ADDRESSING A WOULD-BE BIOGRAPHER near the close of his incomparable career, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The letters of a person, . . . form the only full and genuine journal of his life; and few can let them go out of their own hands while they live. A life written after these hoards become open to investigation must supercede any previous one."
Like Jefferson, whose many-sided public life his own resembled significantly, William Cullen Bryant began in old age a narrative of his early years. But, unlike his great democratic precursor, whom he had lampooned in youth and grown in maturity to admire greatly, he refused to undertake an autobiography. When, nearing eighty, he was urged by William Dean Howells to compose an account of his life, he replied, "I have thought a good deal of the reminiscences which you ask me to dish up for the Atlantic [Monthly], and the more I have thought the less am I inclined to the task. I cannot set them down without running into egotism. I remember more of my own experiences than of my associations with other men and the part they took in what fell under my observation."
In the absence of a skillful and uniquely informed biographer, the record of Bryant's versatile career has become "thin and shadowy," wrote Vernon Parrington, since his death nearly a century ago. The unusual length of his public life (just seventy years), his extraordinarily various professional and civic activities, and his insatiable habit of travel, both at home and abroad, pose a stiff challenge to the best of chroniclers. Thus, while it might be supposed that the biography written by his editorial associate and son-in-law, Parke Godwin, five years after Bryant's death in 1878, must be both thorough and authoritative, its imbalance becomes more apparent as its subject's scattered correspondence is brought together for the first time.
Bryant was a publishing poet for almost seventy years, from "The Embargo" in 1808 to "The Flood of Years" in 1876. For half a century he was an influential political journalist. Throughout that period--which spanned the tenures of fourteen presidents--his leading editorials in the New York Evening Post expressed opinions often implemented afterward in public policy. His friendships with artists and writers were more numerous than those of any of his contemporary Americans. Landscape painters rendered his themes in half a hundred works, and he sat for nearly that many portraits in his lifetime. His memorial discourses on a dozen of his fellows, notably Thomas Cole, Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Fitz-Greene Halleck, remain in some instances the best existing brief accounts of their lives. In upwards of a hundred public addresses Bryant showed his informed concern with a great variety of subjects, from Greek Independence to Municipal Reform, from Public Health to Music in the Public Schools, from Mythology to Pomology. Yet, despite his many preoccupations, he wrote nearly twenty-five hundred identifiable letters, of which more than two thousand have been recovered for the present collection.
No previous compilation of Bryant's correspondence has ever been attempted. His first important biographer, Godwin, printed numerous extracts" from such letters as he managed to retrieve; but even of these many were taken from rough drafts without comparison with later final copies, and few were reproduced in their entirety. Bryant himself gathered together three volumes of the travel letters he had previously published in the Evening Post. Since his death, letters have appeared from time to time in various periodicals--all too often transcribed and edited inaccurately. In such ephemeral form they have added little to his epistolary reputation.
Although Godwin managed to keep the overt expression of animosity out of his family-authorized biography, there is little doubt that he felt an imperfect sym