William Cullen Bryant: Author of America

By Rhodes, Sonny | Journalism History, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

William Cullen Bryant: Author of America


Rhodes, Sonny, Journalism History


Muller, Gilbert. William Cullen Bryant: Author of America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. 410 pp. $30.

Born during the United States' infancy, William Cullen Bryant became one of the country's first literary giants. When he died at age eighty-three, he was an internationally known poet with a resume that included long stints as an editor, editorial writer, ttavel writer, and publisher.

Bryant showed literary promise early, becoming a published poet at twelve, but his fathet pushed him to study law. He eventually became so disenchanted as a lawyer and so successful as a poet that the "literary adventurer" left his native Massachusetts in 1 825 for the promises of fast-growing Manhattan. A year later, the New-York Evening Post's editor, William Coleman, was severely injured in a carriage accident and hired him as an assistant. He would be associated with the Post until his death in 1878.

During his long life, Bryant developed a lengthy list of friendships that included Samuel EB. Morse, Richard Henry Dana, and James Fenimore Cooper. The politicians on whom he opined ranged from Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay to Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

Bryant's life and writings are recounted in Gilbert H. Muller's William Cullen Bryant: Author of America. A professor emeritus of English at City University of New York, Muller notes that Bryant is largely forgotten and sets out to "restore Bryant to his rightful place as a compelling and exemplary figure in American life and letters." As part of his effott, he consulted biographies written by Bryant's son-in-law, Parke Godwin (1883), and Charles H. Brown (1971), as well as a six-volume collection of his letters not available to earlier biographers.

The result is a well-documented tome that succeeds in describing Bryant's accomplishments when newspapering was personal and competing editors sometimes literally clashed in the streets (chapter 6 begins with an account of a brawl in which Bryant took a whip to William L. Stone, editor of the rival Commercial Advertiser) .

The book also succeeds in vividly describing the times in which Bryant lived. One memorable passage depicts the "notoriously filthy" New York City of his early years there. One can almost feel the grit and smell the squalor of the city, where swine herds "roamed freely, devouring garbage while leaving their own waste behind." It further succeeds in describing his maturation as an editor, able to rationalize his support for President Jackson's forcible removal of Native Americans from the Southeast and then years later becoming one of the leading advocates of President Lincoln's efforts to end the enslavement of African- Americans. …

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