George Keats of Kentucky: A Life by Lawrence M. Crutcher
Few among the nineteenth-century English literati have earned more international acclaim than the Romantic poet John Keats. By the end of the century, his poetry was widely published; he was the subject of numerous biographies, and many critics have ranked him with William Shakespeare in the literary pantheon of England. But some were not so kind to his younger brother, George, who left England with his wife, Georgiana, in 1818 and settled in Louisville the following year. Detractors pictured him as the uncaring "business brother" who left John to fend for himself as his health was failing.
In George Keats of Kentucky: A Life, Lawrence M. Crutcher, George Keats's great-great-great-grandson and former president of the Book-of-the-Month Club, sets out to set the record straight. Drawing upon fragmentary Keats family correspondence, legal records, personal memoirs and sketches by members of the Keats's English circle, and other archival sources in England, Crutcher untangles the complex Keats family inheritance, explains animosities among generations of the family, illumines the ineptness of those who managed the family estate, and refutes charges by some in the Keats circle that George deliberately cheated John out of his inheritance. In the process, he demonstrates that the brothers maintained a warm relationship until the poet's death, even after George moved to the United States and settled in Louisville.
For students of Louisville history, Crutcher sheds light on George's [End Page 452] ubiquitous presence as a business and civic leader in the Falls City between 1819 and 1841. Employing a wealth of archival sources, travel accounts, local histories, and other published sources, Crutcher skillfully traces George's transformation from an Englishman of marginal social status into an American who actively pursued wealth through a host of entrepreneurial ventures, and who ultimately suffered economic failure when a series of unwise investments came crashing down in 1841. Crutcher portrays Keats as one who made friends easily, which enabled him to quickly break into the Louisville inner circle. Within two years of his arrival, Keats entered a sawmill business with Thomas Bakewell and David Prentice, and during the years that followed he became involved in such business and civic ventures as the Ohio Bridge Commission, Merchants Louisville Insurance Company, Louisville Lyceum, Louisville Hotel Company, Bank of Kentucky, Lexington and Ohio Railroad, and Portland Dry Dock Company, among others. His circle embraced a veritable "Who's Who" of the Louisville leadership corps, including James Guthrie, John Jeremiah Jacob, George W. Meriwether, John S. Snead, Leven L. Shreve, Shadrack Penn Jr., John Rowan, James Freeman Clarke, and James and Philip Speed. As Keats's prominence grew, some of his attitudes changed. Like many other English Whigs, for example, he opposed slavery. But after building a large Georgian home on West Walnut Street, dubbed the "Englishman's Palace" by locals, he purchased at least three household slaves to care for the home and his large family.
While giving Keats his due, Crutcher also deepens our insight into the business dynamics of a growing frontier mercantile community. Especially useful in this respect are several appendixes, including sketches of seventy-two members of Keats's circle of friends and acquaintances and a list of the businesses and organizations with which he was involved, along with the names of other directors and trustees. If this book has a notable flaw, it is insufficient context about the growth and development of Louisville, a problem that could have been remedied by reference to my doctoral dissertation on the urban [End Page 453] development process in central and southern Louisville and articles on urban imagery in the Filson History Quarterly. But this is a minor quibble with a work that is a major addition to the bibliography of early Louisville.
Carl E. Kramer is vice president of Kramer Associates Inc. a historical consulting firm in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and retired director of the Institute for Local and Oral History at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana, where he taught for thirty-four years.