Our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry continues today with a contribution by Luc Sante, whose new nonfiction work The Other Paris, just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has already been hailed for its “sneaky genius” by David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times.
Below, Sante testifies to the unique inspiration he derives from the Library of America collections American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume One: Freneau to Whitman and American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume Two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals.
I find myself drawn, again and again, to the capsule biographies in the two volumes of American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century. The poets of the nineteenth century were not only poets; not many made their living from academia, let alone literature. They were rich and poor. They were painters, actors, activists, politicians, cranks, investors, lawyers, farmers, hucksters, printers, failures, bureaucrats, physicians, journalists, divines. And many of them wore several of these hats, consecutively or even concurrently; the possibilities for self-invention and re-invention were larger then. John Hollander’s crisply detailed sketches offer a headlong plunge into the air of the nineteenth century that I find irresistible. As a tribute, from these biographical fragments I offer this collective portrait, like an overlay of photographic transparencies.
Lives of the Poets
Born in Head Tide, Maine. Born in Cherokee Nation near Rome, Georgia. Born at family estate The Forest in Amelia County, Virginia. Born into slavery on plantation of William Horton in Northampton County, North Carolina. Father, a German of Huguenot ancestry, was a herbalist and maker of patent medicines; mother, whose parents were German immigrants, was a spiritualist who believed herself endowed with mediumistic gifts. Father, a native of Vermont, served as legal counsel for Dred Scott. Father was a teacher and lecturer whose lack of success led to family’s frequently moving. Raised by his mother, a member of Campbellite sect Disciples of Christ, who discouraged his interest in literature and treated him severely. Family settled eventually in Spunk Point (now Warsaw), Illinois.
By his own account, spoke little English before age 14. After father’s death, apprenticed to a tailor; ran away to Philadelphia, where he learned trade of cigar-making. Worked from early age in father’s blacksmith shop; received little schooling. Apprenticed to printer, and in his teens worked for The Huron Reflector in Norwalk, Ohio, and Western Aurora in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Following graduation from local high school, worked for six years as cashier in local pool hall, which was also center for legal off-track betting. Educated at Dayton’s public schools; graduated from Central High School, where he was editor of the school paper, class poet, and only black member of his class. While still in high school founded short-lived newspaper The Dayton Tattler, printed by classmate and future aviator Orville Wright. Left school and worked as lawyer’s assistant and in counting-house, becoming self-supporting by age 15.
Deliberately burned left hand (necessitating amputation) as self-punishment for having beaten another young man in fit of misguided jealousy after he had shown attention to Minna Timmins of Boston. Worked as miner and as a cook in the mining camps; spent time among Indians near Mount Shasta, and had a daughter, Cali-Shasta, with a woman of the band. Enjoyed initial acclaim as actor and was called “the American Roscius.” Wrote financially successful household manual The Frugal Housewife. Was also an inventor; patented a knitting machine, a walking doll, and a rotary engine. Entered world of finance with much success, forming his own brokerage company and eventually holding a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Affiliation with Quakers formally dissolved following his participation in a street brawl.
After husband’s death moved with sons and stepsons to an uncle’s coffee plantation in Matanzas, Cuba, where she built a small house and began Zophiël, or the Bride of Seven, epic poem concerning the love of a fallen angel for a mortal, based on an episode in apocryphal Book of Tobit. While recuperating from illness, reported having vision of fountain of water and angels playing harps. Following brother’s death at 19, experienced troubling visions he attributed to Satan. After being administered nitrous oxide in a dentist’s office, underwent mystical experience; repeated the experience at frequent intervals, expounding philosophical conclusions from it in The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy. Contributed poetry and visionary prose to The Univercoelum, periodical devoted to ideas of mesmerist Andrew Jackson Davis (known as “the Poughkeepsie seer”). Later volumes were poetic collections Eonchs of Ruby, A Gift of Love; Memoralia; or, Phials of Amber Full of the Tears of Love; the long poem Atlanta: or The True Blessed Island of Poesy; and the play The Sons of Usna: a Tragi-Apotheosis. Under tutelage of Sakurai Keitoku Ajari of Homyoin Temple in Kyoto, converted to Tendai sect of Buddhism. Emperor awarded him Fourth and Third Class Orders of the Rising Sun and Third Class Order of the Sacred Mirror.
