“To Climb Upward…for a Wider Sweep of Vision” Bayard Taylor—Chester County’s Forgotten Man of Letters Part I

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Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center


 

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In 19th C America, great literature came mostly from New England and New York.  The names of Hawthorne, Emerson, Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, Melville, and others were household words.  Writers of the Brandywine Valley were not nearly so celebrated; Delaware had none of consequence until the1890s, and Pennsylvania had few.  

A notable exception was Bayard Taylor of Kennett Square (shown here), one of America’s most widely admired and celebrated  19th C writers.  He was our foremost travel writer, a successful novelist, and of a poet of such stature that he was invited to write a “Centennial Ode” for the celebration of the nation’s first century in 1876.  

The Kennett Square into which Taylor was born early in 1825 was a sleepy little village, best known, perhaps, as the starting point of British troops on the day of the Battle of Brandywine.  It was not yet “the hotbed of abolitionism.”  Of Quaker stock and named after Delaware Senator James A. Bayard, Taylor was taught by his mother to read by age four.  He was further educated by private teachers; more than anyone else, though, he educated himself by extensive reading and study of foreign languages.  By 17 he knew Spanish, Latin, and French, and he went on to learn many other languages.  

Very early in his life he developed the desire to see and experience the world beyond the quiet Brandywine Valley.  “His nature took deep root in the soil of the homestead,” wrote his wife,  “but even in childhood there were signs of the larger desire which made the childhood restless and his manhood full of aspiration.  ‘In looking back to my childhood…I can recall…the intensest desire to climb upward, so that without shifting the circle of my horizon I could extend it, and take in a far wider sweep of vision.  I envied every bird that sat swinging upon the topmost bough of the century-old cherry tree.'”( Lordi, p. 6).  That desire, plus his skill in writing, and a remarkably impressive personality, led Taylor to travel all over the globe.  He was tall (6’3”) handsome, charming, and incredibly hardy. Early in his youth he walked to Washington, D.C. from Kennett Square –and back– to get his passport!

In 1844 he paid his way out of the apprenticeship with a West Chester newspaper to travel with a two cousins to England, Germany, and Italy.  This trip established the pattern of his life: travel.  Far from a passive observer, Taylor learned the languages and made close friends, often with famous writers, artists, and government leaders. He was subsidized by publishers eager for his descriptions of faraway places that were read and followed by an ever-widening public.

Quotes from Lordi, Joseph A.  Our First One Hundred Years: Bayard Taylor and the Libraries of Kennett Square, PA.  Kennett Square: Ximena Press, 1996.