Bayard Taylor Essay - Critical Essays

Taylor, Bayard

Introduction

Bayard Taylor 1825-1878

American travel essayist, poet, novelist, and translator.

Bayard Taylor was a popular and prolific travel writer, although he always considered poetry his true calling. His eleven volumes of travel essays, including accounts of his adventures in the Middle and Far East propelled him to celebrity status. He immersed himself in other cultures, and although his portrayals are occasionally stereotypical and sometimes overly positive, they are never lacking in enthusiasm. Taylor's interest in travel was matched only by his love of poetry. He was a member of the Genteel Tradition, which emphasized conventionality and correctness in writing, and his poetry reflected the mores of 19th century society. Taylor was so well known and so well connected in the literary circles of the era that Herman Melville used Taylor as the basis for a character in The Confidence Man, and Bret Harte wrote a tribute to Taylor on the event of the latter's death. Much of Taylor's work has fallen into obscurity since his death, but his translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (1871) has survived to this day, and is considered to be an excellent preservation of the original rhyme and meter.

Biographical Information

Taylor was born on January 11, 1825, in Kennett Square, Chester County, Pennsylvania. His ancestry was English and German and he was raised as a Quaker. He was, however, never happy living on a farm, and relished his time in West Chester, where he apprenticed to a local printer. This apprenticeship allowed him to publish a volume of poems, Ximena; or, The Battle of the Sierra Morena, and Other Poems (1844). With the money he made from this volume, Taylor sailed to Europe, and truly began his career as a travel essayist and writer. Views A-Foot; or Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff (1846), along with the newspaper essays which comprised the volume, propelled him to celebrity, and its success allowed him to travel for the rest of his life. In 1850 Taylor married his childhood sweetheart, but his bride died suddenly two months after the wedding; his grief prompted Taylor to embark on another voyage. He was quite taken with the cultures of Africa and the Middle East, describing them in A Journey to Central Africa; or, Life and Landscapes from Egypt to the Negro Kingdoms of the White Nile (1854) and The Lands of the Saracen; or, Pictures of Palestine, Asia Minor, Sicily and Spain (1854). He then joined Commodore Matthew Perry on his voyage to open Japan to the west, and chronicled the journey in A Visit to India, China and Japan in the Year 1853 (1855). He also lectured prolifically throughout the period, until the Civil War broke out and reduced the demand for lecture tours. Searching for another source of income, Taylor began writing novels. He remarried in 1857 to Marie Hansen, the daughter of a German businessman, and was later appointed Minister to Germany. Taylor's connection to Germany and his growing interest in German literature prompted his translation of Faust, and he had planned on biographies of Schiller and Goethe before he died on December 19, 1878.

Major Works

Taylor's travel essays were immensely popular in their time, with Views A-Foot going through six printings in its first year and a total of twenty by 1855. Despite their popularity, though, Taylor's travel essays have not withstood the test of time. These accounts express both his interest in immersing himself in other cultures and his belief in the superiority of European society; however, the breakneck pace at which he conducted his voyages, according to Richard Cary, prompted Park Benjamin to comment that “Taylor had traveled more but seen less than any man who ever lived.” Taylor's greatest legacy is his translation of Faust, which is lauded to this day, although it has lost its status as the standard English translation of the work. Taylor's poetry is respected for its technical achievement, but has often been criticized as derivative. He is considered a good poet, but not a poetic genius. His novels have faced the same criticism, and are not held in so high regard as those of Mark Twain and other acquaintances of Taylor. Torn between his desire to write in the romantic vein and his reluctance to break with the conventional morality of the day, Taylor's indecision, in the view of some scholars, led to mediocrity. In the end, Taylor is more renowned for the quantity of his work than the quality.

Critical Reception

Taylor has received little critical attention in the twentieth century. Modern critics, such as C. W. LaSalle II, have focused on Taylor's poetry and novels, largely disregarding his travel works. Richard Cary sees Taylor's poetry and prose as mediocre at best, and few critics are impressed with his style and ability. He is considered a product of his environment, an example of his time rather than a ground-breaking figure, competent, but not especially gifted. Taylor's critical reception in his time, however, was extremely positive, owing partially to the practice by Genteel Poets of commenting favorably on each other's works. Many critics have considered the difference between Taylor's early critical and popular success and his relative obscurity one hundred years later. John T. Krumpelman pinpoints the imitative nature of his work, while Paul C. Wermuth blames both Taylor's lack of writing ability and a change in literary tastes for his diminished reputation in the twentieth century.

