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Leland, Charles Godfrey (1824-1903)

Essayist, Journalist, Poet

Born in Philadelphia, Charles Godfrey Leland Leland received his early schooling in Massachusetts and Philadelphia, where Bronson Alcott was one of his teachers. He contributed short poems to newspapers before the age of fifteen. After graduating from Princeton in 1846, Leland traveled to Europe and spent two years studying in Germany. In 1848 he participated in uprisings in Paris before returning to Philadelphia to study law. Leland was fond of Europe, and “hated the calm smugness of his home city after the turmoil and color of Europe.” He continued to rail against the “homely virtues” of his home city, yet was drawn to it, repeatedly skipping between New York and Philadelphia over the years (Parry 151-2).

Turning to journalism, Leland began to write articles for the Union Magazine, the New York Illustrated News (where he was Rufus Griswold’s assistant), and the Evening Bulletin. During his lifetime, he edited Graham’s Magazine, the Continental Monthly, and the Philadelphia Press. He is also noted for having edited Vanity Fair (Watson 521; Stovall 223; Lause 52). His most successful literary productions were the widely read comedic Hans Breitmann ballads, but he also published work on gypsies, linguistics, and legends (G. Allen 506). Parry notes that “Leland scowled when in far-off Egypt he was recognized not as a serious writer on art and political subjects, but as the author of the nonsensical Hans Breitmann ballads” (230). At the height of the Pfaff’s period, Leland published a book of essays and sketches, Meister Karl’s Sketch-Book (1855), in the manner of Washington Irving, a writer greatly admired by the frequenters of Pfaff’s.

Leland was part of a circle of under-appreciated writers who befriended Whitman in the 1870s, and reportedly influenced his “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” While Allen suggests that Whitman seems to have “admired” Leland for his “easy association with the Bohemians and bummers,” Leland was careful to distance himself from the Pfaff’s group (507-508). In his autobiography, Memoir, Leland asserts that he “held [himself] very strictly aloof from the Bohemians, save in business affairs” (235). Leland explains that part of this distance was due to his married state (he married Eliza Bella Fisher in 1856) and also because he “never saw the day in [his] life when to be regarded as a real Bohemian vagabond, or shiftless person, would not have given [him] the horrors. [He] would have infinitely preferred the poorest settled employment to such life” (235). He also contests the charge that he introduced Artemus Ward (C. Browne) to “the Bohemian brotherhood,” acknowledging only his part in initially helping Ward develop story ideas. (235-36).

Parry, conversely, suggests that Leland did not acknowledge the extent of his attraction to the bohemian scene. He asserts that Leland had a particular interest in Gypsies which he “managed to convince himself and others...was strictly scientific, hence laudable.” He writes, “Pfaff’s would have been Leland’s proper milieu, but by then he had a restraining wife” (152). Stovall supports this view, suggesting that Leland may have met Whitman in the 1850s at Pfaffs but was deterred from becoming a bohemian by his wife (223). Leland was fond of companionship and his desire to “gather a group of other impatient young souls about him” was part of what he found difficult about Philadelphia (Parry 151).

Leland lived a nomadic existence, and continued to move around the U.S. and Europe following his enlistment in the in the Union army in 1863 in time. Leland served as lieutenant in the battle of Gettysburg and at some point was “prostrated by a sunstroke, from the effects of which he never fully recovered” (Wilson 683). He traveled afterwards in the West and in Europe. He settled in London in 1869 where he remained for ten years, befriending Walter Besant and founding the Rabelais Club. Upon returning to the United States, he lent his support to the cause of incorporating industrial education into the public schools. 1881 saw him helping the founding of an industrial art school in Philadelphia. In 1884, he returned to Europe where he remained until his death in Florence in 1903.