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  Samuel Woodworth

"Ambition's Path is Wild and Bleak"

The Life of Samuel Woodworth

The son of a Revolutionary War veteran, Samuel Woodworth was born in Scituate, Massachusetts, on January 13, 1785. Woodworth left his family farm in rural New England at age fourteen to study Latin, English, and Classics under the supervision of a well-regarded reverend named Nehemiah Thomas. After one year, Thomas attempted to secure funds from wealthy patrons to further Woodworth's education at a college level. However, these attempts proved to be unsuccessful. Upon completing his studies with Thomas, Woodworth moved to Boston, where he became an apprentice to printer Benjamin Russell. Russell was the well-known publisher of the Columbia Centinel and the Republican Journal, which some scholars have described as one of the most influential newspapers in Massachusetts after the American Revolution.1

Woodworth's not having attended college was significant in the context of America's developing literary culture. As Lawrence Buell notes, the first generation of leading American writers, John Trumbull, Joel Barlow, Timothy Dwight, and David Humphreys were all educated at Yale and came from similar backgrounds.2 While Woodworth was educated to a degree, he was an early exemplar of the self-made American literary notable. Although Woodworth would never reach the pinnacle of literary fame, he would carve himself a respectable niche.

During his time in Boston, Woodworth began writing and publishing poetry under the pseudonym "Selim." The name appears in a few of Woodworth's poems and plays, but little is known about why Woodworth adopted the moniker. It is now difficult to establish when exactly Woodworth published under the pseudonym, since most of his poetic and theatrical works exist only in anthologies which are credited directly to Woodworth himself.

Woodworth most likely adopted Selim from the popular English play Barbarossa, the Tyrant of Algiers. Written in 1775 by the English playwright John Brown, Barbarossa is a dramatic account of the infamous pirate and tyrant of Algiers, Khair al-Din Barbarossa. In Brown's play, the noble Prince Selim kills Barbarossa and restores the true royal family to power. Throughout the play, Selim embodies the qualities of courage, patriotism, and chivalry which Woodworth would frequently employ in his own work.

The historian Robert Allison suggests that Barbarossa was a "staple of the American stage until after the War of 1812." Woodworth's choice of the name Selim represents a popular interest in eastern Muslim culture in the United States during the early nineteenth century.3 Later in life Woodworth would name his second son Selim. Selim E. Woodworth went onto become a famous California pioneer, abolitionist, and naval commander for the Union during the Civil War.4

In 1808, Woodworth lived briefly in Baltimore before settling down in New York City in 1809, where he met and married Lydia Reeder on September 23, 1810. The couple had ten children between 1811 and 1834. There are few references to Woodworth’s wife in his writings.  Indeed, only one work seems to be dedicated towards her. In the poem, To My Wife, Woodworth proclaims:

Poverty May press severe,
Yet we shall, through life, my dear,
Still be rich in love, Lydia

            As To My Wife indicates, earning a living and supporting ten children was a constant struggle for Samuel Woodworth. While Woodworth dedicated most of his creative impulses towards poetry, prose, and drama, these literary endeavors did not guarantee a steady income. Although a few of his literary achievements did reap financial success, the lack of a steady income from the arts forced Woodworth to pursue other endeavors.

Joseph J. Letter, one of the few scholars to seriously consider the works of Woodworth, suggested that he "was less of a professional poet or novelist than a journalist, printer, writer, editor, and publisher of various newspapers and magazines."5 During his apprenticeship in Boston as a youth, Woodworth founded and edited The Fly, a paper which catered to an adolescent readership. Although The Fly was short-lived and relatively unread, this venture marked the beginning of a pattern of working as a newspaper publisher, which Woodworth would continue throughout his life.

In his unpublished dissertation on Samuel Woodworth, Kendall B. Taft notes that “at various times between 1805 and 1827, Woodworth edited eleven periodical publications, a record equaled by few, if any, of the 'editorial gentlemen' of his day.”6 Like most editors and publishers of the time, Woodworth was a frequent contributor to his own publications. The nature of these periodicals varied greatly. A brief examination of a few of the more prominent publications can give insight into the nature of Woodworth’s literary and personal tendencies. As Taft notes. due to the profit-driven nature of periodicals and newspapers, an understanding of Woodworth's publishing career may also shed light on the literary, journalistic, and religious tastes of ninetieth century American reading public.7

From 1812 to 1814, Woodworth founded and published a weekly paper called The War, which contained accounts of naval and land battles of the War of 1812 along with government proclamations and propaganda. During this time, Woodworth also founded and published The Halcyon Luminary and Theological Repository. The Luminary was essentially a periodical dedicated to circulating Swedenborgian, or New Church, theology in New York City. Woodworth would also go on to publish multiple literary periodicals such as The Ladies Literary Cabinet, The Literary Casket, and The Parthenon. These literary periodicals were generally geared to a female audience, and published stories, poems, and serial novels which depicted American women as moral, patriotic, and generally virtuous models for the times.

