Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Entertaining Byron in America

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Entertaining Byron in America

Article excerpt

'America is a Model of force and freedom [...] with all the coarseness and rudeness of it's people', said Byron in October 1821.2 Before his death in Missolonghi in 1824, he was hoping that a liberated Greece would 'invest me with the character of their ambassador [...] I will go to the United States, and procure that free and enlightened government, to set the example of recognising the Federation of Greece as an independent state'.3 He had already arrived in America, of course, and many times over-not in the singular flesh but in multiple formations. Ever since 1811, editions and portraits, low-market to sumptuous, had filled the bookshops.4 The very name was claimed from east to west. In New York, Fitz-Greene Halleck registered his bid as 'The American Byron', credited first by his popular comic epic Fanny (1819), then by his landmark edition of Byron's poetry and letters (1834-36), and closeted, by the homosexual codes of his own writing.5 Decades on, poet Joaquin Miller had calling cards prepared for a trip to London reading 'Joaquin Miller, Byron of the Rockies'.6 'Byron in America' had a wider reach than these brand name-raids.7 Rather than secured to any claimant, it was an open franchise, everywhere in plurals, at once imitable and inimitable. In Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, Mr. Bantling's laconic remark to Henrietta Stackpole, 'I suppose you think a great deal of Byron in America', arguably understates the case. Byron was thought of, and thought a great deal of. It was Byronism rampant in literary and social exhibition. By turns-culture, counter-culture, new culture-'Byron in America' was an ongoing construction, with ever new stakes.

In the 1830s, Byronie poet Samuel Griswold Goodrich ably fashioned the frontispiece to The Outcast and Other Poems on a pose from Byron portraiture, set amid stormy hills. Its motto is drawn from lines that blatantly blend Childe Harold (in Alpine raptures) into the Corsair (calling on the lightning from his prison cell) to script the American-Byron Outcast:

I climbed the cliff where thunders spoke-

I wooed the lightning, but the flash

Refused to strike me-yet its stroke

Rent at my feet the quivering ash!

I met a whirlwind in its wrath,-

Like a swift chariot-wheel it crashed

The reeling forest in its path-

I stood unscathed where oaks were dashed

To earth! (XVII)9

Decades later, Goodrich recalled rather more drolly how 'the whole poetic world had become Byronic': 'Aspiring young rhymsters [...] affected the Spenserian stanza, misanthropy, and skepticism', even as pulpits, teachers, and parents cautioned of fatal infection. Caution just proved to be advertising by another name: 'the public- seduced, bewildered, enchanted-still followed him, and condescended to bring down their morals and their manners to his degraded and degrading standard [. ] Byron could no more be kept at bay, than the cholera'.10 Even as some booksellers refused to collaborate, the overnight celebrity of Childe Harold (1812) and the quickly ensuing Eastern Tales washed over America, seducing its youth of both sexes, including Harriet Beecher. Call it epidemic, call it invasion, call it romance: it was the transgressive thrill of being Byronic.

As Goodrich's poetry shows, seduction relayed into imitation, and imitation into more agents of seduction. In 1832, fresh from reading Thomas Moore's Life of Byron (1828-30) and regretting its vast sway, a sober Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took to the pages of the North American Review to chastise, in its corporate voice, the degraded 'aping of Lord Byron':

It was not an imitation of the brighter characteristics of his intellect, but a mimicry of his sullen misanthropy and irreligious gloom. We do not wish to make a bugbear of Lord Byron's name, nor figuratively to disturb his bones; still we cannot but express our belief, that no writer has done half so much to corrupt the literary taste as well as the moral principle of our country, as the author of Childe Harold. …

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