© Paul P. Reuben
Chapter 3: William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
Outside Link: Bryant Homestead, Museum House, Bryant Memorabilia
Page Links: Primary Works Selected Bibliography Study Questions MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
A Brief Biography
Site Links: Chap 3: Index Authors Alphabetical List Table Of Contents Home Page October 4, 2011
Source Civil War Poetry
"Thanatopsis," September, 1817, published in The North American Review; Poems, 1821; The Poetical Works of WCB, 1903.
Poems; with explanatory notes. NY: Burt, [18--]. PS1150 .E00
WCB and Oliver Bell Bunce. Picturesque America; or, The land we live in. A delineation by pen and pencil of the mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, water-falls, shores, canons, valleys, cities, and other picturesque features of our country. With illustrations on steel and wood by eminent American artists. 2 vols. NY: D. Appleton, 1872-1874. Case / Folio E168 .B89
A new library of poetry and song. Edited by William Cullen Bryant; including also, a biographical memoir of Bryant, by James Grant Wilson. 2 vols. NY: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1883. Case / PR1175 .B78
The Iliad of Homer. Translated into English blank verse by William Cullen Bryant. 2 vols. NY: Houghton Mifflin and company, 1898? PA4025.A2 B7
The Odyssey of Homer. Translated into English blank verse by William Cullen Bryant. 2 vols. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1899. PA4025.A5 B75
Representative selections. with introduction, bibliography, and notes, by Tremaine McDowell. NY: American Book Co, 1935. PS1153 .M25
The letters of William Cullen Bryant. edited by William Cullen Bryant, II, and Thomas G. Voss. 3 vols. NY: Fordham UP, 1975. PS1181 .A4
Works of Poetry
"The Embargo"- 1808; "Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood"- 1815; "Thanatopsis"- 1815; "The Yellow Violet"- 1815; "To a Waterfowl"- 1815; "The Burial Place"- 1818; "Oh Fairest of the Rural Maids"- 1820; "The Ages"-1821; "Monument Mountain"- 1824; "A Forest Hymn"- 1825; "To the Fringed Gentian"- 1832; "The Prairies"- 1833; "Earth"- 1835; "To the Apennines"- 1835; "The Fountain"- 1839; "The Antiquity of Freedom"- 1842; "The White-Footed Deer"- 1843; "October, 1866"- 1866; "Among Trees"- 1868.
Works of Translation
Iliad - 1870; Odyssey - 1871
Collections of Works
Poems &emdash;1821 (1st ed.), 1832 (2nd ed.); The Fountain and Other Poems - 1842; The White-Footed Deer and Other Poems -1846; Thirty Poems -1864.
Works of Prose
Lectures on Poetry -1826; Letters of a Traveler -1850.
Selected Bibliography 1980-Present
D'Innocenzo, Michael. ed. William Cullen Bryant and his America: centennial conference proceedings, 1878-1978. NY: AMS Press, 1983.
Gado, Frank. William Cullen Bryant: An American Voice. White River Junction, VT: Antoca P, 2006.
Knight, Denise D. ed. Writers of the American Renaissance: An A-to-Z Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003.
McLean, Albert F. William Cullen Bryant. NY: Twayne, 1964, 1989. PS1181 .M3
McLean, Albert F. William Cullen Bryant. 2nd ed. NY: Twayne, 1989.
Muller, Gilbert H. William Cullen Bryant: Author of America. Albany: State U of New York P, 2008.
Pehrson, Joseph. Thanatopsis. NY: Seesaw Music, 1994. (Musical Score).
Pfitzer, Gregory M. Popular History and the Literary Marketplace, 1840-1920. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2008.
Schmidt, Klaus H., and Fritz Fleischman. eds. Early America Re-Explored: New Readings in Colonial, Early National, and Antebellum Culture. NY: Peter Lang, 2000.