Marriage strained because of husband’s objection to many of her public activities. Imprisoned for debt in Fleet Prison; moved to Paris upon release and continued to dodge his many creditors. Traveled to California, where he was briefly jailed for horse theft; escaped with cell-mate and again lived with Indians. Wife Fanny died when her dress caught on fire; he was badly burned putting the flames out. Marriage troubled by his neglect of family responsibilities. Lived increasingly separately from wife and children. Notorious for affair with elderly novelist Alexandre Dumas; photographs of the two of them circulated widely. He and wife, Caddie, had three daughters, Essie, Mable, and Alberta, who later became vaudeville team The Whitman Sisters.
Postmistress of Auburndale, Massachusetts; endured opposition and boycotts from residents opposed to Roman Catholicism. Developed deep interest in American Indians and published A Century of Dishonor, influential account of U.S. government mistreatment and deception; sent a copy to every member of Congress at her own expense. Interested in economic ideas of Henry George; defended anarchists sentenced to death following Haymarket Riot. Lobbied in Washington against the admission of Texas to the Union. Involved in diplomatic maneuvering relating to Spanish-American War and annexation of Philippines, which he enthusiastically supported. Prepared paper for Cleveland convention urging black settlement on borders of California; active thereafter in plans for black emigration and colonization; believed to have traveled to Central America to investigate possibility of purchasing land there for colonization.
Became world-famous for her ride across stage strapped to the back of a horse in the dramatic version of Byron’s “Mazeppa.” Traveled to Great Britain, where privately printed Pacific Poems and manners and costume (sombrero, boots, spurs, and buckskin) gained him fame as “frontier poet.” Returned to U.S. to find that his popularity did not extend there. Local response to his editorial protest in Northern Californian against “indiscriminate massacre” of 60 Wiyot Indians on Guyot’s Island forced him to leave Aracata. Family estate Woodlands was destroyed by stragglers from Sherman’s army; fled to Columbia, South Carolina, and witnessed its burning. Lost home and possessions when Sherman’s army burned Columbia; reduced to extreme poverty.
Left Vilna for Warsaw and was caught up in Napoleon’s retreat during his journey. Contracted lung inflammation; died a few days after leaving Warsaw for Zanowiec, a village near Cracow. Died when caught in a blizzard while walking home. Died during yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. Drowned while trying to cross the North Canadian River, Oklahoma, in a small boat. During bout of influenza, died in Venice in fall from balcony. Received serious injuries in fall from tree, which led to his death two years later. Died at home; his last intelligible words were “moose” and “Indian.” After settling his affairs, he disappeared into Mexico, writing to a friend: “If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life.” Poems published posthumously, although most of the poems were written when he was in his teens.
Sources, in order by paragraph (some items are more than one sentence long):
Edward Arlington Robinson, John Rollin Ridge, John Banister Tabb, George Moses Horton, Madison Cawein, Eugene Field, Bret Harte, Edwin Markham, John Hay.
Alexander L. Posey, Thomas Buchanan Read, Daniel Decatur Emmett, Madison Cawein, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Bret Harte.
John Jay Chapman, Joaquin Miller, John Howard Payne, Lydia Maria Child, Henry Clay Work, Edmund Clarence Stedman, John Neal.
Maria Gowen Brooks, Thomas Holley Chivers, Manoah Bodman, Benjamin Paul Blood, Thomas Holley Chivers, Ernest Fenollosa.
Julia Ward Howe, John Howard Payne, Joaquin Miller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Ellery Channing, Bret Harte, Adah Isaacs Menken, Albery Allson Whitman.
Louise Imogen Guiney, Helen Hunt Jackson, Stuart Merrill, John Greenleaf Whittier, John Hay, James Monroe Whitfield.
Adah Isaacs Menken, Joaquin Miller, Bret Harte, William Gilmore Simms, Henry Timrod.
Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, Richard Henry Wilde, Alexander L. Posey, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Edward Hamilton Sears, Henry David Thoreau, Ambrose Bierce, John Rollin Ridge.
Luc Sante is the author of the nonfiction books Low Life, Evidence, The Factory of Facts, and Kill All Your Darlings. A contributor to The New York Review of Books since 1981, he is the visiting professor of writing and the history of photography at Bard College and lives in upstate New York.