In pre-Civil War Hartford, literature had to contend with commerce. Three literary types who showed up found themselves leaving.
When Samuel C. Goodrich, 17, arrived from Ridgefield in 1810, he found Hartford "strongly impressed with a plodding, mercantile and mechanical character. There was a high tone of general intelligence and social respectability about the place, but it had not a single institution, a single monument, that marked it as even a provincial metropolis of taste, in literature or refinement."
Goodrich tried to fix this with a group of young literati called the Knights of the Round Table, and he was inspired to write by Lydia Huntley Sigourney: "she led us all on toward intellectual pursuits and amusements." But it was not until he left for Boston in 1829 that he became one of the most famous children's authors of the day.
Under the pseudonym "Peter Parley," he published, or caused to be published, nearly 200 books on history, geography and moral instruction for the young, in vivid storytelling. His ghostwriter for "Peter Parley's Universal History" in 1837 was a beginning writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was paid $100 for the job. It sold a million copies.
John Greenleaf Whittier showed up in the city as a 23-year-old serious Quaker in 1830 to edit the New England Review, a Whig political sheet. Later known as an abolitionist and author of poetry about rugged New England life, including the famous "Snowbound," Whittier was in the pantheon that included James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on the literate Yankee's bookshelf.
But in these early days, like many young editors, "I was kept very, very busy on the Review, and chiefly for the first year avoiding the exposure of my ignorance," Whittier wrote.
He favored a strong protective tariff and wrangled with the Democratic-leaning Hartford Times. He also made literary friends, notably Sigourney, and would sneak poems such as "The Indian Girl's Lament" into the paper. He published a book of New England legends imitating Washington Irving. In later life, when he found a copy, he would burn it. Two days before he left in 1831, he proposed unsuccessfully to a young Hartford woman.
The strangest of the three was John Gates Percival, who combined the professions of poet and scientist in unexpected ways. He came to town at 32 for a job helping Noah Webster of West Hartford with his dictionary. Percival could speak 10 languages and had grounding in botany and geology. He is described as "suffering from a persecution complex" and "lonely, shy, unmarried, disappointed, poor and dirty... his countenance had a cast-iron look, and rarely broke into a smile."
Introduced to the Hartford social scene, he talked at great length, and inaudibly, on subjects he was interested in. "Perhaps his most valuable work is his `Report of the Geology of the State of Connecticut,'" writes Yale professor Henry Beers. But in Percival's obituary, William Cullen Bryant, the great nature poet of the day, said he wrote with an improvisational "natural fluency."
Percival wrote this about unappreciative Hartford:
...Land of cursed deceivers
Where the sons of darkness dwell
Hope, the cherub's base bereavers, --
Hateful city! Fare thee well.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times