A Student Project by Christina Goforth
William Cullen Bryant lived a long and active life. As a journalist he campaigned vigorously for free speech, free trade, the rights of workman, and the abolition of slavery. (Encarta Online) He was a radical spokesman for the common people, the laborers and mechanics in the city and the small farmers in the country. (Brown 2) As a poet he is an important presence in American literary history as his works mark the birth of American poetry. (Bradley 72)
William Cullen Bryant was born among the beautiful highlands of western Massachusetts on November 3, 1794. It was a region of enjoyment and wonder to him as a boy, full of nature's creatures, deep forests, and tiny brooks. (Brown 4-5) His father, Dr. Peter Bryant, was a physician and surgeon who had moved to Cummington, Massachusetts, only two years before William's birth, to establish a practice. He was well liked for his kindly manner and willingness to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay for his services. His mother, Sarah Snell, was a daughter of one of the first settlers. She was a person of excellent practical sense, very high morals, and had no patience with any form of deceit, or duplicity. William later credited his mother with making a strong impression on his value system. (Godwin Vol. 1, 4) Sarah took a great interest in educating William beginning while he was still a toddler. He learned to read at an amazing rate and it soon became apparent that he was a child prodigy. When he was just a few days older than 16 months, he knew all the letters of the alphabet and began to read the bible before the age of 3. Before his fourth birthday, he finished reading the scriptures from start to finish. (4-5) At 10 years he published his first poem and at 13 his first book Embargo. This book was a political satire, which began as a small poem and then expanded to 420 lines. In this work, young Bryant addressed President Jefferson with disparaging words. His political viewpoints reflected that of his father who was a zealous Federalist (Bradley 18)
With the popularity and success of Embargo came his father's decision that Bryant should attend college. In preparation for this he was sent to live with his uncle, the Reverend Dr. Snell, for coaching in Latin and later studied Greek at a small school kept by Reverend Moses Hallock. (Brown 34) In September of 1810 Bryant entered the sophomore class at Williams College. He found the curriculum and instruction to be intellectually dreary as they focused on geography, arithmetic, logic, and algebra, subjects which were hardly likely to have great appeal to his literary and linguistically inclined talents. He obtained permission from his father to attend his junior year at Yale and withdrew from Williams College after 1 year. (43)
To his great disappointment, when the time came to apply for admission at Yale, his father informed him that he could not afford the tuition. His father pressured him into studying law and he subsequently moved to Worthington to be guided under an attorney, Mr. Howe. (Bigelow 25) Bryant completed his law training in four years instead of the customary five. At 21 he was admitted into the Bar Association and moved to Plainfield where he set up his first practice. He found the town to be depressing and the people to be bigoted in their notions. Within six months he was offered the opportunity to establish a partnership with another young lawyer in Great Barrington and he eagerly accepted. (Brown 74) During this time Bryant's father discovered some poems, he had previously written, in a desk drawer. Always ambitious, he took it upon himself to carry them to Boston for review by his friend Mr. Willard Phillips, founder of the literary enterprise, The North American Review. (Godwin, Vol. 1, 151) Among these submissions was Thanatopsis which is possibly his finest poem. The editorial board was highly impressed by this work, and one of its members, Richard Henry Dana, a lawyer and direct descendent of Anne Bradstreet, exclaimed, "That was never written on this side of the water!" (Brown 78) (Bradley 67) These five poems were published in September of 1817 unsigned, as was the policy of the magazine. This encouraged Bryant to begin once again using literary skills, and he offered to write some essays for the magazine. He was given the task of composing literary criticism and began by attacking the chauvinism that made Americans too touchy about criticism of their own literature from abroad and too generous to their own poets. Bryant's first piece of literary criticism revealed an almost fully developed prose style that did not change materially during his life. His style was frank and his prose marked by lucidity and logic; in this he belonged more to the eighteenth century enlightenment than to nineteenth century romanticism. (Brown 83) Soon after his move to Great Barrington he met Miss Fanny Fairchild and apparently became smitten with her from the onset. They were married on June 11, 1821. (Godwin Vol. 1, 169)
A few months after the marriage, Bryant was surprised by a letter from the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College requesting that he deliver the usual address at the next commencement. For this occasion he wrote The Ages. His deliverance of this poem was highly esteemed by its members, and it was insisted by a few of his friends that he submit this poem and others he had written for publication. (Bigelow 52) The finished result yielded the following poems: The Ages, To a Waterfowl, Translation of a Fragment of Simonides, Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood, The Yellow Violet, Song, Green River, and Thanatopsis. Its publication was a significant event in American literary history and marks the birth of American poetry. (Bradley 72) Bryant was the first authentic American voice to sing of native birds, such as the brown thrasher and bobolink rather than the skylark and nightingale, of the spicebush rather than Britain's primrose, and of the majesty of this country's mountains and prairies instead of the landscape of England. (Brown 2)