Principal Works

Ximena; or, The Battle of the Sierra Morena, and Other Poems (poetry) 1844

*Views A-Foot; or, Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff (travel essays) 1848

Rhymes of Travel, Ballads and Poems Poetry 1849

Eldorado; or, Adventures in the Path of Empire: Comprising a Voyage to California, via Panama; Life in San Francisco and Monterey; Pictures of the Gold Region, and Experiences of Mexican Travel (travel essays, two volumes) 1850

A Book of Romances, Lyrics, and Songs (poetry) 1852

A Journey to Central Africa; or, Life and Landscapes from Egypt to the Negro Kingdoms of the White Nile (travel essays) 1854

Poems of the Orient (poetry) 1855

Lands of the Saracen; or, Pictures of Palestine, Asia Minor, Sicily and Spain (travel essays) 1855

A visit to India, China, and Japan, in the Year 1853 (travel essays) 1855

Poems of Home and Travel (poetry) 1855

#Cyclopaedia of Modern Travel: A Record of Adventure, Exploration and Discovery, for the Past Fifty Years: Comprising Narratives of the Most Distinguished Travelers Since the Beginning of This Century (travel essays) 1856

Northern Travel; Summer and Winter Pictures of Sweden, Lapland, and Norway (travel essays) 1858

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Criticism

Richard Cary (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: The Genteel Circle: Bayard Taylor and his New York Friends, Cornell University Press, 1952, pp. 14-21.

[In the following excerpt, Cary discusses Taylor's egotism and the effect it had on his work and on his role as a leader of the Genteel Tradition.]

With complete justice Russell Blankenship calls Bayard Taylor “the crown prince of the Genteel Tradition under the benign despotism of the First Triumvirate, Lowell, Longfellow, and Holmes.”1 In Taylor may be descried all the traits of the romantic-sentimental school which culminates in a carefully cultivated academic isolationism despite its pretenses to rugged worldliness and manliness. His achievement was an inspiration to his three comrades, his popularity their hope, his sturdiness their rock in time of trouble. [Richard Henry] Stoddard, most clamorously self-sufficient of the four, paid Taylor this tribute after his death, “My nature is not a reverent one, I fear, but I looked up to Bayard Taylor.”2 [Edmund Clarence] Stedman, most dependent upon Taylor's spiritual largesse, and [Thomas Baileg] Aldrich, most equable of the quartet, also acknowledged their debts to him on frequent public and private occasions. He was all they were striving to be: well known, widely read, world-traveled, acclaimed by an indulgent audience, handsome, dashing, an inveterate idealist, and a solid family man. As long as he lived, he remained, discounting small disloyalties, the apex of their aspirations.

In his turn, Taylor revered the great Brahmins. He borrowed their themes and techniques, he aped their bookish urbanity, he longed for their Olympian status in the world of readers. He sought their praises avidly and quoted their favorable phrases exuberantly in his letters. He visited them as often as pretext would warrant (much to Stoddard's disgust), wrote eulogies on their flimsiest efforts, and associated himself with them in thought and print wherever and whenever possible. His fondest desire was to be mentioned in the same breath with them, to be entombed in the same future anthologies of American literature. He was to die disappointed, however, for he lacked that fund of human understanding which distinguished them from lesser practitioners of the genteel mode. They moved through the hearts of their readers in a surge of deep-felt sentiment; he hovered about their heads in a translucent mist of romance. His exteriority fell victim to winds of realism which could not affect the inward warmth induced by his elders.

