip to New York City, at the invitation of Henry Sedgwick, his poems and critical reviews had appeared in numerous journals and his literary circle had grown.
He returned again to New York City in February 1825, and in a letter to Henry Sedgwick (dated Feb. 7th), Bryant stated, “ I intend to set out for New York, next Thursday, with a view of seeing what arrangements can be made for getting employment there…..” Following through on this desire, on Feb 21st, Bryant wrote home to Frances from New York City to say that, “….My friends here are making some interest to obtain the approbation & patronage of the Athenaeum for a literary paper to be established here under my direction, and I think there is a pretty good prospect that they will succeed.” The New York Athenaeum was founded in 1824 and was a popular cultural institution, sponsoring concerts and lectures. Bryant felt that a journal established by this group would have a wide circulation.
It was on March 30, 1825 however, that Bryant revealed the details of his decision for the major career change that would bring him to New York City, and then later to Roslyn. In a letter to Richard H. Dana, Bryant reported that,
“I have given up my profession which was a shabby business—and I am not altogether certain that I have got into a better—Bliss & White, however, the publishers of the N.Y. Review, allow me a compensation, which at present will be a livelihood for me, and a livelihood is as much as I got from my profession.—Being one of the editors of the work, though not a proprietor, I feel some anxiety that it should have a respectable circulation.”
By May of 1825, at the age of 30, Bryant was living in New York City, and by June, the first issue of the New-York Review and Atheneum magazine was printed. With rare openness Bryant wrote again to Dana on May 25th 1825, explaining his reasons for accepting this position.
“…I do not know how long my connection with this work will continue—my $1,000.00 is no great sum to be sure but it is twice what I got by my practice in the country. – Besides my dislike for my profession was augmenting daily, and my residence in Great Barrington in consequence of innumerable local quarrels and factions which were springing up every day among an extremely excitable, and not very enlightened population, had become quite disagreeable to me. It cost me more pains and perplexity than it was worth to live on friendly terms with my neighbors—and not having as I flatter myself any great taste for contention I made up my mind to get out as soon as I could and come to this great city where if it was my lot to starve I might starve peaceably and quietly. The business of sitting in judgment upon books as they come out is not the literary employment the most to my taste nor that for which I am best fitted – but it affords me for the present a certain compensation -- which is a matter of some consequence to a poor devil like myself.”
Unfortunately, the New-York Review was short-lived. It ceased publication in June of 1826. Undaunted, Bryant stayed on in New York City. His wife Frances and daughter Fanny had joined him in New York in September 1825, and he was making a new life in an exciting, expanding city. His cultural circle had grown quickly and he was delivering lectures on poetry and forming friendships with leading artists and writers. He was also becoming more attuned to the political issues of the day.
In July of 1826 he was offered a position at the New York Evening Post, which was intended to be temporary, but by 1827, due to the ill health of the paper’s owner, Bryant was making editorial decisions. In July of 1829, with the death of owner, William Coleman, Bryant became editor-in-chief. This new career, which was not without its own drawbacks, as Bryant would later lament, would last for the next 50 years, and establish Bryant as a major influential figure in 19th century American literary, cultural, and political history.