William Cullen Bryant lived and wrote at the cusp of the Romantic era; indeed, he’s credited with giving an American slant to the English Romantic poetry heralded by William Wordsworth(1770– 1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1772–1834) Lyrical Ballads (1799). Like Wordsworth, Bryant appreciated emulated, the neoclassical poetry of Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson (1709–1784). Bryant also responded to the so-called graveyard school of poetry of Thomas Gray (1716–1771), poetry that linked emotion with observation of the natural world. From Wordsworth and Coleridge, Bryant awoke to the power of nature itself to teach, guide, and inspire the individual’s developing mind and spirit. His poetry especially reflected his life-long love of nature, especially in his use of scenic nature imagery.
From his childhood on, he was exposed to the wonders of the American landscape; he was born in Cummington, Massachusetts. With his father, Dr. Peter Bryant (1767–1820), who was a naturalist, Bryant took many walking excursions into the surrounding woods and the Berkeshire foothills. His father’s library also provided Bryant with ample reading material (which he read with the help of his uncle, who schooled him in the classics). His father encouraged Bryant’s early literary bent, including having Bryant’s pro-Federalist poem The Embargo; or, Sketches of the Times: A Satire by a Youth of Thirteen (1808) published as a pamphlet.
In 1810, Bryant entered Williams College. There, he continued to write, drafting “Thanatopsis,” which would become his most important poem. After learning that his family could not support his college education, Bryant studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1815. From 1816 to 1825, he practiced law at Great Barrington, married Frances Fairchild, began a family, and still wrote poetry. Upon publishing a revised “Thanatopsis,” (1817), he gained enough critical attention and admiration to turn to writing professionally. In 1821, he published his collected Poems. In 1825, he moved to New York to edit the New-York Review and Atheneum Magazine then later the New York Evening Post, an important national newspaper that he eventually served as editor-in-chief. In New York, Bryant became an important (if not the most important) man of letters, socializing with such well-known writers as James Fenimore Cooper. At the Atheneum, he lectured on poetry; he supported freedom of speech and religion and lectured on the rights of labor unions and the great wrongs of slavery. He eventually helped create the Republican Party, giving his significant support to Abraham Lincoln. And he continued to write poetry, with six new poetry collections appearing between 1832 and 1864.
Besides poetry, he published popular travelogues based on his travels across the United States and in Europe. By the time he died, due to complications from a fall while giving a speech at the unveiling of Giuseppe Mazzini’s statue in New York, Bryant was considered one of the most important and influential writers of that era. He certainly contributed to making the idea of American literature viable both in America and abroad.
Becoming America, Wendy Kurant, ed., CC-BY-SA