Taylor's salient flaw, second in seriousness only to his essential mediocrity, was his hunger for fame. His quest for recognition was insatiable and, eventually, fatal. He diverted his energy into so many channels that his output was shallow in every respect. He substituted versatility and industry for originality and profundity. His subsidiary careers of journalist, traveler, writer of travel books, lecturer, diplomatist, and landed proprietor interfered with his prime ambition to become a distinguished poet. These secondary activities—true to the genteel code, he considered poetry the highest accomplishment of man—sapped his strength and finally brought him down. Taylor died twenty-five years before any of his three intimates, martyr to the “cheaper service” of which he wrote in “Implora Pace.” His life was too full of excursion and he was too intent upon immediate fame to give the poetic sentiment sufficient time and quiet to mature.

The cult of the writer as gentleman was one of the most important genteel attitudes to which he subscribed. Remembering Scott and Burke in Great Britain, Irving and Cooper in America, he erected a gigantic country estate which he called Cedarcroft, near Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. He devoted a disproportionate part of the rest of his life supporting or trying to dispose of it. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer,3 Albert H. Smyth,4 and other commentators testify to its severe drain upon his resources, mental and monetary. Mrs. Taylor reports additional tribulations:

He was driven by the demands which his estate made upon him. He had a hearty, unaffected welcome for his friends, and they could not stay too long; but others, who had no claim upon his friendship, made one on his hospitality. He was vexed and teased by the petty gossip which assailed him, and by the direct assaults upon his freedom.5

The gossip and assaults upon his freedom of which Mrs. Taylor speaks sprang largely from the bucolic townsfolk of Kennett. They murmured against the frequent consignments of delicacies that passed through town on their way to Cedarcroft. Taylor affected an Eastern potentate's flair for entertainment, and it was particularly the spirituous nature of the refreshments that fostered hostile remarks.

Taylor's rage for recognition led him to solicit applause and to misconstrue the enthusiasm of celebrity-hunters for the sincere appreciation of literate readers. He delighted in the outward signs of his popularity evoked by his appearance on the lecture platform. Three letters written in February, March, and April, 1854, emphatically repudiate matinee idolatry, then continue contrarily to a confession of complete enjoyment.6 He was happy to confuse the inquisitive and the critical faculties of the mobs who paid fifty cents to see his romantic profile and costume; it bolstered his belief in himself as an indestructible poet. He was “anxious for the roses,”7 as George Edward Woodberry puts it, but he is not to be accused of petty egotism. His vanity was of the kind that took pleasure in achievement even if it were his own. His self-love was that of a child, supreme within his circumscribed universe. He repeated joyfully words of praise accorded to his works. But his manifest honesty and naïveté more than counterbalanced this offensive little habit.

Taylor was a man of infinite attraction, as his close friendship with such dissimilar personalities as Stoddard, Stedman, and Aldrich demonstrates. He had none of the repellent traits reputed to “the jealous, waspish, wrong-head, rhyming race.” His willingness to forget a fault or patch up a difference is to be noted throughout his letters. His inclination to forgive was, in fact, sometimes embarrassing. He made his correspondent feel like a gamin who has hit an angel in the eye with a mud pie. And he was frequently too zealous in delegating the blame to the other party when, clearly, he was in the wrong himself. His expansiveness in these cases is amusingly ingenuous. But his sincerity is unquestionable. He praised unstintingly and was happy in his friends' happiness. He was a monument of good nature, giving freely of spiritual comfort and worldly goods. His ideal was peace on earth, good will.

Taylor's publicity-seeking and fraternizing with important international figures lend a distasteful savor to many of his letters. He practically bent his head to be patted by the Empress of Russia and Bismarck, relating his experiences in their company with ill-concealed effervescence to his friends in plebeian America. Woodberry attributes this parvenu trait of Taylor's to “a discomfortable doubt of his position.”8 There is much to commend this view, for Taylor was basically insecure; he did lack the sense of self-affirmation which usually goes with ripened genius. Four years before his death he was still grasping at outward signs of approval to reassure himself.9 As so often before, he misinterpreted personal esteem for literary acclaim. It was a fortunate confusion for him; it prevented warping of his amiable nature and precluded bitterness or total disillusionment.

In order to assuage his thirst for fame he sought to encompass...

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John T. Krumpelmann (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: Bayard Taylor and German Letters, Cram, de Gruyter & Co., 1959, pp. 78-130.

