Monday, April 30, 2012

North Country Poets: Benjamin Franklin Taylor

In 1996, the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month. Each year, the goal is to bring attention to “the art of poetry, to living poets, [and] to our complex poetic heritage.” In support of that effort, the focus here is on Benjamin Franklin Taylor, historically one of the North Country’s greatest poets, writers, and lecturers.

Born in Lowville (Lewis County) in 1819, Taylor was a precocious child whose writing abilities were evident at a young age. He attended Lowville Academy (his father, Stephen William Taylor, also attended LA and later became principal), and then entered Madison University in Hamilton, New York (where his father was a mathematics professor and would later become college president). Madison was renamed Colgate University in 1890.

Completion of college ended Taylor’s following in his father’s footsteps. Benjamin graduated at a young age (about 19) and served as principal of Norwich Academy in Chenango County. He married in early 1839, and six years later moved to Illinois, finding employment with the Chicago Evening Journal. His efforts there would form the core of an outstanding literary career.

He worked for the newspaper for about twenty years, principally as an assistant editor, and produced two books while in their employ, including a poetry collection. His newspaper articles and commentaries were carried by many other pressrooms, earning him a wide audience.

After nearly twenty years, Taylor left the relative safety of the newsroom in 1863 and inserted himself as a field correspondent with the Union Army, covering the horrors and realities of the Civil War, and a number of human interest stories as well.

In a stellar career, his combat correspondence was cited as some of Benjamin’s best work, followed avidly by readers in the United States and Europe. The London Times said his war reports were among “the finest ever written in the English language.”

His accounts of Mission Ridge and the Battle of Lookout Mountain received widespread praise. While embedded with the troops, Taylor became friends with many historic battle veterans, including General Philip Sheridan, and gave readers an inside look at the men behind their public leadership personas. It was original, fascinating work.

Following the war, he traveled to California, Mexico, and several Pacific Islands. In the 1870s, Taylor turned his attention to books, poetry, and lectures. He became a prolific contributor of prose and poetry to the country’s top magazines, including Harpers, the Atlantic, and Scribners.

Between 1871 and 1887, he produced nine more books. As good as they were, he gained equal fame as a lecturer, regularly touring the West, but always returning to his origins in northern New York each year, appearing at Lowville, Carthage, Boonville, Turin, and many other sites.

Benjamin became one of the nation’s most sought-after speakers for poetry readings and lectures at colleges, schools, social halls, political events, and military gatherings. Those who tried to define his methods were perplexed at how he managed to enthrall a crowd. Though he didn’t seem uncommonly skilled, Taylor was singled out among his contemporaries with these words: “Listeners have often gone home wondering how a man could crowd so much of quaint conceit, of beautiful simile, of brilliant imagination, of pleasant humor, of tender sentiment, and fine word-painting into an hour’s discourse.”

And yet it remains that despite such success with articles, commentary, books, and lectures, poetry may have been his greatest strength. For decades, Benjamin’s poems were featured in newspapers across the country, spreading like a wave from coast to coast.

In the 1879 book, Waifs and Their Authors, the popularity of Taylor’s poem “The Long Ago” is described in these terms: “… a little poem that every paper in the country has printed, and many of them a score of times; which every lover of poetry has read and re-read … and which has suggested more imitations and been more frequently plagiarized than any other bit of sentiment with which we are acquainted.” Now that’s popular.

Perhaps equally praised was “The River of Time,” and there were so many others―A Winter Psalm, The Vane on the Spire, Juno, An Old Time Picture, Going Home―that one writer noted Taylor’s “national reputation as the poet of the home and fireside.”

Among his first ten books were three of poetry. In 1887, in response to public demand, his eleventh book was published, a complete collection of Taylor’s poems. That same year, he wrote his first novel, but just three hours after reviewing the book’s final proof, he fell ill. A week later, Taylor passed away at the age of 67. Death occurred in Cleveland, Ohio, but he was buried in New York State on the grounds of Madison University (now Colgate).

The loss of such a great writer who brought pleasure to so many was deeply felt. In my opinion, the most beautifully phrased praise for a poet was a single line from author Alphonse Hopkins, who said of Benjamin Franklin Taylor: “Between his luxurious taste for words, his rare appreciation of syllabic meaning, his swift fancy and his lively imagination, he would make poetry of the dictionary itself.”

Photos: Top―Benjamin Franklin Taylor (1863). Bottom―Advertisement for a Taylor lecture in Fort Wayne, Indiana (1883).

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Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

12 Responses

  1. Steve Hall Steve Hall says:

    Does anyone have a link to any of Taylor’s poems? I found references on the web, but no poetry.

  2. Wayno says:

    Great article, I had never heard of Benjamin Franklin Taylor before but I found his work on Google Books (they might have his entire library available) after reading this article. I have now read some of his descriptions of the Civil War fighting around Chattanooga and it is very compelling. The depth and scope of Taylor’s prose communicates an emotional immediacy of the events that typical historical accounts don’t come close to. His language is sprinkled with the type of rural and outdoorsy metaphor’s one might expect from someone raised in the North Woods yet he in no way sounds like a bumpkin. I look forward to reading more, thanks for the introduction.

  3. Lawrence P. Gooley Larry Gooley says:

    Thanks, and I agree. It is humbling to read advance prose and poetry like Taylor’s. He was remarkable.

  4. dan salata says:

    i actually found a signed first edition of his called songs of it are some poems of the civil war…dated 1875…$1.00..

    • T. Gray Ames says:

      Dan, would you consider selling that? He was my mother’s great grandfather. The oil painting that is featured in this article hangs in her livingroom.


      • Doug Fraley says:

        I saw your post about your Great Great Grandfather. I was wondering if you or your mother ever recalled or have any pictures with him holding a very decorativly carved cane.
        I have one that was carved for a man named B. F Taylor, by the famous carver A. P. Dean. It has a very extensive poem about a train and bible verses carved on it. My hopes is to identify the ownership of this cane. i would be happy to send you pictures of the cane for identification purposes. Any help you could provide would be helpful. Thank-you, Doug

  5. I’m wondering whether “The Isle of Long Ago” and “The River of Time,” which you mention separately above, are in fact the same poem:

    (Scroll down slightly to p. 144 for the poem.)

  6. Lawrence P. Gooley Larry says:

    I believe so, but wasn’t able to officially confirm it. Muddling things was the fact that both titles received much praise, and there were controversies involving it. Both titles were praised as Taylor’s work, but it was also attributed to another poet, perhaps under the “River of Time” title. People contacted editors to point out it was actually Taylor’s poem “The Isle of the Long Ago” (which some called “The Long Ago”). It also didn’t help that the less-used title, “River of Time,” is the one used in Taylor’s obit in major newspapers. I might find the answer if I have time to dig, but I agree with you that the two titles most likely apply to the same poem.

  7. […] recently came across some writings by a person I’d never heard of, Benjamin Franklin Taylor (1819–1887), who was a journalist, essayist, and poet. Though he’s largely forgotten in the […]

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