At this point in Bryant's life his political sympathies, reflecting his father's views, still lay with the Federalists. He worked for the Federalist party, attended meetings, served on committees, and discussed candidates and issues in newspaper articles. He also began to study political economy, the result of which would later influence him to transfer his loyalty to the Republican Party. (Brown 108) Meanwhile his increasing dissatisfaction with the law profession caused him to look elsewhere for employment. In 1826 he was offered the position of associate editor of the New York Evening Post. (Godwin Vol. 1, 230) This profession was destined to absorb his best energies for the remaining years of his life. His innumerable contributions to this paper shaped more in the way of public opinion than that of any other person of his time, save perhaps, Benjamin Franklin. (Bigelow 70) His strength of moral character carried through to his work in this medium and he never hesitated to sacrifice himself or the paper for what he considered his duty to the people. Bryant abhorred slavery and fought for the right of the abolitionists to present their petitions, print their papers, and makes their speeches. His attitude on this issue was opposed not only to the views of the opposing political party, but often to the opinions of his own as well. The result was for many years a serious financial loss from depleted subscription lists and advertising columns. (Bradley 110-111)
In July of 1829, Bryant was promoted to editor in chief following the death of William Coleman, his succeeder. (Brown 173) He later became part owner as well. It was not until 1831 that Bryant's poems were collected in a single volume. They had been read as they appeared in magazines and newspapers over the past 15 years. (Brown 190) A book of eighty-nine of his pieces entitled Poems was published and won him critical acclaim in America and England. (Bradley 117)
In 1834, Bryant began a year and a half-long trip to Europe, the first of many later worldwide travels. In Letters of a Traveler he recounted his experiences in Europe, many of which were on this trip. (Brown 230) By 1840 Bryant had largely abandoned poetry to become one of the nation's leading advocates for abolition. From 1856 on the Evening Post was a Republican paper; indeed its owner and editor-in-chief was one of the party's founders. This year was the first campaign for the newly formed Republican Party, a merging of the Free-Soilers and Liberal Whigs, two previously separate groups. Bryant used his position to support the arming of abolitionist settlers in Kansas and to celebrate John Brown as a martyr. (Godwin Vol. 2, 88)
In 1864, Thirty Poems was published. Many critics faulted the work in that there was nothing in its content or form to set it apart from his earlier poems, but Ralph Waldo Emerson recorded in his journal, "His poetry is sincere. I think of the young poets that they have seen pictures of mountains, and sea-shores, but in his that he has seen mountains and has the staff in his hand." (Brown 456)
In 1866 his wife, Fannie, passed away after a long period of invalidism. Her death was a heavy blow for Bryant whom had been particularly devoted to her. (Bradley 181) Bryant remained active in his literary career, well into his seventies. From 1870 to 1872 he published translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. On June 12, 1878, Bryant died, the result of a fall 14 days before.
Although Bryant was recognized and honored for his work, he was a very modest and somewhat shy person and most often politely refused the accolades, which were offered him. In 1836 he was invited to a public dinner by the most eminent literary men in the country, Irving, Halleck, Verplanck, and Paulding heading this list. Their purpose being so that they could express their appreciation for his literary merits and estimable character. He graciously declined stating that he had long had an aversion to public life and that he had many pressing matters to attend to. (Bigelow 218) In 1858 he was elected a Regent of the University of the State of New York. He also refused this appointment and replied that he had done nothing to merit such a distinction. (Bigelow 217)
Perhaps the most remarkable compliment he was to receive was made by Abraham Lincoln after delivering a lecture in New York. He invited Bryant to join him in conversation and remarked that "It was worth a journey to the East merely to see such a man." (Bradley 170)
Bryant was a poet and editor, a defender of personal freedom, a fighter against corruption, a supporter of art, music, and literature. Almost every tribute made to him- in the pulpit and in the press- recognized that he was a man of character. The poet Edmund Clarence Stedman summed up this feeling of the country toward Bryant two days after his death: "He grew to be not only a citizen, journalist, thinker, poet, but the beautiful, serene, majestic ideal of a good and venerable man." (Brown 4)
Bigelow, John. William Cullen Bryant: American Men of Letters. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1890.
Bradley, William Aspenwall. William Cullen Bryant: English Men of Letters. Norwood: Norwood Press, 1905.
Brown, Charles Henry. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.
Bryant, William Cullen, Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2001
Godwin, Parke. A Biography of William Cullen Bryant, Volumes 1 & 2. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1883.
1. In his essays, Emerson repeatedly called for the emergence of an American poet. Focusing on Bryant's The Prairies, argue that Bryant satisfied, in part, Emerson's demand. In what ways does Bryant move away from imitating British poetry? In what ways does the poem address American themes?
2. (a) Based upon what you can glean from his poems, what sort of religious and philosophical outlook does this writer have?
(b) Compare the view of nature in poems such as "To a Waterfowl" and "The Yellow Violet" with that in "The Prairies."
3. Bryant's "Thanatopsis" is often read as a proto-Transcendentalist poem; yet it was discovered and rushed to publication by Bryant's father, who grew up among Calvinists. Some options:
(a) Provide a Calvinist "reading" of "Thanatopsis."
(b) Locate, compare, and explain potentially "Transcendental" and "Calvinist" elements in the poem.
(c) Argue that it's one or the other (very artificial, but effective).
MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 3: William Cullen Bryant." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap3/bryant.html (provide page date or date of your login).