May 17, 2010

He loved to do good by stealth

On May 17, 1870, the poet/journalist William Cullen Bryant stood before the New York Historical Society to deliver his "Discourse on the Life, Character and Writings of Gulian Crommelin Verplanck." Verplanck, a politician and occasional writer associated with the Knickerbocker group, had died about two months earlier at the age of 83.

Verplanck was also the Historical Society's vice-president at the time of his death. Bryant began his speech by noting how their late colleague was part of the framework of the organization. "It is as if one of the columns which support a massive building had been suddenly taken away," he said. Bryant then described Verplanck's life, his ancestry, his education, his career. Verplanck, Bryant noted, had given his first public speech at the age of 18, a patriotic one for Independence Day.

Bryant said that Verplanck wrote one of the earliest reviews of his poetry. In 1824, when Bryant was "an unknown literary adventurer" (his words), Verplanck positively reviewed him and encouraged further writing. At the same time, Verplanck began his career as a politician, elected to Congress several times (while in Washington, he promoted copyright protections for American writers), later a member of the New York state legislature and, later, edited an American edition of the dramatic works of Shakespeare. He contributed to the North American Review, served as "governor" of a city hospital, wrote critical reviews of works by Washington Irving and others, was vice-chancellor of a university, wrote satirical pamphlets, served as president of the board of immigration, founded The Talisman journal with Bryant, and gave speeches on history, art, and literature. Verplanck was one of many who successfully wove a life of letters into a life of politics.

Bryant praised Verplanck professionally and personally. "He loved to do good by stealth," Bryant said, emphasizing his friend's humility. Verplanck's last words, according to Bryant, were to a doctor. He asked where the doctor had studied. "Paris," he answered. Verplanck said nothing further, rolled over, and died.

*The image above is from the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress.

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