Bayard Taylor Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.