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Willis, Nathaniel Parker (1806-1867)

Editor, Essayist, Journalist, Novelist, Playwright, Poet, Travel Writer

Born second in a family of nine children in Maine and schooled in Boston, Willis attended Yale and traveled extensively in Europe. His sister was Fanny Fern, a member of the Pfaffian crowd. In 1831 he left Boston to join the editorial staff of the New York Mirror as a traveling correspondent discoursing on matters of taste and fashion. Like his fellow Pfaffians, Willis expressed admiration for the work of Edgar Allan Poe and even claimed an acquaintance with him. In October 1844 Poe worked on the staff of The Evening Mirror, which Willis edited along with George Pope Morris as a sub-editor, writing and securing material for the miscellaneous columns, and publishing "The Raven" in January 1845 (Auser 55). Along with James R. Lowell and Poe’s chosen literary executor, Rufus Griswold, Willis edited The works of the late Edgar Allan Poe, with a memoir by Rufus Wilmot Griswold and notices of his life and genius, by N. P. Willis and J. R. Lowell (1850). Willis also provided an account of the death of Poe to accompany Richard Henry Stoddard’s and James R. Lowell’s introduction to The works of Edgar Allan Poe.

It is unclear the degree to which Willis was included among the group of Bohemians who met at Pfaff's. However, James Ford, in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, included him among the individuals who met around the table with Henry Clapp (14). He also shared many professional connections through his work as an editor with members of the Pfaffian crowd. As an editor, he was associated with periodicals like the American Monthly Magazine, the Evening Mirror, the Weekly Mirror, and the National Press which changed its title to the Home Journal in 1846 (and during the twentieth century became the publication Town and Country). In this latter publication, continuing in the Knickerbocker tradition of establishing New York as a literary center, Willis published the work of Pfaff’s clientele Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Bayard Taylor, Richard H. Stoddard, William Winter, Fitz-James O’Brien, and Charles Fenno Hoffman (Hemstreet 157; Auser 130). The work of his sister Sara P. Willis appeared in this periodical in 1854 under the pseudonym Fanny Fern, a name under which she published many works for children. After Willis declined her articles, his sub-editor, James Parton, took Sara’s side and they became engaged, in consequence of which Parton left the paper, being succeeded by Aldrich. As a result of this affair, Sara published Ruth Hall, A Domestic Tale of the Present Time (1854) in which Willis is satirized as Hyacinth, a social climber who marries an heiress, builds a home on the Hudson, and edits the Irving Magazine, refusing to publish the articles of his struggling sister who later becomes famous and generally beloved.

Willis’ work spans several genres, including memoirs, poetry, plays, travelogues, and fiction. His works include Dashes at life with a free pencil (1845), Rural letters and other records of thought at leisure, written in the intervals of more hurried literary labor (1849), Pencillings by the way: written during some years of residence and travel in Europe (1853) and People I have met; or, Pictures of society and people of mark, drawn under a thin veil of fiction (1850). He also produced volumes of poetry such as Sacred Poems (1869) which relates verse to Biblical events. Willis’ plays, Bianca Visconti (produced at the Park Theater in 1837) and Tortesa the Usurer are verse melodramas set in Italy; the latter was praised in a review by Poe as one of the best American plays. Willis wrote about domestic travel in accounts like American scenery (1840); he also related his excursions abroad, in A Summer cruise in the Mediterranean on board an American frigate (1853).

After reporting on the Civil War in the Home Journal and meeting Mrs. Lincoln in 1861 on a visit to Washington, Willis died in 1867 on his sixty-first birthday. Pfaff’s regular Elihu Vedder recalls that Willis referred to himself as a "ruined tower," and as "one of the greatest of small men" (Digressions 201). Another Pfaffian, Richard Henry Stoddard, remarked after visiting Willis at his home in Glenmary, Pennsylvania in 1841 that Willis "belonged to a past school of men. He had the ways and tastes of a more isolated and restricted society than belongs to our day, when fortunes are fusing men and manners into one great glittering ball that rolls through the year, before us and over us (qtd in Beers 228-229). The author of his obituary published in the New York Times remembered Willis "as a poet, as [being as] popular with the mass of American readers as Byron was in England; his verses were the first found and the most read on the centre tables of polite society, and his prose sketches were deemed models of perfection" (New York Times, Jan. 22, 1867, 4).