In the summer of 1840, William Cullen Bryant traveled up from New York City to explore the Catskill wilderness with his friend Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River school of Art. Bryant wrote excitedly about the journey in the New York Evening Post, describing his wonder at the headlands above the source of the Plattekill Creek as “a grand mountain ridge, indented by deep notches, in one of which, a dark ravine called stony Clove, the ice of winter remains unmelted throughout the year.” Bryant’s fascination and respect for the unique Hudson Valley landscape started early in life, for as a young man traveling between the
Berkshires and New York City, he chose to first journey westward to the Columbia County port of Hudson, to sail down the river and gaze at its beauty, instead of embarking on the much more direct (and mundane) land route. To be sure, from an early age the natural world shaped the poetic lens of this man who started life in a log cabin and died as perhaps the most iconic literary figure of his time. That poetic lens, in turn, shaped the rest of his many endeavors during his long life.
In his excellent and thorough biography William Cullen Bryant: Author of America, Gilbert H. Muller focuses on Bryant as poet. Students of American history may know Bryant best as the influential editor of the Evening Post, but here we see Bryant as an American poet whose deeds in other arenas—journalism, politics, naturalism, world travel, to name a few—stem from his primary love as a creator of verse.
Time has not been kind to Bryant’s literary legacy; today, we may come across one of his more celebrated poems such as “Thanatopsis” or “To a Waterfowl” in an anthology, but his significance as a purely American poet has largely been lost, overshadowed by Whitman and Dickinson. Muller’s innovative biography, however, examines Bryant’s public life as an extension of his writing life and reminds us how popular and influential Bryant’s poetry was by the time of his death in 1878. Here was a poet writing on the unique American landscape in the 1820s with passion and confidence, some thirty years before Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Indeed, as Muller describes the scene at Bryant’s funeral, “[o]ne mourner, Walt Whitman, vividly recalled the crowd’s final salute to the great man. ‘The bard of river and wood,’ Whitman said of his old friend, was a poet who stood ‘among the first in the world.’
Consider Bryant’s poem “Oh Mother of a Mighty Race,” which chides Europe for meddling in the affairs of the new world:
They know not, in their hate and pride, what virtues with thy children bide; how true, how good, thy graceful maids. Make bright, like flowers, the valley-shades; what generous menspring, like thine oaks, by hill and glen; what cordial welcomes greet the guest. By thy lone rivers of the west....
Today, it may be difficult for some to fathom the political and social impact of a man who was first and foremost a poet, but Bryant’s list of accomplishments is undeniably formidable: from champion of the arts in New York City (Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art owe him a huge debt, for example) to cultural explorer of Cuba long before Ernest Hemingway ever saw his Finca Vigia. Bryant was a prolific writer throughout his long life, and counted Whitman, Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson, and even Charles Dickens among his admirers. The thrill of composing verse that glorified the new America or attacked the ills of society was unquestionably Bryant’s passion; even his widely read newspaper editorials were sometimes composed in verse. Muller looks past Bryant’s mere celebrity to show him as poet of the highest order who deserves credit as a defining influence on American culture in the nineteenth century.
Readers interested in the romantic poetry of this time period will particularly delight in the frequent citation and analysis of verse throughout the book. This is not merely a study of Bryant’s lesser-known poetry, however; the author wants his reader to understand that Bryant saw the world through the eyes of a poet. The thoughts contained in the poems here complement many political issues of the time such as slavery, capitalism, and nationalism. With an entertaining yet clearly organized prose style, Muller constantly explores the myriad connections that exist between Bryant’s poetry and his public persona.
Even the most casual reader interested in American literary history will enjoy and appreciate this book, but its value may be greater for Muller’s fellow historians, since his painstaking research includes Bryant’s collected letters, which have been previously unavailable to biographers. Muller displays the skill of creating a solid narrative thread through varied correspondence, a talent he has shown previously in his fine epistolary work Dear Chester, Dear John: Letters Between Chester Hines and John A. Williams (Wayne State University Press, 2008). He is presently Professor Emeritus of English at the City University of New York.
William Cullen Bryant: Author of America gives long overdue credit to a man now all but forgotten for his contributions to American literary history. Perhaps even more important, Muller’s fine work reminds all of us of the long-surrendered notion that poets and artists can indeed have a lasting and powerful impact on American society as a whole. Here in the Hudson Valley, we only have to look to the natural world for inspiration, as Bryant did almost two centuries ago.
-- Tommy Zurhellen