poem index

The Literary History of Connecticut

Written by

Marilyn Nelson
Contributor Page

Year

2007

At the end of the 18th century, English majors as far away as California knew of Hartford, Connecticut. In the decade following the American Revolution, that city sprouted a group of poets known as The Hartford Wits. English majors today may not recall a single poem by Timothy Dwight, Elihu Hubbard Smith, or John G.C. Brainard, but there it is: Connecticut set foot in literary history as early as 1790, introduced by the members of what sounds like a drinking club.

The next notable publications in Connecticut were written by African-Americans. In 1937, the abolitionist, Rev. Hosea Easton of Hartford published A Treatise On the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States; And the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them; With A Sermon on the Duty of the Church To Them. William Grimes, born a slave in Virginia, escaped to New York as a stowaway with the help of sailors on a Boston-bound brig, and settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where he saved enough money as a barber to purchase his freedom when found and threatened by his former master. Grimes' slave narrative, Life of William Grimes, The Runaway Slave, Brought Down to the Present Time, was published in 1855.

Lydia Huntley Sigourney, born in Norwich in 1781, was one of the most widely-read American poets of her lifetime. Mrs. Sigourney, known as "the sweet-singer of Hartford," was incredibly prolific, financial necessity driving her to publish sometimes a thousand magazine poems a year. Between 1815, the year of her first publication, and 1866, the year of her death, she published many popular collections of poetry, and thousands of uncollected poems. Her sentimental poems may be those parodied in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but on the other hand, she may be the only poet in the country to have a town—Sigourney, Iowa—named in her honor.

In the green in front of the library in West Hartford Center stands a statue of Noah Webster. That's Noah Webster, of Webster's dictionary. Published in 1886. A Rosetta Stone. Few know of Samuel Johnson, Junior, also of Connecticut, who privately published a small dictionary in 1880.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sam and Livy Clemens became next-door neighbors in the mid-1880's, in two huge homes on Nook Farm, an upscale suburb of Hartford. It was mostly there, in his ship-shaped mansion, that Clemens wrote The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, Life On the Mississippi, The Prince And The Pauper, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. After Livy's death in 1904, Clemens spent four years being famous in New York, then he settled into his last home, "Stormfield," in Redding, Connecticut.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, born in Hartford in 1860, was famous in her brief lifetime for her ground-breaking feminist works. Best known now as the author of the short story called "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman was recognized in her lifetime as a reformer, and was highly respected for her writings about women's suffrage, birth-control, and other controversial issues. One of her books, Women And Economics (1898) was among the first feminist college textbooks.

Lincoln Steffens, an influential "muck-raking" journalist whose sensationalist exposés revealed state and government corruption, summered, in the early years of the twentieth century, in the Cos Cob Arts Community near Greenwich. There, immersed in the bucolic landscape, surrounded by painters who are now known as the American Impressionists, perhaps he could forget, briefly, what he called The Shame Of The Cities.

Eugene O'Neil spent his childhood summers in Connecticut, as well, in a New London cottage which was his only permanent home. His plays "A Long Day's Journey into Night" and "Ah, Wilderness" are set there. To honor his greatness and encourage the growth of new generations of American playwrights, the O'Neill Theatre Center of Waterford, Connecticut hosts an annual festival of new plays.

From 1916 until his death in 1955, the poet Wallace Stevens lived in Hartford with his wife and daughter, and composed his brilliant, difficult and beautiful poems as he walked to work as a Vice President of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. "The Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens," an organization dedicated to the memory of this famously unpleasant great man, plans to create and place 13 stone markers along Stevens' two-mile route from home to office. Each marker will have one stanza from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Brendan Miggins, an architect at the Hartford firm of Amenta/Emma, has completed preliminary design work; and the city has officially declared the Wallace Stevens Walk along Asylum Avenue. Stevens is buried in Hartford's historic Cedar Hill Cemetery.

James Merrill, another great poet who made his home in Connecticut, moved to the shoreline town of Stonington in 1955, and lived there with his partner David Jackson for the rest of his life. A winner of many awards for his lyrical and searchingly intelligent non-fiction, fiction, and poems, Merrill originated and funded the Ingram Merrill Foundation and served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and as the first Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut. Since his death in 1995 residence in Merrill's home has been awarded to several noted younger poets. The dining room is painted purple. The study is behind a secret door.

Connecticut's second Poet Laureate, Leo Connellan, was very different from the patrician Merrill. Connellan's subjects were the marginalized, the working-class: Maine lobster-fishermen, cannery workers. As Poet Laureate, Connellan worked tirelessly to take poetry into public schools and college classrooms. His life and work, permeated by his sense of being excluded from the rarified cliques of the poetry world, gave voice to the voiceless, expressing their outrage, their hope.

Connecticut's proximity to New York City has brought many highly respected writers to the state, many of them to quiet hide-outs in pastoral areas like the Litchfield hills. The list of nationally known writers now residing in Connecticut includes John Hollander, Wally Lamb, J.D. McClatchy, Arthur Miller, Honor Moore, Philip Roth, and Robert Stone.