Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Bryant, William Cullen (1794–1878)
Author:
Higgins, Andrew C.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

William Cullen Bryant was perhaps the most famous American poet in the first half of the nineteenth century, and, as editor of the New York Evening Post for almost fifty years, one of America's leading newspaper editors. Bryant was an accomplished poet at an early age, publishing his first poems at age thirteen and writing his important poems "To a Waterfowl" and "Thanatopsis" by age twenty-one. But poetry would always be an avocation for Bryant. He spent the first part of his professional life as a lawyer, until he became the editor of the New York Review in 1825. Two years later he began working for the Evening Post and in 1829 became its editor-in-chief.

During this time, Bryant had been steadily establishing himself as America's premier poet, publishing his first book, Poems, in 1821, and writing a series of influential essays on American poetry. Though Bryant's overall output is not large, he continued to write poems for the rest of his life, publishing his last book of poems at age seventy and a translation of the Iliad and Odyssey in his late seventies.

As editor of the Evening Post, Bryant's consistent editorial policies and his refusal to take sensational positions helped to forge a long-lived and widely respected newspaper in a time when the average newspaper specialized in the sensational and lasted less than a year. Under Bryant, the Post became a strong supporter of the abolitionist movement and of the fledgling Republican party.

Bryant was important to the young Whitman because of his dual position as leading poet and leading newspaper editor of New York. While writing for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1847, Whitman called Bryant "one of the best poets in the world!" (qtd. in Brown 325). Many of Whitman's early poems echo Bryant's best work, and while Whitman and Bryant would part stylistically, some of the older poet's themes, particularly his notion of the democracy of the dead articulated in "Thanatopsis," would become important focal points for the younger poet.

But as important as Bryant was as a role model for Whitman, he was more important as a figure with whom Whitman could contrast himself. Bryant's editorial voice was reasoned and restrained, while the young newspaper editor Walter Whitman often wrote fiery diatribes, designed to stir up his readers. Years later, the image-conscious Whitman would point to two pictures, one of the solid, well-dressed Bryant and the other of the casual loafer Whitman, and offer them as a study in contrast.

Bibliography

Brown, Charles H. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Scribner's, 1971.

Bryant, William Cullen. The Letters of William Cullen Bryant. Ed. William Cullen Bryant II and Thomas G. Voss. 2 vols. New York: Fordham UP, 1975.

———. The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant. Ed. Parke Godwin. 2 vols. New York: Appleton, 1883.

———. The Prose Writings of William Cullen Bryant. Ed. Parke Godwin. 2 vols. New York: Appleton, 1884.

McLean, Albert F. William Cullen Bryant. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Price, Kenneth M. Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in His Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Ringe, Donald A. "Bryant and Whitman: A Study in Artistic Affinities." Boston University Studies in English 2 (1956): 85–94.


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