Christopher Pearse Cranch Essay - Critical Essays

Cranch, Christopher Pearse


Christopher Pearse Cranch 1813-1892

American poet, journalist, and artist.

Recognized by contemporaries for his poetry, essays, and landscape paintings, Cranch is best remembered today as the member of the New England Transcendentalist movement with a sense of humor, depicting Ralph Waldo Emerson and other leading members of the group in caricature. He was considered a dilettante by many contemporaries because his interests and talents covered a variety of fields, including painting, literature, and music. He was associated with the Hudson River School of painting and was, for a time, a member of the American expatriate colony in Italy.

Biographical Information

Cranch was born in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 8, 1813, the youngest son of thirteen children. His father, William Cranch, was a judge and his mother, Nancy Greenleaf, was the niece of John Quincy Adams. Cranch attended Columbian College (now George Washington University), graduating in 1832, and the Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 1835. Although he was never ordained, he worked for several years as an itinerant minister, traveling from Maine to Virginia and eventually to what was then the West—Illinois, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. There he joined the staff of the Western Messenger, a journal whose purpose was to spread Transcendentalism into that part of the country. In 1837-38, he moved to Louisville and filled in for Western Messenger editor James Freeman Clarke, who spent two winters in New England. During these years Cranch struggled with his own perceived inadequacy for the ministry, a career he considered his duty to pursue, and his attraction to literature and art. His personal struggle was exacerbated by the ongoing conflict between conservative Unitarianism and Transcendentalism, and in 1843 Cranch left his ministry. In October of that year Cranch married New Yorker Elizabeth de Windt and the couple settled in New York City. In 1844 Cranch published Poems, a collection of his pieces reflecting the Transcendentalist outlook.

Cranch soon began drifting away from Transcendentalism and concentrating more on his painting, becoming associated with the Hudson River School. Beginning in 1846, the Cranchs spent three years abroad, during which time they made the acquaintance of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, whom Cranch greatly admired. They returned to New York in 1849 where they took up residence in the city, although they summered in Niagara, the Hudson River, the Berkshires, and the Catskills, where Cranch could find inspiration for his landscape painting. On a return visit to Europe in 1853, Cranch met James Russell Lowell and the two became life-long friends. Cranch spent the next ten years in Paris painting, writing children's books, and translating Vergil's Æneid. Although his paintings sold, his income as an artist was not sufficient to support his family. When an inheritance at last brought him financial stability, Cranch abandoned art and concentrated once again on literary pursuits. In 1880 Cranch returned to Europe for two years, accompanying his daughter Caroline, a promising painter, so that she might be exposed to the work of the European masters. He published three more collections of poetry, the last in 1887. Cranch died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1892.

Major Works

Cranch's first poem was published in 1836, a parodic ballad entitled “Childe Christopher,” followed by “Correspondence” (1839) and “Enosis” (1840), often anthologized as an example of Transcendental poetry and warmly praised by Emerson. Beginning in 1836, Cranch became a regular contributor of both poetry and prose, most of it religious in nature, to the Western Messenger, and he continued to write for the magazine even after he had returned east. His poems “To the Aurora Borealis” (1840) and “Enosis” were recommended by Emerson to Margaret Fuller, editor of the new Transcendentalist journal The Dial; both pieces appeared and Cranch was the chief contributor of poetry to the magazine for the first two issues. He continued to write for The Dial from 1840 to 1844, and also contributed Transcendental poetry to the Harbinger, Graham's, Godey's, and the Democratic Review. His most famous prose pieces were his review of Emerson's The American Scholar (1837) and “Transcendentalism,” a defense of the movement, written in 1841. Both pieces were written for the Western Messenger.

Cranch's first poetry collection appeared in 1844 and was titled simply Poems. Although he continued to write for periodicals, he did not produce another book for nearly 30 years when he published Satan: A Libretto (1873), well received by critics but ignored by the public. The following year Cranch published The Bird and the Bell, with Other Poems, a collection whose title poem had been written many years earlier with advice and assistance from Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. His final volume of poetry, Ariel and Caliban (1887), brought the total number of sonnets published over the course of his career to nearly 100.

In addition to his poetry and essays, Cranch's best known works are his children's tales, The Last of the Huggermuggers (1856) and its sequel Kobboltozo (1857), and his translation of Vergil's Æneid (1872) into blank verse.

