The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George by Denise Gigante (review)
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2012
- pp. 87-88
- View Citation
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS FALL 2012 87 The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George Denise Gigante For generations of Louisvillians, George Keats has served as a place marker for his more famous sibling; literally, his “place” is “marked” by an extravagant Victorian burial monument in section O, lot 73, of Cave Hill Cemetery. Supported by extensive archival research, Denise Gigante’s The Keats Brothers recovers George as a remarkable individual in his own right. Sharing the same orphaned and impoverished background as his brother John, the British Romantic poet, George set off for the western territories with his teenaged wife Georgiana, where he twice made and lost his fortune in the fledgling town of Louisville, Kentucky. George Keats receives his just due in this narrative, one that deftly weaves together the threads of the brothers’ alternatively different and fascinating lives, of “Cockney Pioneer” and “Cockney Poet.” Half a dozen biographies and the recent Hollywood film, Bright Star, have depicted John Keats in the late summer and fall of 1818 as deeply absorbed in his ill-fated love affair with Fanny Brawne, nursing his dying brother Tom, and struggling to compose his long poem Hyperion. Gigante’s narrative reminds readers that these events occurred in a larger context of western expansion that shaped the life choices of John’s brother George after he read Morris Birkbeck’s seductive 1818 account of the West, Notes on a Journey in America. In an effort to recruit emigrants for the “English Prairie” settlement in the Illinois Territory, Birkbeck portrayed a land of milk and honey. George and Georgiana left in search of this utopia, sailing to Philadelphia and traveling overland to Pittsburgh, where they embarked on what must have felt like a journey into the sublime. On their Ohio River keelboat, “they floated tranquilly on, as through a succession of fairy lakes, sometimes in the shadow of the wooded bluff, sometimes by the side of side-spread meadows, or beneath the graceful overhanging branches of the cotton-wood and sycamore.” The leisurely pace of the flatboat allowed for an “occasional scenic stroll,” after one of which Georgiana returned to the boat, her “silk dress and parlour slippers…thoroughly torn to pieces” (226). This image, referenced more than once by Gigante, serves as an omen of the hard life awaiting the young couple in the West. Denise Gigante. The Keats Brothers:The Life of John and George. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2011. 500 pp. ISBN: 9780674048560 (cloth), $35.00. BOOK REVIEWS 88 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY GigantesuggeststhatGeorgeandGeorgiana’s arrival at the Falls of the Ohio signified for them “the Fall: from Eden into a rude and rugged reality” (268). To them, “the flatlands surrounding Louisville seemed desolate,” and in town itself, “plain, unadorned houses of brick and of wood sat on dirt, without grass. The streets were washed only when the rain came down, and then the showers turned the dust back into mud. The inhabitants seemed determined to cut down every tree they could find, and in the evenings they swept the wood shavings into the street and set fire to them, spreading more dust. It was ‘a hardish fate,’ John commiserated, ‘to be settled among such a people’” (344-45). George and his wife settled in sight of the Falls and within a few years had started a family, a garden, and the building of a lumber mill. But before he completed the mill, George had lost his investment in his friend John James Audubon’s steamboat , and the American economy had collapsed in the Panic of 1819. Seeing no other way out of his financial distress, George traveled back to England in 1820 for funds. Gigante’s description of George’s return to England exhibits her technique of juxtaposition at its most effective. When George encountered his favorite brother, he was “pennyless or more so,” felt responsible for a wife and newborn daughter, and considered himself, in his words, “more miserably distressed than John.” But he did not complain because John had “troubles enough” with his own finances (320). Within days of George’s departure from London, John discovered on his pillow the arterial blood he recognized as his “death-warrant.” After...