William Cullen Bryant Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
ph_0111205058-Bryant_W.jpg William Cullen Bryant Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: As a poet, Bryant is often described as a transitional figure because of his fluency in exploiting Romantic themes drawn from nature in conventional neoclassical verse forms. In his half-century as an editor for the New York Evening Post, he was a vigorous spokesman for American liberal thought.

Early Life

William Cullen Bryant was born November 3, 1794, in Cummington, Massachusetts. His father, Dr. Peter Bryant, was a physician who left Cummington to escape his debts soon after Bryant was born. When he returned two years later, the precocious child had already begun to read the Bible under the tutelage of his mother, née Sarah Snell, and her father, who was a noted deacon in the Congregationalist church. The child was reared in an atmosphere of Calvinist piety and sober devotion to literature.

Bryant wrote his first notable poem when he was ten years old, a fifty-four-line celebration of American education composed for the commencement exercises at his school. In 1808, when the Embargo Act was creating a violent national controversy, he wrote a twelve-page poem, “The Embargo,” attacking Thomas Jefferson—a piece of youthful invective that the mature Bryant, a Jeffersonian Democrat, came to regret. Bryant continued to write verses and to study under tutors, and, in 1810, he entered Williams College. By then, Bryant was already known as a poet, a reputation romantically enhanced by his tall, slender physique crowned with a shock of brown hair. He left Williams after two years, disappointed by the instruction and in the hope of attending Yale.

Family finances, however, prohibited study at Yale, and, in 1811, Bryant went to Worthington to study law under Samuel Howe; in 1814, he moved again to Bridgewater to undertake his office training. In 1815, he was admitted to law practice. He continued to write verse, and, in 1817, five of his poems, including the first version of “Thanatopsis,” appeared in the North American Review, to which they had been submitted by his father. Over the next few years, Bryant published more poems and essays in the North American Review. In 1821, firmly established in his legal practice in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Bryant married Frances Fairchild, read “The Ages” as the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard College’s commencement ceremony, and published his first book of poetry. Poems was published through the efforts of three friends—Edward T. Channing, Richard Henry Dana, and Willard Phillips—and included such well-known works as “To a Waterfowl,” “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood,” and the final version of “Thanatopsis.” This successful year marked the beginning of his adult career as a stable husband and father and as a national man of letters.

Life’s Work

The ambitious Bryant was not to be confined for long to the drudgery of practicing law in a small town, and, in 1825, he moved to New York City and assumed editorship of the New York Review. The new journal had circulation problems right from the beginning, however, and, in 1829, Bryant abandoned efforts to give it life and became part owner and editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post. This crucial change shaped the remainder of his life, for he was able to turn the Evening Post into both a personal and a commercial success. Under his direction and often through his own editorials, the Evening Post became a major organ of democratic principles in American journalism.

The political quarrels in which Bryant involved the Evening Post became acrimonious at times. In one contretemps with the Commercial Advertiser, Bryant ended up beating William Stone, one of its editors, with a cowhide whip on Broadway. Although he was suspicious of William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionists, fearing that they would cause terrible harm to the Union, he defended eloquently the rights of antislavery writers. His outrage at the murder in Alton, Illinois, of the Reverend Elijah Lovejoy for his anti-slavery editorials produced a splendid defense of free speech:

The right to discuss freely and openly, by speech, by the pen, by the press, all political questions, and to examine and animadvert upon all political institutions, is a right so clear and certain, so interwoven with our other liberties, so necessary, in fact to their existence, that without it we must fall at once into despotism or anarchy. To say that he who holds unpopular opinions must hold them at the peril of his life, and that, if he expresses them in public, he has only himself to blame if they who...

(The entire section is 1914 words.)

William Cullen Bryant Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

William Cullen Bryant was born on November 3, 1794, in Cummington, Massachusetts, to Peter Bryant and Sarah Snell Bryant. The poet enjoyed a close family life and, from an early age, benefited from the positive influences of both parents, as well as from those of his maternal grandfather, Ebenezer Snell. The latter’s Calvinist influence, though muted, is evident in the language of the poetry and in the recurrent image of an angry God threatening retribution for humankind’s sins. His mother’s gentler religious influence bore directly on his precocity as a reader in general, and of the Bible in particular, at the age of four. Bryant was later to remember those conducting the religious services of his very early childhood experiences as “often poets in their extemporaneous prayers.”

A counter, and as time passed more prevailing, influence was that of his liberal physician father, Peter Bryant, who encouraged the poet in his early experiments with satires, lampoons, and pastorals. Under that encouraging tutelage, Bryant published his first poem of substance, “The Embargo,” in 1808, at the age of thirteen; three years later, he set about translating the third book of the Aeneid. In 1817, Peter Bryant took copies of several of his son’s poems to his friend Willard Phillips, one of the editors of the North American Review. “Thanatopsis” and one other poem were published immediately in the journal’s September issue....

(The entire section is 491 words.)

William Cullen Bryant Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

William Cullen Bryant spent his childhood under the opposing influences of his father, a liberal-minded physician who later became a Unitarian and a member of the state legislature, and his maternal grandfather, a sternly Calvinist farmer who was a deacon in the local church. Bryant, a precocious boy, showed an early interest in politics, religion, and literature, and his first volume of poetry, The Embargo: Or, Sketches of the Times, a Satire, was published before his fourteenth birthday. The principal poem in this volume, “The Embargo,” written in heroic couplets, attacked President Thomas Jefferson in all the ways that were current in New England at the time, to which he added a number of pious clichés in a childish imitation of the technique of Alexander Pope.

Bryant was also interested in nature and spent many hours roaming through the fields and woods near his home in western Massachusetts. His poetry gradually changed from measured heroic couplets to a style and diction more like those of William Wordsworth. He wrote several versions of the famous “Thanatopsis” while still in his teens, but, because the poem expressed many Unitarian ideas, it had to be hidden from his Calvinist grandfather. Bryant wished to study at Harvard University, and his father agreed, but when his grandfather insisted that it would be a needless extravagance, the boy was sent to Williams College. He spent only one year there before returning to Cummington to study law.

“Thanatopsis,” a poem showing how any man might go to his death confident that any faith would save him, appeared in the North American Review in 1817. The poem, which eventually came to be acknowledged as one of the first and best American Romantic poems and to demonstrate an already developed technique, initially appeared anonymously and evoked little comment for several years. His editors, however, hailed Bryant as a new poetic genius. He continued to write industriously and published another volume, Poems (containing, among others, “The Yellow Violet” and “To a Waterfowl”) in 1821. That same year he was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard, but his offering, “The Ages,” a long exposition of the progress and perfectibility of man, did not impress his academic...

(The entire section is 941 words.)