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CONNECTIONS: Poetry and journalism mingled in William Cullen Bryant

The following year, Bryant was 22 years old. He was living in Great Barrington, working for the town, and practicing law.  He would remain in Great Barrington from 1816 to 1825—out of place and out of sorts.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

William Cullen Bryant was born in Cummington, Massachusetts, in 1794. He attended Williams College for one year hoping to transfer to Yale, but family finances prohibited it. Instead, he apprenticed as a lawyer.

He was admitted to the bar in 1815. Walking to work that year, he spotted a single bird flying just above the horizon. He wrote his first poem, “To A Waterfowl” based upon the image. On that walk he was doing both what he must and what he desired. The tension between having to earn his living and preferring literature and poetry to the law characterized his early years.

William Cullan Bryant as a younger man, engraving published in Parker – Graham’s Illustrated Magazine of Literature, Romance, Art, and Fashion, 1843

The following year, Bryant was 22 years old. He was living in Great Barrington, working for the town, and practicing law.  He would remain in Great Barrington from 1816 to 1825 — out of place and out of sorts.

In 1817 his father took what would become Bryant’s best-known poem, “Thanatopsis,” to a friend and publisher.

True or apocryphal, E.T. Channing of North American Review said, “That was never written on this side of the water.” In a time when “American literature” was considered an oxymoron, Channing meant the poem was too good to be written by an American and must have been written by a European. North American Review published “Thanatopsis.” A resolution to the central tension of Bryant’s life was forming: He was nearing a time when he could support himself by writing.

That same year, 1817, the future great American poet, short-story writer, founder of literary clubs and editor wrote a friend discoursing on love and marriage:

“March 17, 1817 … I have heard that you are married. Alas! Sir, I little thought when I saw you last October that the chain was then forging which was to fetter your freedom … Marriage is a lottery and little does one know when he chuses [sic] the number of his ticket whether it draw a blank or a prize … I will not disturb your felicity on this occasion with many unlucky reflections of my own upon the subject of marriage.”

Although it sounds as if he were disparaging marriage, possibly Bryant was writing more in jest than in earnest. Within two weeks he would write his first letter to another Great Barrington resident, Frances Fairchild, the future Mrs. William Cullen Bryant:

“March 31, 1817 … Dear Frances, It is so long since we have heard from you that some of us doubt whether there ever was such a young lady … I have been disappointed of the high gratification I anticipated in hearing that you had become the bride of some illustrious western sachem [Algonquian chief].”

The young Bryant, in lofty language, was asking two simple questions: “why don’t you write?” and “have you found another?”

During an otherwise unsatisfying time in Great Barrington, the bright spot was that he met and courted Frances Fairchild. Born in Great Barrington to a farming family, she was orphaned at 17. She continued to live in Great Barrington with her married sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Hopkins.

Portrait of William Cullen Bryant by Wyatt Eaton

When she left for a visit to western New York, he remembered her as “a pretty blonde with grey eyes with a remarkably fine expression, agreeable figure, dainty foot, pretty hand and the sweetest smile I had ever seen.” Bryant established and maintained a correspondence. In every letter he urged her to come home:

“Sept 30, 1817 …  Dear Frances, To punish you for not having returned to Great Barrington, I have at length determined to put you to the penance of reading another of my letters. The general regret that attended your departure has not diminished.”

She finally returned, and they married in 1821. The other momentous event of 1821 was that “To A Waterfowl” was published.

Both Bryant’s parents could both trace their ancestors to the Mayflower. Bryant was also a nephew of Charity Bryant, a Vermont seamstress who was the subject of “Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America” by Rachel Hope Cleves. Though a country boy, he felt himself more avant-garde than his neighbors. Of his aunt, he wrote: “If I were permitted to draw the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me interesting, story of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for more than forty years.”

In 1825 William and Frances moved to New York City. Bryant gave up the law and established himself as the editor of New York Evening Post, the North American Review, publisher of “Picturesque America” (1872-4), a collectors’ item today, founding member of two clubs meant to bolster and support American arts and letters  —Sketchers and the Century Association — and respected poet and author.

He actively supported building the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the creation of Central Park. Ironically, he died from complications of a fall he suffered while inspecting Central Park. Bryant Park in New York City is named after Massachusetts’ native son.

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