Woodworth’s greatest opportunity in publishing was also quite likely his greatest failure. In 1823, Woodworth partnered with his longtime friend and fellow New York literary gentleman George P. Morris to publish The New-York Mirror. For reasons which remain unknown to this day, Woodworth withdrew from his partnership with Morris a mere nine months later. The New-York Mirror would go on to be one of the most successful literary journals in American history. It was notable for, among other things, first publishing the poems of a young man named Edgar Allen Poe. However, as Thomas Robert Pierce notes, Morris and Woodworth would remain lifelong friends. The New-York Mirror continued to publish favorable reviews of Woodworth’s poetry and frequently print essays written by the struggling author.8

Although the majority of Woodworth's periodicals were short-lived, by most accounts they were well received by the public. While Samuel Woodworth may not have been a household literary name, his work as a publisher was widely recognized during his lifetime.  Woodworth was known for possessing a keen understanding of the popular literature of his time. In a review of his periodical Ladies Literary Cabinet, the Providence Patriot offered this praise of Woodworth's publishing efforts:

With the qualifications of Mr. Woodworth, as the editor of a periodical journal, the public are not unacquainted. His judicious taste and persevering industry, as a selector and complier, are duly appreciated by the numerous patrons of the historical paper which he conducted during the late war.9

Aside from literary and religious periodicals, Woodworth also published a few political newspapers. Among them were The Republican Chronicle and The Republican Chronicle and City Advertiser. As the names of these papers suggests, Woodworth was a fairly staunch Democratic-Republican. This is particularly important when considering The Heroes of the Lake and the War of 1812 in general. As Democratic-Republican, Woodworth clearly supported the War of 1812 and westward expansion. Although Woodworth was aligned the Democratic Republican Party as The Heroes of the Lake indicates, he did not approve of the hyper-partisan politics of his time. Woodworth clearly desired a more civilized and compromising political discourse than did many politicians of his day.

All records indicate that the longest Woodworth was affiliated with any single publication was the three years that The War was published. It also seems to be the case that Woodworth's heart was never fully invested in the cutthroat publishing world. In a rather gloomy passage from Woodworth's essay series Memories of a Sensitive Man about Town,the author proclaims: "this tangible, physical world, with a few exceptions, is a miserable place… But the world of mind, of fancy, of imagination, oh, that is truly delightful!"10

Over the years many of Woodworth's peers lamented his inability to find financial or critical success. While Woodworth did not lack critics, it appears that many of his contemporaries felt that the author possessed talent, but lacked the luck or good fortune needed to make it in the unpredictable literary world. In a notice of the termination of one of his literary periodicals, the New York Columbian offered these condolences to Samuel Woodworth:

We regret to observe, by the following notice in that paper of Sunday last, that this most amiable man, and worthy citizen, is again disappointed by his prospects, and with a young family, is once more driven to seek some suitable employment in these adverse times. May he yet meet "the tide that leads to fortune!11

"The Garden of Science, the Seat of the Arts":12 The American Literary Landscape

Samuel Woodworth was as an extraordinarily prolific writer. If the accepted dates are correct, he wrote The Heroes of the Lake only a few weeks after the conclusion of the Battle of the Thames, an impressive feat for any writer, journalistic or literary. Most of Woodworth's poetry deals with typical subject matter of the time: love, patriotism, religion and pastoral themes. Titles such as The Cottage Lass, Colombia the Pride of the World, and On Hearing a Sermon on the Pleasures of Religion epitomize Woodworth's typical subject matter. Aside from poetry, Woodworth published a few novels and a great many plays.

The most successful, financially and critically, of all Woodworth’s work was The Forrest Rose, an operetta which comically portrays a love triangle between an American frontiersman, a British gentleman, and a beautiful American lady. In his book, Dramas From the American Theater: 1792-1909, Richard Moody notes that The Forrest Rose was one of, if not the most successful American musical comedies of its era; the play was performed forty-nine times in New York City alone.13 Woodworth's most significant works was The Champions of Freedom; or, The Mysterious Chief. A Romance of the Nineteenth Century, Founded on the War between the United States and Great Britain. Champions of Freedom, as it is generally referred to, was an fictionalized account of the War of 1812, which is similar in subject and tone to The Heroes of the Lake. It has also been cited as the earliest example of a historical novel in the United States.14

Later in life, Woodworth was associated with the Knickerbocker literary circle of New York City. The Knickerbockers were journalists, playwrights, novelists, and poets who dominated the American literary scene in the mid-nineteenth century. The group was named after Washington Irving's satirical A Knickerbocker's History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. Formally, the group included prominent American authors such as Irving, William Cullen Bryant, and James Fenimore Cooper. In his book, Minor Knickerbockers, Kendall Taft focuses on other New York authors of the day who were loosely associated with the Knickerbocker tradition.