Critical Reception

Critical assessment of Cranch's work is mixed. In his own time, he was called a dilettante; his detractors believed that although he was talented in many fields, he pursued none with the intensity required to become great in any of them. Emerson gently acknowledged a similar sentiment in a letter to Cranch: “I have always understood that you are the victim of your own various gifts; that all the muses, jealous of each other, haunt your brain.” Edgar Allan Poe, who despised the Transcendentalist movement, granted Cranch faint praise as “the least intolerable of the school of Boston Transcendentalists,” although he later conceded that Cranch was “one of our finest poets.” The assessment of Cranch as a dabbler followed him into the twentieth-century. J. C. Levenson, calling him a “minor talent,” claims that the poet was “locked in a world of banal conventionality.” Yet Joseph M. DeFalco believes he is one of the five greatest Transcendentalist poets and one of the few Transcendentalists with a sense of humor.

Even critics unimpressed with the complete body of Cranch's work single out one or two poems for distinction. Levenson suggests that the pair of sonnets entitled “The Garden” represents the best of Cranch's poetry, while Greta D. Little and Joel Myerson consider “Correspondence,” which draws heavily from Emersonian philosophy, to be among his finest. Little and Myerson concede, however, that the conventional criticism of Cranch is well-founded: “Like many people who have spread their abilities over a number of fields, Cranch failed to make a significant name for himself in any one of them.” Even Cranch himself acknowledged that: “I have wooed too many mistresses; and the world punishes me for not shutting my eyes to all charmers but one.”

Principal Works

Poems (poetry) 1844

The Last of the Huggermuggers: A Giant Story (fairy tale) 1856

Kobboltozo: A Sequel to The Last of the Huggermuggers (fairy tale) 1857

Æneid of Vergil [translator] (poetry) 1872

Satan: A Libretto (poetry) 1874

The Bird and the Bell, with Other Poems (poetry) 1875

Ariel and Caliban, with Other Poems (poetry) 1887

Three Children's Novels (fairy tales) 1993


Southern Literary Messenger (review date 1845)

SOURCE: “Poems by Christopher Pearse Cranch.” Southern Literary Messenger 11, no. 5 (May 1845): 295-99.

[In the following anonymous review, the critic provides a mixed reading of Cranch's Poems.]

In spite of the matter-of-fact character ascribed to our nation, we have every day instances that the soil of Uncle Sam's great farm is not only fertile in producing merchants, whose possessions are those of princes, statesmen and military heroes, who, by the way, in these peaceful times, earn epaulets and laurels bloodlessly enough; but also numberless writers of greater or less distinction, and in every class of literature.

Among the latter, none...

(The entire section is 3855 words.)

J. C. Levenson (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: Levenson, J. C. “Christopher Pearse Cranch: The Case History of a Minor Artist in America.” American Literature 21, no. 4 (January 1950): 415-26.

[In the following essay, Levenson suggests that Cranch's indolence resigned him to a career of mediocrity as a writer and an artist.]

A great literature is more than the sum of a number of great writers. … The continuity of a literature is essential to its greatness: it is very largely the function of secondary writers to preserve this continuity, and to provide a body of writing which is not necessarily read by posterity, but which plays a great part in forming the link between those writers...

(The entire section is 4473 words.)

F. DeWolfe Miller (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: Miller, F. DeWolfe. “Christopher Pearse Cranch—Poet, Painter, and Humorist.” In Christopher Pearse Cranch and His Caricatures of New England Transcendentalism, pp. 3-28. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.

[In the following excerpt, Miller assesses Cranch's modest reputation as artist and writer.]

The character of Christopher Pearse Cranch presents no anomalies and no particularly difficult paradoxes. The even moral tenor of his long good life reveals him as a man to whom it was so natural to be good that no especial praise is suggested. Diffidence was his most marked characteristic, and the trait of course found its way into much of his work. We...

(The entire section is 8379 words.)

Joseph M. DeFalco (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: DeFalco, Joseph M. Introduction to Collected Poems of Christopher Pearse Cranch, pp. vii-xx. Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1971.

[In the following excerpt, DeFalco discusses Cranch's writing career and the critical response to his work by his contemporaries.]

By any estimate Christopher Pearse Cranch must be ranked as one of the five major American Transcendentalist poets. Although he lacked the profundity and originality of Emerson, and although he never achieved the brilliant insights of Thoreau, at his best he approaches their more significant productions in poetry; in his ordinary efforts he is at least equal to Channing and Very....

(The entire section is 3504 words.)

Elizabeth R. McKinsey (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: McKinsey, Elizabeth R. “Christopher Pearse Cranch.” In The Western Experiment: New England Transcendentalists in the Ohio Valley, pp. 34-41. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, McKinsey provides a brief overview of Cranch's career as a Transcendentalist writer in the West.]

