NYPL Archives: The Bryant-Godwin Papers

By: Sarah Hildebrand

I visited the New York Public Library’s archive of the Bryant-Godwin Papers. This collection is fairly expansive – 25 boxes worth of material including letters, diaries, manuscript drafts, notes, newspaper clippings, financial/legal records, and photographs. As many of you probably know, the NYPL has strict procedures for working with its materials, so I requested to look only at box 20, which contains William Cullen Bryant’s notebook and notes on agriculture and gardening. William Cullen Bryant was a 19th century poet and editor of the New York Evening Post; he also played a role in the creation of Central Park. I was interested to see how his observations of and interaction with the natural world may have informed his writing process and affected the production of meaning in his poetry, much of which would fall under the category of nature poems.

While in some aspects the NYPL has become a most horrid tourist trap (I’m always disappointed by its initial loudness and the presence of gift shops on the first floor), it also works surprisingly hard to keep the riff raff out of the archives. The building itself is a bit difficult to navigate if you’re actually looking for information rather than photo-ops. Few tourists would simply happen to stumble upon, let alone into, the Manuscripts and Archives Division, which is not only located at the end of an off-shooting hallway, away from the main corridor, but requires you to buzz in and wait to be escorted inside. This certainly says something about the privilege of, and access to, education/information. Something about checking all my items at the ground floor, minus a clear plastic bag and laptop, made me feel a bit like a felon, despite the conspicuous nature of my “breaking in” to the library.

Once arriving inside the Archives Division (and after signing-in several more times) I was presented with the box of items I had requested. I was instructed to only remove one folder from the box at a time and to keep everything in order (even though there didn’t appear to be much order to begin with). Inside the folders were William Cullen Bryant’s to-do lists of gardening chores – planting, transplanting, propagating. Various lists of plant species within his garden, as well as fastidious detailing of their locations. Several lists of “flowers in bloom” at Roslyn (his estate) on particular dates in October, sporadically throughout the years 1866-1877, as well as comments on that year’s weather. Next were various newspaper clippings on agriculture – mulching, pruning, cultivating, manuring, protecting against cuculio (a type of invasive insect), setting fence posts. It became clear that Bryant spent copious amounts of time both observing the outside world and actively laboring in it. Based on the plethora of newspaper clippings (an entire journal pasted with clippings, alongside a stack of free-floating articles), he was certainly interested in the natural world from a scientific perspective, as well as an aesthetic one.

While I didn’t stumble upon anything particularly relevant to my own projects, it was interesting to handle some 150-year-old documents and see what we have/haven’t learned about tree and plant care in that time. While some of the clippings were almost comically inaccurate (a combination of poor pruning cuts based on ill-researched newspaper articles probably led to the increased rate of tree disease and insect outbreaks he discovered at his estate) others were alarmingly informed. It is no wonder that Bryant constantly struggled to maintain his garden, and was careful to take his own copious notes about its progress. He was likely aware that a lot of his agricultural practices were somewhat experimental, and thus endeavored to document the outcomes and learn as much from his own experience as from what he read in the papers – knowledge that certainly came to inform his poetry.