The 19th century was a period of dramatic developments in science, technology and ways of thinking. It was also a changeover from the era of the Enlightenment to Romanticism, which was more focused on expression. Romantics highlighted the powers of the individual through creativity, finding new, even mystical meanings in nature. Bayard Taylor’s books exhibit this style through his poetic connections with each landscape he traversed.
After nearly 15 years of traveling, Taylor was ready to settle down. He broke ground for what became Cedarcroft, a sturdy brick mansion outside of Kennett Square, Pa. The name derived from the English word “croft”, meaning field, surrounded by cedar trees. The cornerstone was laid on June 5, 1859. Under it is a box containing a copy of his first travel book, Views A-foot, a poem, some coins, a manuscript by friend R.H. Stoddard and personal items. Guests at the housewarming included Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell and Horace Greeley.
The years leading up to 1860 were ones of turmoil in America. Tensions regarding slavery had erupted into numerous bloody uprisings. Taylor opposed slavery and openly supported a country lawyer from Illinois for president. Taylor gave at least two public speeches backing Abraham Lincoln, one in Kennett Square, the other in Chadds Ford, to a crowd estimated at over 15,000.
His endorsement of Lincoln paid off. In 1862, he accepted a position as secretary to Simon Cameron with his entourage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Taylor later became charge d’affaires. While he never fought in the Civil War, Taylor had a close connection to the conflict. His brother Charles became the youngest colonel in the Army of the Potomac. He led the “Bucktails”, a group of volunteers from Chester and surrounding counties who fought throughout the war. Charles was killed defending Little Round Top on day two of the Battle of Gettysburg; monuments to him and the Bucktails stand proudly on the nearby hillside. Taylor gifted a cannon, nicknamed Old Ben Butler, to the town of Kennett Square. It was fired in celebration of every Union victory during the war. The cannon now stands at Kennett Borough Hall.
Taylor’s experiences in Russia inspired him to start a new series of lectures. In 1863 he presented his ideas in Washington, D.C. President Lincoln was in attendance and was impressed, later writing Taylor a letter. “My dear Sir: I think a good lecture or two on ‘Serfs, Serfdom, and Emancipation in Russia’ would be both interesting and valuable. Could not you get up such a thing? Yours truly. A Lincoln.”
Having dominated the lecture circuit and the travel genre, Taylor was ready for something different. His novel The Story of Kennett (1866) returned the author to his roots. In the prologue, he states: “To my friends and neighbors in Kennett: I…dedicate this story to you…” The book chronicles life in Chester County following the American Revolution; the interactions of local families form its framework. Chadds Ford village historian Chris Sanderson made notes within his copy of the book identifying the actual persons depicted in the novel. The Fairthorns supposedly represent Taylor’s own family; Sandy Flash a real life outlaw of the time. While not a world-class novel, the book does capture the sensibilities of people in rural America during that period.
Taylor again ventured out West, this time around Colorado, traveling on horseback with a group that included William Byers, editor of The Rocky Mountain News. The trek resulted in Colorado: A Summer Trip (1867). The introduction to a later edition states: “Taylor’s account stands as a world-class observer’s first-class treatment of territory that few were competing to present to a literate and sophisticated constituency.” The work remains a classic of western travel literature. Taylor’s wanderings may have inspired another gentleman to write. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known today as Mark Twain, portrayed his experiences through Europe and the Holy Land in The Innocents Abroad and western mining camps in Roughing It, terrain Taylor knew quite well.
From 1870-71, Taylor combined his knowledge of German with his love of poetry in his two-volume translation of Goethe’s Faust. Taylor’s book was well received and remains one of the most acclaimed interpretations of this classic. Because of his experience, he was appointed Minister to Berlin in 1878. On the ship going over to the continent he chatted with Twain, who admired his work.
Unfortunately, Taylor’s European stay would be short. He died a few months later, on December 19, 1878. The next day, the Wilmington News Journal printed the announcement: “The Poet, Novelist, Traveler and Diplomatist Dies Quietly at his Post of Duty… It is as an author and a poet that he will be remembered with ever increasing admiration and respect…” Newspapers across America mourned his passing. The New York Times posted his obituary on the front page, noting him as “a great traveler, both on land and paper.” His body was returned to the U.S., the casket displayed in New York’s City Hall. On March 15, 1879, Taylor was honored, lying in state at Cedarcroft, before he was laid to rest at Longwood Cemetery. Above his grave is a cylinder of Indiana limestone, on its side a bronze bas-relief of the poet. His brother Charles, hero at Gettysburg, lies next to him.
In his 53 years, Taylor experienced more than most people could see in five lifetimes. Yet his poetry is simple and elegant, yearnings of a soul constantly seeking new insights. Taylor’s “The Ghosts of Night” hints at his ambition and realization that his time on earth was limited. “My deeds are dust in air… My words are ghosts of thought… I ride through the night alone, detached from the life that seemed… And the best I have felt or known… Is less than the least I dreamed.” These dreams come alive in his books, showcased at Macaluso’s Rare Books in Kennett Square. A beautiful bust of Taylor is prominently displayed nearby in the Kennett Library next to a plaque honoring his many achievements.
Gene Pisasale is an author and historian in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His nine books and lecture series focus on American history and the Chester County region. Gene’s radio show “Living History” on WCHE AM 1520 runs every Wednesday. His latest work is Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System. Contact him via e-mail at Gene@GenePisasale.com. His website is www.GenePisasale.com. Gene’s books are available on his website and on www.Amazon.com.