[In the following excerpt, Krumpelmann examines the degree to which Taylor's work imitates German literature.]

As in his other works, so in his original literary compositions, Bayard Taylor shows the effects of his knowledge of and interest in German literature. If we examine these works chronologically, we find an ever increasing amount of German influence. As has been indicated above1 Taylor's real acquaintance with German literature dates from his first trip to Europe (July, 1844—June, 1846). Consequently, his first little volume of poems, Ximena, published...

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Paul C. Wermuth (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Critical and Other Works,” in Bayard Taylor, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1973, pp. 156-179.

[In the following excerpt, Wermuth discusses Taylor's translation of Faust, his parodies, and other critical pursuits.]

I TRANSLATIONS

The Faust translation is Taylor's most important work, and his only book which has survived. Still considered standard in some quarters, it is currently available in the Modern Library and in the Oxford World's Classics. Taylor seriously aimed at making it the standard version; indeed, he said that it was going to be “the” English Faust and that no one need translate it again after him....

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C. W. La Salle II (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Story of Kennett, by Bayard Taylor, College & University Press, 1973, pp. 7-21.

[In the following introduction to Taylor's The Story of Kennett, La Salle offers an overview of Taylor's career and provides background for the novel.]

One hundred years ago, few serious readers in America would have thought it possible that Bayard Taylor would someday be an almost forgotten author, for he was one of the better-known writers of his period. Taylor's fate serves to remind us that two very different literatures were being written in the 1850's and 1860's. Among Taylor's contemporaries were Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo...

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Luther S. Luedtke and Patrick D. Morrow (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Bret Harte on Bayard Taylor: An Unpublished Tribute,” in The Markham Review, Vol. 3, No. 6, May, 1973, pp. 101-104.

[In the following essay, Luedtke and Morrow offer a commentary on Bret Harte's obituary of Taylor, and examine the relationship between the two authors.]

When Bayard Taylor died in Berlin on December 28, 1878, the one man who most fittingly could write his obituary for the German nation had just settled in the Ruhr town of Crefeld: his countryman, Francis Bret Harte. For Taylor, the German ambassadorship to which he had just been appointed culminated an affair with the heart of Germany which reached back beyond his acclaimed translation of...

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Hans Joachim Lang and Benjamin Lease (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Melville's Cosmopolitan: Bayard Taylor in The Confidence Man,” in Amerikastudien, Vol. 22, 1977, pp. 286-89.

[In the following essay, Lang and Lease examine Herman Melville's portrayal of Taylor in The Confidence Man.]

Shortly after finishing The Confidence-Man, Melville came down from the Berkshires to New York where he spent “a good stirring evening” with Evert Duyckinck (as Duyckinck described it in a diary entry dated October 1, 1856). According to Duyckinck, Melville was “charged to the muzzle with his sailor metaphysics and jargon of things unknowable” and overflowing with ironical wit. Duyckinck concludes his entry with a...

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Robert K. Martin (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Bayard Taylor's Valley of Bliss: The Pastoral and the Search for Form,” in The Markham Review, Vol. 9, Fall, 1979, pp. 13-17.

[In the following essay, Martin discusses Taylor's use of pastoral settings and classical themes in his treatment of homosexuality.]

I know … a great valley, bounded by a hundred miles of snowy peaks; lakes in its bed; enormous hillsides, dotted with groves of ilex and pine; orchards of orange and olive; a perfect climate, where it is bliss enough just to breathe, and freedom from the distorted laws of men, for none are near enough to enforce them! If there is no legal way of escape for you, here, at least,...

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Paul C. Wermuth (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Introduction to Selected Letters of Bayard Taylor, Bucknell University Press, 1997, pp. 17-31.

[In the following introduction, Wermuth offers a survey of Taylor's career and his place in the literary climate of the 1800s.]

“Well—if I were to write about myself for six hours, it would all come to this: that Life is, for me, the developing, asserting and establishing of my own Entelcheia—the making all that is possible out of such powers as I may have, without violently forcing or disturbing them. You have often, no doubt, wondered at and condemned the variety of things I have either wilfully attempted or been compelled to do by...

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