November 13, 2010

William Cullen Bryant and a pair of yellow slippers

On November 13, 1852, William Cullen Bryant set sail from the United States. He is pictured at left before his trip. It was a long-anticipated journey and, by coincidence, one of his fellow passengers was the writer Horace Binney Wallace. As can be imagined, the two writers took with them a substantial collection of books to pass the time on their trip. However, upon arriving in London, their books were taken by customs officials. Wallace died just over a month later.

It was Bryant's fourth trip to Europe, but he went farther than before. From London, Bryant went to France, Italy, to Malta. He then went to Egypt, where he rode a camel across the desert into Syria. He also visited Jerusalem and Nazareth — "I bathed in the Jordan and in the Dead Sea," he reported to his friend Richard Henry Dana, Sr. — and then went back the way he came. The entire trip took him only seven months.

During his trip, Bryant grew a long beard; the image at right shows him about two years after his return. The change in his physical appearance was striking — and the poet took advantage. One story goes that he donned "a turban, a Turkish silk shirt and striped silk gown, which I got at Damascus, and a pair of yellow slippers." In his disguise, he spent 15 minutes talking to his next-door neighbor in broken English, without her knowing it was him.

Shortly after his return, Bryant published his first complete collection of poems. None seem to reference his camel ride or his Turkish garb.

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