January 13, 2011

Willises: Thy children bless thee

Richard Storrs Willis did not generally get involved with the bickering between his older siblings, sister Fanny Fern and brother Nathaniel Parker Willis. When Fern produced her semi-autobiographical novel Ruth Hall in 1854, he did not appear to have reason to be upset. N. P. Willis was the villain of the book, renamed Hyacinth Ellet, but Richard Storrs was completely left out. However, the elder Mr. Ellet character, the father of Hyacinth and the title character Ruth Hall, was painted unsympathetically. The father of the book, of course, was also based on the father of the real-life counterparts, Nathaniel Willis, Sr., the founder of America's first children's periodical, Youth's Companion.

As editor of The Musical World and Times in New York, Richard Storrs (a composer whose most famous tune was "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear") responded to the negative depiction of his father. In the January 13, 1855 issue of the journal, he republished his brother's poem "To My Aged Father" (originally published in their father's Youth's Companion):

...Faint has thy heart become. For peace thou prayest—
For less to suffer as thy strength grows less.
For, oh, when life has been a stormy wild—
The bitter night too long, the way too far—
The aged pilgrim, ere he lays him down,
Prays for a moment's lulling of the blast—
A little time to wind his cloak about him,
And smooth his gray hairs decently to die.

Yet, oh, not vain the victories unsung!
Not vain a life of industry to bless.
And thou, in angel-history—where shine
The silent self-forgetful who toil on
For others until death—art nam'd in gold.
In heaven it is known, thou hast done well!
But, not all unacknowledg'd is it, here.
Children thou hast, who, for free nurture, given
With one hand while the other fought thy cares,
Grow grateful as their own hands try the fight.
And more—they thank thee more! The name thou leavest
Spotless and blameless as it comes from thee—
For this, their pure inheritance—a life
Of unstained honor gone before our own—
The father that we love " an honest man"—
For this, thy children bless thee...

The same day, January 13, 1855, Nathaniel Parker Willis responded in his own periodical, Home Journal, claiming that he had gone some time without saying "an unkind word" to his sister but steadfastly chose to forebear "the malignity and injustice." Fanny Fern's harsh words about her family in Ruth Hall left them only "temporarily strained" and she was soon forgiven by all — all except N. P. Willis, that is.

1 comment:

  1. Now that I've figured out how to tell my computer to let me comment here I'll make an official 'pro N.P. and family' entry. I just love the guy's poetry and one day hope to read bios to know the whole lot of 'em better. So... thanks for the memorials.