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

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Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center

Bayard Taylor obviously loved being a part of the broader, more sophisticated world.   The New York Tribune and Saturday Evening Post paid him to visit South America, Egypt, Africa, and India.  Meeting with the fleet of the first Americans heading for Japan, he charmed his way on board, got a Naval commission, and wrote of the marvels of this previously closed country to a fascinated public.  He returned famous and was asked to go on very profitable lecture tours.

At the same time, something called Bayard Taylor back to his little village and the countryside of the Brandywine.  In the late 1840’s, he came back to woo and eventually wed his childhood sweetheart, but they married with the knowledge that she was dying.  Her passing sent him out into the world again, but always to return.  According to biographer Joseph Lordi, Taylor had an ambiguous attitude toward his home town; it was charming, peaceful, and morally decent–but provincial and narrow in its understanding and approval of the larger world around which he moved so easily.  He built outside Kennett a 32-room mansion, Cedarcroft, (see below) on an 80-acre estate, bringing back to it a new wife from Germany; but to pay for it and further satisfy his wanderlust, he frequently left.  He became ambassador to Russia, translated great works of literature from German and Italian, but also wrote about his hometown.  His novel  The Story of Kennett retells the days when this area was in the world’s gaze: the battle between Howe and Washington on September 11, 1777.  

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Perhaps his greatest moment came when Taylor read his “Centennial Ode” to a vast and distinguished audience gathered at Independence Hall to celebrate 100th year of the Declaration of Independence. True, Taylor had not been the first choice, but those turning it down (Longfellow, Whittier) had urged that Taylor be chosen.  It was a crowning moment in a life that  produced dozens of books of travel, poetry, translations from many languages, and novels.  

He did not long survive this moment.  Called away once again, in 1878, this time to be American ambassador to Germany, he was a very popular choice for both countries.  Years of intensive work and extensive travel, however, had taken a toll on his health, and he died shortly after he had arrived in Berlin.  He was not yet 54. The “intense.. desire to climb upward,” for a “wider sweep of vision,” was over—or perhaps fulfilled.  He returned with great ceremony to New York City and eventually to the town and faith left behind, buried in the little Quaker graveyard across from the Longwood Meeting, site of the strongest abolitionist feelings of the region.  

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