THE DAY AFTER THE FUNERAL OF William Cullen Bryant on June 14, 1878, his son-in-law, Parke Godwin, wrote from Carlsbad, Germany, to the New York Evening Post a tribute to its editor-in-chief and principal owner, with whom he had from time to time been associated in its conduct: "No one of our journalists ever attained and preserved such uniform elevation, dignity and purity of manner." 1 Godwin's judgment anticipated the comments of many of his contemporaries in their appraisals of Bryant's editorial career.
At one of many memorials after Bryan's death, George William Curtis said, "'The fact is no such man ever sat before or since in the editorial chair.'" 2 John Bigelow extended the comparison. "It is doubtful," he wrote, "if so wise, comprehensive, and edifying a system of political ethics as might be compiled from Mr. Bryant's editorial contributions to the 'Evening Post' can be found elsewhere in the literature of our own or of any other country." 3
Such encomia echo in the present century. William Ellery Leonard, an historian of American letters, thought that "in no other has there been such culture, scholarship, wisdom, dignity, moral idealism." 4 Allan Nevins, recounting Bryant's conduct of his paper, called his "stately, elevated style" a "model for American journalism," adding that "many of his editorial utterances display a grandeur of style, and a force and eloquence not to be matched in the press of the period." 5 Newspaper historian Frank Luther Mott saw Bryant as a "great liberal [who] has seldom been done full justice by modern writers." Mott proposed a reason for this neglect: contrasting Bryant with his erratic, colorful, and more easily recalled rival, Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Mott noted, "the one was relatively steadfast, far seeing; the other was tempestuous and eccentric." 6
Of his sometime employer, Godwin remarked,
Mr. Bryant could be trenchant, almost cruel at times--his hatred of pretence and wrong being most intense--but his prevailing moods were gentle, and he preferred to ridicule sham and injustice to denouncing them in bitter and truculent words. . . . His love of truth was so instinctive and controlling that he seldom indulged in an indirection of speech except in the indulgence of his wit, which often flashed like summer lightning through the dark clouds of debate. 7
It was this "flashing wit," perhaps as much as the steady voice "ever defending free commerce, free speech, freesoil," which baffled