Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Willis, Nathaniel Parker (1806–1867)
Author:
Garvey, T. Gregory
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

During the 1850s N.P. Willis embodied the magazine editor as man-about-town. Whitman worked under him at the New York Mirror in 1844. Willis gained a reputation as an editor of popular magazines and as a prolific writer of poetry, sketches, and travelogues. Between 1827 and 1860 he published six volumes of poetry, nine books of sketches, and six volumes of travel writing. His prominence was such that Melville included Willis's name in a list of eight leading American authors (which he subsequently deleted) in his essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses." Willis's travel writing had international appeal and won him a following in Great Britain.

But it is as an editor that Willis remains noteworthy. He was a significant advocate of American literary nationalism. In response to Britain's refusal to offer American authors copyright protection, Willis founded the short-lived journal The Corsair (1839–1840), which subsisted by publishing pirated texts of British authors. He achieved his greatest stature between 1846 and 1864 as editor of the New York Home Journal, which still exists as the upscale magazine Town and Country.

Willis's reputation was marred, however, by accusations that he lacked substance. His reputation received a serious blow when Fanny Fern, his sister and author of the novel Ruth Hall, used Willis as the model for the character Hyacinth Ellet, a cold-hearted social climber who abandons his widowed sister.

Bibliography

Auser, Cortland P. Nathaniel Parker Willis. New York: Twayne, 1969.

Rathbun, John W. American Literary Criticism, 1800–1860. Boston: Hall, 1979.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.


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