- Author of America
Like many schoolchildren of the 1960s I was made to memorize the opening and closing lines of Bryant's "Thanatopsis." Since then I have given little thought to the poem. That all changed last month when I noticed it in the anthology I am using for an introductory course in composition and literature—about the same time I came across Muller's promising biography. The poem ended up fueling a lively class discussion for nearly the entire period. No one was more surprised than I to discover just how remarkable and fresh Bryant's poetic diction remains.
As both a poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant (Cullen to his friends) had no use for five-dollar words. But his syntax often reflects the tastes of serious-minded men of letters such as Emerson, who believed Bryant had written "some of the very best poetry we have in America." From the beginning of his career ("Thanatopsis" was published when he was seventeen) until the day flags in New York were lowered to half-mast when he died in 1878, Bryant maintained that "the emotions raised by poetry," as Muller relates, "could guide readers to the springs of moral conduct." In large measure it is this edification through verse, no doubt, that led my grammar-school teacher to think nine-year-olds might benefit from Bryant's poetry.
The subtitle of Muller's excellent [End Page lxxv] study, "Author of America," can be read in a double sense. First, Bryant is an all-American author, with both sides of his family having roots in New England. He would achieve an enviable position of cultural authority notwithstanding his decision not to attend Yale as he had initially intended. Instead he prepared for a life as a "peddler of law," all the while reading and imitating Byron, Southey, and Cowper. Tiring at last of "contentious courtrooms and capricious clients" in the Berkshires, he set his sights on New York City. Typical of many from his generation, he began his own American odyssey. As Muller records it, Bryant arrived at a decisive moment in the city's history when, owing to the completion of the Erie Canal in late 1825, "Manhattan was on the cusp of greatness." He embraced the liberal political principles that sprang from that era, most notably free trade, freedom from foreign entanglements, pan-Americanism, and, "with slow but growing conviction," suppression of the slave trade. He was a supporter of Lincoln in 1860 and an abolitionist. Bryant's position on the Civil War was, as Muller explains it, simple: "the South was in rebellion, and the federal government has the right to seize the property of the rebels—including slaves—and dispose of them as it saw fit."
With this in mind we perceive a second and more cunning way in which he rightly is dubbed "Author of America." Muller argues cogently that Bryant had a hand in writing what we have come to think of as being quintessentially American. Fifty years at the New-York Evening Post as an author and as one of the first and most articulate advocates of the Union in the press, he literally created America as we have come to know it. Furthermore, as this biography makes clear, Bryant did not shrink from the controversies that shaped the United States. Indeed he contributed powerfully to an emerging sense of national identity that was forged in the crucible of war-torn and expansionist America during the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Why then has the reputation of this man who was admired by Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens settled into the relative oblivion of having a single poem included in Dover's 101 Great American Poems? The answer, Muller suggests, is that Bryant's reputation was a product of the commanding presence of the man himself. This book provides a much needed look at the afterimage of an influential American journalist, editor, and translator who could write: "Go forth, under the open sky, and list /To Nature's teachings, while from all...