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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WILLIS was an American who in tentative literary days, when the native author had to appeal mostly to British readers, lent dignity and attraction to the profession of literature in his land. A man of social gifts and graces, important as editor and critic, a graceful, pleasing writer of both prose and verse, he was in his time a power in the native development of letters. One feels now, in reading his works, that in his rôle of man of the world he sacrificed still higher possibilities of accomplishment.  1
  Nathaniel Parker Willis was a Maine boy; born in Portland, also Longfellow’s birthplace, January 20th, 1806. He was the son of an editor who founded the Boston Recorder, and the Youth’s Companion of the same city; and studied at the Boston Latin School, and at Phillips Academy (Andover) preparatory to Yale, where he was graduated in 1827. Willis gave evidence of marked literary gift in college, winning the $50 prize offered for the best poem. Some of his most popular Biblical pieces were composed while he was a student. A brilliant future was predicted for the handsome, winning young collegian. He contributed verse to his father’s newspaper, the Boston Recorder, edited two annuals for S. G. Goodrich (Peter Parley), and by 1829 had founded and begun to edit the American Monthly, afterwards the New York Mirror, which in association with George P. Morris he also edited. These were the first of many newspaper and editorial connections, among which may be noted his editorship of the New York Home Journal, a position held until his death.  2
  Willis’s life was a busy and varied one: he made numerous European trips, moved in polite circles, and saw the people worth seeing. Many of his pleasant travel books and tourist chronicles sprang from these experiences. The majority of them partake somewhat of the character of high-class journalism. In the case of those which describe, with Willis’s characteristic sprightly, picturesque touch, his meetings with persons of interest in the foreign world of thought, letters, and society, the writer performs a real service; for these pen portraits of celebrities now bygone are both enjoyable and valuable to the social historian. Other writings—like the very charming ‘Letters From Under a Bridge,’ describing his summer home Glenmary, at Owego, New York—mingle humor, wisdom, and literary grace, and reveal the deeper, more subjective side of the man: they have high value as felicitous essay-writing. The following additional prose books may be mentioned: ‘Pencillings by the Way,’ ‘Inklings of Adventure’ (1836), ‘Loiterings of Travel’ (1840), ‘People I Have Met’ (1850), ‘Hurry-graphs’ (1851), ‘A Health Trip to the Tropics’ (1854), ‘Famous Persons and Places’ (1854), ‘The Convalescent, His Rambles and Adventures’ (1859).  3
  As a poet, Willis makes the impression of a skilled verse-maker, who wrote agreeable poetry, and now and then did a thing showing him capable of finer work than the body of his production contains. His poem to the departing Seniors at Yale had a command of technique, a seriousness and ideality, remarkable for so young a writer. In his subsequent career he paid the inevitable penalty of a worldly life: he failed of his potential highest. But a few of his lyrics, herewith printed, have a grace, a purity of sentiment, and effectiveness of diction, which keep them deservedly in the American anthology of song. Willis’s talent too for the narrative and dramatic was decided: his range was wider than the lyric. In the sacred poems there is an eloquence of expression, an imaginative sweep, that have given this work of an immature hand popularity in the poet’s own day and since. Willis in his youth was reared in a most religious atmosphere, and his poems reflect the influence. They are sincere utterances, flushed with youth, and not seldom beautiful. Whether as poet or essayist, Willis had popular qualities that brought him ample recognition, and that, judged more critically at this present time, are seen to possess some of the main requisites of good literature. There was a good deal below his literary dandyism.  4
  In 1853, Willis purchased the estate of Idlewild, near Newburg on the Hudson, and here he lived during his final years, dying there in 1867,—his death, by a coincidence, falling upon his birthday, January 20th.  5
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
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