Remembering William Cullen Bryant
Today is the birthday of William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). 19th century America would be astounded to know that a man of his standing and eminence could be so swallowed up by time — to such an extent that millions of people could walk in, around, and through the park that is named after him and located right in the heart of New York City and still have no idea whom it is named after nor even have any curiosity about it. Or that those same millions could pass by the great monument to him that is in that park, a monument that could answer the question they never thought to ask, and never look at it or read its inscription. (There it is above. I snapped it a few months ago as I strolled around Bryant Park with my son Charlie).
The significance of William Cullent Bryant is multifold; this might one reason why he is not well remembered. His complex career does not boil down to a trivia question. He was both one of 19th century America’s most important poets and one of its most important journalists and newspaper editors. So was Whitman though of course. And it might be argued that Bryant was more important on both scores, so I guess that won’t explain his present obscurity. Like Irving and Cooper, Bryant was one of America’s first literary figures of international importance. Like Longfellow, he was one of our first poets. He was born and raised in Western Massachusetts, the same area where Melville would later meet Hawthorne, and where the cloistered Emily Dickinson would later toil, but he would come to be associated primarily with New York City, like Irving, Cooper, Melville and Whitman. And, he became one of that city’s most influential newspaper editors, casting a shadow not unlike that of Horace Greeley.
There are two most important things you need to know about William Cullen Bryant:
One is that from 1829 until his death (thus for nearly half a century) he was the editor of the New York Evening Post (the same paper as today’s New York Post). Under his direction, the paper had quite a different tone and philosophy from the one it inherited from its founder Alexander Hamilton, and of course a very different one from today. Despite the fact that he had begun his political life as a Federalist, and had first gained notoriety by writing an anti-Jefferson satirical poem, the Post was not a “conservative” paper under Bryant. Events (and probably New York) changed him. Bryant’s Post was a pro-Jacksonian Democratic one. In time, it evolved. Bryant took an Abolitionist stance, which caused him to drift away from the Democrats to the Free Soilers, who later evolved into the Republicans. Truth be known, it was his longtime editorship of the Post that got him a monument and a park. People and politicians may pay lip service to poetry, but in the modern age they seldom move mountains to honor it.
The other important thing you should know about Bryant is his most famous poem, “Thanatopsis”. Time was when it was learned by every American schoolchild and when it was one of America’s proudest (and only) literary exports. If you only know one thing he wrote (and most people who know anything do only know this one thing) this is the thing. To this day, “Thanatopsis” is widely anthologized, and it’s been my experience that it’s the only Bryant poem (out of many volumes of poetry he wrote during his lifetime) that you will see so represented.
Coming across “Thanatopsis” from time to time is one way I came to know about Bryant. The other is my years at the New-York Historical Society. Bryant spoke there many times in the 19th century. If you visit their Luce Center on the top floor, you will find this bust of him by the sculptor John Rogers:
And closer to home nowadays, at the Brooklyn Museum, I always stop and look at this portrait of him done in his last months by the painter Wyatt Eaton:
I have a stake in promoting him; Bryant and I share many of the same Pilgrim ancestors. There is some irony to be found in the fact that this dead poet’s poem about death, with its meditation on immortality, has proved all too mortal in the popular memory. Yet there are so many good reasons to know it and remember it. It is an incredible fulcrum, a torch-passing, full of the English influence of the Graveyard Poets and nature-loving Wordsworth, but also having much in common with the Transcendentalists and the upbeat optimism of Whitman. I don’t find it dated or stuffy or irrelevant. All young people should be exposed to “Thanatopsis”. I can’t imagine that most of them couldn’t be taught to appreciate it. Bryant was essentially a Goth teenager when he wrote it, but there is a touching, naive hopefulness to it that I also relate to and associate with youth.
This entry was posted on November 3, 2016 at 8:52 am and is filed under AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Travel/ Tourism with tags Brooklyn Museum, Bryant Park, editor, history, New York Post, New-York Historical Society, poet, Thanatopsis, William Cullen Bryant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.