The Letters of William Cullen Bryant - Vol. 1

By William Cullen Bryant II; Thomas G. Voss et al. | Go to book overview

III
The Roads Diverge
1822-1825
(LETTERS 81 TO 127)

WITH THE PUBLICATION OF HIS BOOK of verse in September 1821 Bryant had, within four years of his first appearance in the North American Review, earned some fame as both poet and critic, and found friends at Cambridge, Boston, and New York who watched his progress sympathetically. Meanwhile, he made his living at the law and followed a course which, among his Berkshire County contemporaries, not seldom led to the legislature and to the national Congress. As tithing man, town clerk, Supreme Judicial Court Councilor, justice of the peace, clerk of the center school district, secretary of the Berkshire Federal-Republican party convention, and occasional public orator, he was often in the public eye.

During his bachelor years in Great Barrington, Bryant had suppressed his distaste for what he termed to his father "skulking about in holes and corners of the earth." For a time he thought he had broken the "spell" of his early enchantment with the "dear, dear witchery of song." As a justice of the peace, he settled his neighbors' disputes; as an attorney, he pressed their claims in the county courthouse at Lenox. He tilted with legal opponents in the courtroom and quarreled with them outside, and he caricatured their craggy faces on drafts of his letters and poems. In the guise of a sophisticated social critic, he ridiculed in newspaper essays his neighbors' oddities and affectations in home, office, pulpit, and barnyard. He attended agricultural fairs and Fourth of July festivities, danced at parties and balls, played whist, and poked fun at popular songs and common gossip. And he sang to the Barrington girls he courted, as he once had to those of Worthington and Bridgewater.

But Cullen's marriage in 1821, the birth a year later of a daughter, and his gradual assumption after his father's death of the responsibility for the well-being of his younger brothers and sisters, on the one hand, and the insistence of his literary friends, on the other, that he increase his poetic output, sharpened his dilemma. He had defined this earlier for Edward Channing: "You certainly need use no apology to one who does not follow the study of the law very eagerly, because he likes other studies better; and yet devotes little of his time to them, for fear that they should give him a dislike to law."

Between 1822 and 1824 Bryant busied himself with several diverse activities which, though they broadened his preparation for a later career, must at the time have seemed, even to him, to be at variance with his natural genius.

The liberalizing influences of Peter Bryant and Samuel Howe on Cullen's religious thought, and of William Baylies on his sense of social responsibility, were enhanced by his friendships with the Sedgwicks, especially Henry and Theodore II. Bryant's long report to Andrews Norton at Cambridge on the condition of religion in Berkshire County in 1822 defined the beliefs which

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