Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1914
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.
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.
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 disagree with him should rise and put him to death, is to strike at all rights, all liberties, all protection of the laws, and to justify or extenuate all crimes.
Bryant expressed his humanitarianism in many ways. In 1857, he attacked the Dred Scott decision, fearing that it would make slavery a national institution. He was a fervent supporter of reform in the country’s prisons and printed several editorials denouncing flogging and capital punishment. He was especially critical of the policy of imprisoning young people with veteran criminals, lamenting the corruption to which the practice led.
Bryant frequently wrote in the interest of civic reforms in New York City. He scrutinized both police and fire departments, urging that the police be given uniforms and that a paid fire department be organized. He editorialized in 1860 about the city’s deplorable slum housing, demanding government regulation of tenement construction and rental. He conducted a long campaign to create a park in Manhattan, and when Central Park was planned, he fought the entrepreneurs who wanted to build apartments in the park. He was an enthusiastic friend of American dramatists and artists, lauding their efforts to produce truly American art. Aware of the lack of satisfactory copyright laws, Bryant sought the establishment of an international copyright law.
Over the years, Bryant had read such eighteenth century economists as Adam Smith, and their influence probably stood behind his swing from Federalism to Jacksonian democracy. Yet Bryant was never a completely faithful adherent of party politics and could be independent when he believed that individual liberties were being threatened. Thus, in one editorial, he attacked the practice of burning abolitionist propaganda by Southern justices of the peace. In 1839, he assailed the Democratic Administration for ruling that a group of slaves who mutinied on the Amistad should be returned to their owners. Bryant described the mutineers as “heroes not malefactors.”
As a result of the respect he commanded for his forthrightness, Bryant achieved some influence in politics. When the Civil War broke out, Bryant urged that the slaves be quickly freed and that the war be brought to an end. He supported Abraham Lincoln, apparently influenced him in his cabinet choices, and wrote to him concerning political issues.
The man of practical affairs continued to write poetry. A devoted traveler, Bryant visited Illinois in 1832 and wrote one of his most famous poems, “The Prairies,” as a result. His later volumes of verse included The Fountain and Other Poems (1842), The White-Footed Deer (1844), and Thirty Poems (1864). In 1870-1872, Bryant published his translations of Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.) and Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.).
Bryant’s poems of nature celebrate the opening up of the new nation: its topography and its flora and fauna. Famous poems such as “A Forest Hymn” and “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood” are infused with a religious feeling that makes them confessions of personal faith. Although he did not embrace the Transcendentalism of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, his poems often express a deep piety toward nature, an attitude that is essentially spiritual. Thus, in “A Forest Hymn” he sees in a “delicate forest flower,”
An emanation of the indwelling Life, A visible token of the upholding Love, That are the soul of this great universe.
Bryant was certainly one of the giants of nineteenth century journalism. He has been praised for introducing culture to American newspapers, as well as for his important championing of free trade, civic consciousness, and the virtues of a rational liberalism. He was respected by his contemporaries as a man of high moral standards and varied literary accomplishments, and he proved to be a hardheaded businessman who made a substantial success of the New York Evening Post. He was tireless in his role as a public figure, and his brief final illness was precipitated by his delivery, in Central Park, of an address honoring the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini.
Although his poetry was extremely popular in his own day and was praised by Edgar Allan Poe and Emerson, he has not been accorded the highest honors by posterity. Such memorable poems as “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl” are moving dramatizations of universal emotions couched in simple language, but most of his works lack the complexity and richness associated with great poetry. Scholars have judged Bryant an able student of prosody, who influenced other poets both in his theory and in his practice, and he has been praised as the first American poet to respond sensitively to the literature of Latin America.
Bryant earned an honorable place in American history for his journalistic eloquence as an advocate of democratic principles, and he has given pleasure to many readers by his lyrical power in stating a true piety and idealism in smooth verse and assuring sentiments. He will be remembered for these accomplishments.
Bigelow, John. William Cullen Bryant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1890. Bigelow was a close friend and business partner of Bryant. His book lacks critical depth but is important for its firsthand account of Bryant’s life and character.
Brown, Charles H. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971. A well-written, comprehensive, and reliable account of Bryant’s life. The study of Bryant’s long career at the New York Evening Post is excellent. Little literary analysis.
Bryant, William Cullen, II. “Painting and Poetry: A Love Affair of Long Ago.” American Quarterly 22 (Winter, 1970): 859-882. Traces Bryant’s involvement with painters such as Thomas Cole and his help in establishing the National Academy of the Arts.
Donovan, Alan B. “William Cullen Bryant: Father of American Song.” New England Quarterly 41 (December, 1968): 505-520. Identifies the importance of Calvinism and neoclassicism in shaping Bryant’s Romantic verses. Finds in Bryant’s work “the first native articulation of the art of poetry.”
McLean, Albert F., Jr. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964. A thorough and sensitive study of Bryant’s poetry, divided into three main sections: “The Poems of Nature,” “The Poems of Death,” and “The Poems of Progress.” Sees Bryant as a poet who “could never make the basic decision which Emerson was to formulate as the choice between self-reliance and conformity.”
Nevins, Allan. The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism. New York: Russell and Russell, 1922. Includes a long account of Bryant’s accomplishments as an editor, praising his business judgment, his cultural influence, and his liberal stance on social issues.
Parrington, Vernon L. “William Cullen Bryant: Puritan Liberal.” In Main Currents in American Thought. Vol. 2, 238-246. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1930. Explicates Bryant’s liberal politics and describes him as “the father of nineteenth-century journalism.”
Phair, Judith Turner. A Bibliography of William Cullen Bryant and His Critics: 1808-1972. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing Co., 1975. An extremely useful annotated bibliography of critical commentary on Bryant.
Ringe, Donald A. “Kindred Spirits: Bryant and Cole.” American Quarterly 6 (Fall, 1954): 233-244. Compares Bryant’s aesthetics with those of the painter Thomas Cole, finding that Bryant had much in common with Cole and the other artists of the Hudson River School.