The literary circle was far from a coherent group. The various authors were influenced by different traditions, wrote on different subjects, and subscribed to a variety of literary theories. Taft suggests that one of the unifying factors among the various Knickerbockers was a devotion to portraying the "local" through literature. 15  As Woodworth did in The Heroes of the Lake, many Knickerbockers strove to incorporate local speech, local scenes, and local attitudes into their literature, thus expanding America’s cultural narrative. However, it should be noted that the Knickerbockers’ dedication to creating a local literature was generally an adaptation of British literary tendencies. Woodworth himself was largely influenced by the works of Thomas Gray, James Montgomery, and Robert Tannahill16.

At the time Woodworth wrote The Heroes of the Lake, epic poetry was generally regarded as the highest form of literary achievement. John Dryden, the great English literary critic and poet of the eighteenth century, once proclaimed that "a heroic poem, truly such, is the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform."17 As they do today, the works of Homer, Virgil, and Milton served as the greatest examples of the epic literary tradition. An individual educated in Latin and Greek, as Samuel Woodworth was, undoubtedly read classic examples of epic poetry such as the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid and John Milton's more modern epic Paradise Lost.

Historian John P. McWilliams observed that creating "some kind of heroic song for the New World remained a pressing cultural need" in Woodworth's day.18 Since the conclusion of the Revolution, many American intellectuals had attempted to write an epic poem which captured the American experiences in literature's most noble form.  John Adams once proclaimed that he wished "to see our young America in Possession of a Heroic Poem, equal to those of the most esteemed in any country."19  Perhaps The Heroes of the Lake is Woodworth's offering to this erudite calling.

"Little Pledge of Fond Remembrance"20 Memory of Samuel Woodworth

Concerns regarding the lasting memory of the poet, novelist, and journalist Samuel Woodworth seemed to exist years before the writer’s death.  In 1818, three years after the conclusion of the War of 1812, four years after the first publication of The Heroes of the Lake, and twenty-four years before Woodworth's death, publishers Abraham Asten and Matthias Lopez clearly contemplated the memory of Samuel Woodworth when publishing their comprehensive volume, The Poems, Odes, Songs and other Metrical Effusions of Samuel Woodworth. In the introduction to the anthology, the publishers explicitly state their motives for printing Woodworth's works:

First – A desire to rescue from oblivion the fugitive productions of a native poet; - productions, which in their opinion would have secured an English author both fame and opulence.

Secondly – a desire to relieve their unfortunate author from those pecuniary embarrassments which have been created principally by the benevolence of his disposition; embarrassments which are the more painful to the sufferer, inasmuch as they tend to oppose the genuine ebullitions of a heart governed by honour, integrity, and every virtuous principal [sic].

It would seem that nearly 184 years later, the fate of Samuel Woodworth proved to be exactly as Asten and Lopez most solemnly feared. Samuel Woodworth has undeniably become a forgotten writer of American literary history. Two of the most well-regarded anthologies of American poetry, The Oxford Book of American Poetry and The Norton Anthology of American Literature, do not contain a single poem by Woodworth. Additionally, The Poetry Foundation's website, the electronic segment of Poetry Magazine, which may be considered the definitive web-based source for American poetry, does not contain a single reference to Woodworth.

In a few less-widely circulated anthologies of American poetry one poem by Woodworth occasionally makes the cut. Nestled next to Francis Scott Key and a few other pre-Whitman, pre-Poe, and pre-Longfellow American poets, The Old Oaken Bucket occasionally graces the pages of America’s poetic tomes. A pleasantly pastoral poem, the Old Oaken Bucket begins by asking the reader to consider:

"How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollections present them to view!"

How dear then are recollections of America's historical childhood? When America's forgotten past is presented in a poem such as The Heroes of the Lake, which boldly and romantically tells the tale of one of America's greatest naval and land battles, how does it resonate with the modern reader?  Samuel Woodworth passed away on December 9, 1842; two years late his son Selim would move his father’s body westward from New York to San Francisco as "a final nod to the westward expansion that Woodworth had idealized in his writings."21 The curious life of Samuel Woodworth exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit of 19th century America, and his contributions to the world of publishing and literature serve as examples of how second generation Americans struggled to create a national culture distinct from its British roots.

1. Fredric Hudson, Journalism in the United States, from 1760-1872 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1973), 147.