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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