The Complete Stories of William Cullen Bryant, edited by Frank Gado, (University Press of New England, 327 pp., $27.95)
A high school in Queens is named for him. As if that were not sufficient guarantee of oblivion, only one of William Cullen Bryant’s poems has made its way into anthologies. Though “Thanatopsis,” a meditation on death, was much admired in its time (c. 1820), it is virtually unread today. For one thing, Bryant’s ponderous, quasi-Biblical rhetoric is out of step with modern sensibilities. For another, his central theme—“Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim/Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again” was appropriated and popularized by Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King: “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”
Actually, Bryant (1794—1878) has far more to recommend him than his antiquated verse. He was born and educated in Massachusetts, but he made his career in Manhattan, where he flourished in literary circles; edited the New York Evening Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton; became one of the most articulate advocates for the “lungs of the city”—a place that would eventually be called Central Park; helped to found the Metropolitan Museum and New York Medical College; and was an early proponent of the Hudson River School of landscape painting.
Yet one of his greatest achievements has gone unrecognized by schools, universities, and even scholars of American literature. Bryant was the most inventive short-story writer between Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. Now, after decades of neglect, those fictions have become available in a trade paperback, scrupulously edited and annotated by Frank Gado, professor emeritus of Union College in upstate New York.
Bryant has an extraordinarily wide range, not only for his own time but for any time. The collection begins with “A Pennsylvania Legend,” an adult fairy tale, complete with a seductive female oak and a hunchback who sheds his disability only to see it return when he succumbs to avarice. “Story of the Island of Cuba” charts the clash of imperialism and tribalism two generations before Joseph Conrad. In the end, remarks Gado, “there is the crowning irony in the Christian mission to destroy the three ‘savage’ Indians.” It culminates in “a double hanging . . . dismemberment, and public display of the severed parts, all by the island’s ‘civilized’ Christians.” Bryant was well aware that Cuba’s Arawak native population “had been slaughtered into extinction by a nation dedicated to the teachings of Jesus.”
The first-person “Glauber-Spa” assumes the voice of a rube—an impersonation much favored by Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and other platform lecturers in post-bellum America. The owner of a spa, or spaw as he calls it, watches his guests amuse themselves by reading aloud from papers. “I thought it was as good a way of killing time as any, and better than strumming on the forte-piano, which was kept a-going from morning till night, till a child fell through the cover one day and smashed all the wire-works. I was plaguy glad of this, for I didn’t mind the fidells, and flutes, and tambyreens that they got to dance to half as bad as the nasty noise, to no tune at all, that they made with the piano. Luckily, there was nobody to mend it, and the poor thing stays smashed to this minute. I don’t believe it will fetch much.”
Between and around these narratives are tales of ghosts, dramas of morality, and comments on marriage, politics, and a form of American literature so new it doesn’t even have a name. But it soon will, when masters of the short story like Poe, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, and Henry James take over the field. Ironically, that field was first cultivated by another master who had to wait almost two centuries for recognition.