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.)