The Letters of William Cullen Bryant - Vol. 1

By William Cullen Bryant II; Thomas G. Voss et al. | Go to book overview
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IV
Sitting in Judgment
1825-1827
(LETTERS 128 TO 194)

SOON AFTER SETTLING DOWN in May 1825 as co-editor with Columbia professor Henry Anderson of the New-York Review and Atheneum Magazine, Bryant wrote Richard Dana, "The business of sitting in judgment upon books as they come out is not the literary employment the most to my taste nor that for which I am best fitted." But, he added, "It affords me for the present a certain compensation--which is a matter of some consequence to a poor devil like myself."

Bryant's later characterization of himself in 1825 as an "unknown literary adventurer" is hardly accurate. Though he had published fewer than fifty poems between the appearance of "Thanatopsis" in 1817 and his removal to New York eight years later, this modest production had steadily enhanced his reputation. His poetry had been received enthusiastically in England as well as at home, and even to some extent in France. During the same period he had written half a dozen prose articles which proved his to be one of the ablest pens in American literary criticism.

The many book reviews and notices Bryant wrote during thirty months as an editor of the New-York Review and its successor, the United States Review, though often produced simply to fill space the harried editor would have preferred to allot to others, constitute a considerable portion of the writing now recognized as the "beginning of a more discriminating criticism in America." But the most influential of his critical judgments were contained in four Lectures on Poetry he read to the New York Athenaeum in March and April of 1826. Here he urged members of this popular lyceum to turn their attention from neo-classicists such as Dryden and Pope to the romanticism of Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley, whom he placed more directly in the great English tradition of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton.

Bryant's lectures were paired with those given by Samuel F. B. Morse on the history of painting. His poems had drawn praise from William H. Prescott in the North American Review for their "eloquent pictures of American scenery." A student since boyhood of drawing and sketching, Bryant quite naturally emphasized in his lectures the close affinity between the poet and the painter.

Bryant had been elected the preceding November to Fenimore Cooper's Bread and Cheese Lunch Club, an informal grouping of writers, artists, and business and professional men interested in the arts. Here he formed friendships with writers Fitz-Greene Halleck, Gulian Verplanck, and Robert Sands, and with artists Morse, Asher Durand, Henry Inman, Robert Weir, and Thomas Cole. His warm sympathy with the artists led him to support their attempt to improve the training and increase the patronage of young painters and sculp

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