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Symonds, William Law (1833-1862)

Essayist, Journalist

Born in rural Maine where he spent most of his life, William Symonds attended Bowdoin College and then Harvard’s Divinity School in 1855. Fellow Pfaffian William Winter published Symonds’ collected works 46 years after his death, at a time when "[t]he literary reputation that he had acquired,-- not at any time extensive, though, within a limited circle, unquestionably brilliant,-- was, practically, forgotten" (Life and Writings 7). Though he died at age 29, Symonds had an active literary life in periodicals like the Portland Transcript, the Knickerbocker Magazine and the Saturday Press. In a letter to his brother in 1860, he heralded the Saturday Press as "the only literary paper in the country worth mentioning", hedging, however, that it "is admitted to be smart, but everybody fears it will fail" (Life and Writings 273). Most of his scholarly industry was spent during the last five years of his life writing some 2600 articles for Appleton’s Cyclopaedia on topics ranging from Aesthetics, Latin Literature, and John Locke, to Mysteries, Nominalism and Realism, and the Mythology of the Ancients (Life and Writings 18).

Symonds moved to New York City in 1857; he explained the move to Reverend John F. Spalding by saying: "I am more and more convinced that literature is the place for me, provided starvation be not a question to be entertained in connection with it, and, after four months’ experience of New York City, and the use of my eyes there for that time, I shall either throw myself body and soul into literature, burn down all the bridges and burn up all the boats which would leave an escape, or else, all my wanderings over, I shall settle peacefully into insignificance and a parish" (Life and Writings 190-191). The cosmopolitan life of the city soon enraptured young Symonds; in July, he wrote to his sister Isabel that "New York is a great world in itself" full of bustling, yet "No philosopher in his study was ever calmer than I am in Broadway" (192). By September of that year he had written once again to Spalding to extol, "My heart never throve at Cambridge as it did at Bowdoin, as it does in New York... [Once I] purposed to be a minister, and now purpose a mingled life of authorship and bread-earning in New York City" (198). In his letters to his family, Symonds reveals that he was deep in the study of Italian, French, and German under the tutelage of native speakers, while reading theology and writing encyclopedia entries and earning the approbation of the editors at Appleton’s.

While frequenting Pfaff’s he became an especial friend of William Winter and socialist Edward Howland. In fact, William Winter included in his memoirs Symonds' name among the list of individuals who were associated with Pfaff's, where the Boehmian group of writers and artists met (Winter 88). Winter praised Symonds in the introduction to his published writings as possessing "more learning than was possessed by any of our Bohemian acquaintances, a more potent and subtle faculty of analytical thought, and a more abstract, enthusiastic, ecstatic spirit" (Life and Writings 18).

For six months in 1861, Symonds removed to Massachusetts and practiced his ministry; however, New York had taken a firm hold on his imagination, and by October he had retired from the pulpit and returned to work for the Cyclopaedia once again. As William Winter argues, Symonds did not possess the great power needed for a preacher and "his natural and inevitable vocation was Literature" (Life and Writings 39). Symonds died in New York after a brief illness.