Christopher Pearse Cranch, like Clarke, was twenty-three when he went west in 1836. He shared a sense of dedication to the Unitarian mission, but had no definite role into which to fit himself. He went not to fill a particular pulpit but to visit his cousin, William Eliot, the Unitarian minister in St. Louis, and he stayed in Cincinnati (where his older...

(The entire section is 2194 words.)

David Robinson (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Robinson, David. “Christopher Pearse Cranch, Robert Browning, and the Problem of ‘Transcendental’ Friendship.” Studies in the American Renaissance (1977): 145-53.

[In the following essay, Robinson examines Cranch's friendship with Robert Browning and its effect on Cranch's poetry.]

The thirty year interval between Christopher Pearse Cranch's first collection of verse, Poems (1844), and the successive publications of Satan (1874) and The Bird and the Bell (1875)1 is marked by many apparent changes in a man characterized as one of the most restless of the Transcendentalists.2 Much of this period was spent...

(The entire section is 3128 words.)

David Robinson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Robinson, David. “The Career and Reputation of Christopher Pearse Cranch: An Essay in Biography and Bibliography.” Studies in the American Renaissance (1978): 453-72.

[In the following essay, Robinson surveys critical and biographical literature depicting Cranch as a Transcendentalist, poet, and painter.]

Christopher Pearse Cranch assured himself at least a small place in American literary history through his caricatures of Emerson's Nature, which suggested that the Transcendentalists shared a certain sense of humor about their common enterprise, and even about their leader Emerson. But just as his drawings suggest a different mood from the high...

(The entire section is 7052 words.)

Shelly Armitage (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Armitage, Shelly. “Christopher Pearse Cranch: The Wit as Poet.” American Transcendental Quarterly n.s. 1, no. 1 (March 1987): 33-47.

[In the following essay, Armitage discusses the role of wit, as defined by Emerson, in Cranch's poetry.]

You were not born to hide such gifts as yours
'Neath dreary law-books, nor amid the dust
And dry routine of desks to sit and rust
Where clerks plod through their tasks on office-floors.
Let duller laborers drudge through daily chores,
And do what fate for them makes fit and just.
You bravely do your work because you must;
And when released, your genius sings and soars.
Such humor your pen hath ever run
In pictures or in...

(The entire section is 6413 words.)

Julie M. Norko (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Norko, Julie M. “Christopher Pearse Cranch's Struggle with the Muses.” Studies in the American Renaissance (1992): 209-27.

[In the following essay, Norko discusses Cranch's personal struggle in choosing between a career in the ministry, which he believed was his duty, and art and literature, which he found more appealing.]

In may 1874, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a letter to Christopher Pearse Cranch containing his assessment of the younger man's talents: “I have always understood that you are the victim of your own various gifts; that all the muses, jealous of each other, haunt your brain, and I well remember your speech to the frogs, which called out all...

(The entire section is 8749 words.)

Greta D. Little and Joel Myerson (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Little, Greta D., and Joel Myerson. Introduction to Three Children's Novels by Christopher Pearse Cranch, pp. ix-xxxvi. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Little and Myerson offer an overview of Cranch's literary career, focusing on his stories for children.]

Christopher Pearse Cranch's reputation has not fared well over the years. Henry James, who knew him, called Cranch a “painter, poet, musician, mild and melancholy humourist, [who] produced pictures the American traveller sometimes acquired and left verses that the American compiler sometimes includes.”1 And Perry Miller, in his anthology of The...

(The entire section is 7032 words.)

Nancy Stula (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Stula, Nancy. “Christopher Pearse Cranch: Painter of Transcendentalism.” In Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts, edited by Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright, pp. 548-73. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1999.

[In the following essay, Stula examines Cranch's career as an artist who successfully translated Emersonian philosophy and Transcendentalism into a visual medium.]

In September 1841—just six years after completing his studies at Harvard Divinity School—the young Unitarian minister Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892) confessed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I become more and more inclined to sink the...

(The entire section is 10663 words.)

Further Reading


Kane, Paul. “Christopher Pearse Cranch.” In Poetry of the American Renaissance: A Diverse Anthology from the Romantic Period, p. 165. New York: George Braziller, 1995.

Brief biographical sketch of Cranch accompanying a selection of his poetry.


Dedmond, Francis B. “‘A Pencil in the Grasp of Your Graphic Wit’: An Illustrated Letter from C. P. Cranch to Theodore Parker.” Studies in the American Renaissance (1981): 345-57.

Includes the text of an 1848 letter, complete with several caricatures, from Cranch in Rome to his friend Theodore Parker.


(The entire section is 336 words.)