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).
Claims he "discovered" William Tupper.
Willis hired Aldrich for an editorial position at the "Home Journal" when Aldrich was nineteen. The position had previously been filled by Poe and James Parton. During his early editing days, Aldrich seems to have enjoyed visiting Willis and his pretty daughter, Imogene, at Idlewild, their home on the Hudson River (46). According to Mrs. Aldrich, "The intimate companionship with his chief, who at this time was about fifty years old, was vital in interest and charm. Mr. Willis from early youth was a figure of importance, both in the literary and social world" (47).
According to Aldrich, Willis was instrumental in making Thackeray known in America, before the publication of "Vanity Fair." Willis also knew Dickens before he was famous, early in his career. Willis also knew Charles and Mary Lamb, Landor, heard of Byron from Countess Guiccioli, was friendly with Lady Byron and Byron's sister Augusta Leigh, he knew Joanna Baillie, Scott's friend, and knew Disraeli, Bulwer-Lytton, Samuel Rogers, "and, in truth, all of England's famous writers in the early Victorian period." Willis's fame and connections were not limted to England: "In America he had a friendship with almost every man of letters. He went to school with Emerson; was among the first to give encouragement to Lowell; was a friend to Hawthorne, and kindness itself to Bayard Taylor when he was a friendless boy" (47-48).
Mrs. Aldrich also adds: "Mr. Aldrich thought Willis very attractive and with exceedingly good manners, and that, in spite of a certain dandyism and jauntiness that was characteristic, he had real manliness, and always the courage of his convictions; that he had the rare gift of making persons see what he described" (48).[pages:46-48]
In October 1844, Whitman wrote for Willis and George Pope Morris' New Mirror for two or three weeks (65). Willis, brother of Fanny Fern (Sarah Payson Willis Parton) is described by Allen as "a well-known critic and third-rate poet" (177).[pages:65,177]
Boynton reprints "[...] the famous testimony of Nathaniel Parker Willis: 'With the highest admiration for his genius, and a willingness to let it atone for more than ordinary irregularity, we were led by common report to expect a very capricious attention to his duties, and occasionally a scene of violence and difficulty. Time went on, however, and he was invariably punctual and industrious. With his pale, beautiful and intellectual face, as a reminder of what genius was in him, it was impossible, of course, not to treat him with deferential courtesy, and, to our occasional request that he would not probe too deep in a criticism, or that he would erase a passage colored too highly with his resentments against society and mankind, he readily and courteously assented-far more yielding than most men, we thought, on points so excusably sensitive'" (175).[pages:93, 175, 178, 328]
N. P. Willis is listed by Books as an example of how several Americans are referred to by their first initials (1).[pages:1]
Umos refers to Willis's comments about dress styles (2).[pages:2]
Willis was one of the writers gathered at the complimentary fruit and flower festival held for distinguished authors by New York publishers at the Crystal Palace in 1855 (35).
Chevalier Wikoff described the young N.P. Willis as "having at that time [when both men were at Yale College] 'a reputation of rare poetical talent, although his tone and bearing were aristocratic not unmixed with hauteur'" (370).
According to Derby, Willis and Morris, when they ran the Home Journal, quoted Halleck's "Winds of March" "with every advent of March" (156).
Some poems Aldrich submitted to The Home Journal caught the attention of N. P. Willis, the editor, who "introduced [the poems] to its readers in a very flattering manner. A habit Mr. Willis always indulged in, when young writers sent in contributions in prose or poetry, that he really liked" (230). After this, Willis suggested to his partner Gen. Geo. P. Morris that he go see Aldrich and hire him as an assitant editor (230).
According to Derby, Willis usually came to the city only twice a month during this period, spending most of his time at his home at Idle-Wild. Aldrich was working at The Home Journal six months before he met Willis (230-231). Derby writes of their first meeting: "One day as he sat in the editorial sanctum, stretched out on three chairs, each foot on a chair, placidly smoking a cigar and lazily looking over the exchanges, he was startled by the sudden appearance of a tall, pleasant looking gentleman, who said, 'Is this Mr. Aldrich? My name is Willis.' The young autocrat of an editor was very much embarassed for the moment, but the famous poet, who was a man of the world, took the situation in at once, and soon put him entirely at ease. In less than five minutes, the young editor felt as if he had known the editor-in-chief all his life" (231).
Willis's sister was Fanny Fern. She married a previous occupant of Aldrich's desk and assistant editor of The Home Journal, James Parton (231).
Shortly after his first publication in the Rover, Stoddard brought N.P. Willis some of his manuscript poems and asked him to review and critique his work. Willis wrote the following note that Stoddard received when he called at the offices of the Home Journal a few weeks later: "I should think the writer of these poems had genius enough to make a reputation. Pruning, trimming and condensing is necessary to make them what they should be; the same labor was necessary to make Lord Byron's genius, and that of Tom Moore. It is hard work to do, but well paid when done" (596). Derby writes, "These words were the first real encouragement that he had ever received, and Mr. Stoddard further says, that no young person possessing any kind of talent ever appealed to N.P. Willis without receving aid and encouragement" (596).
According to Derby, "When Bayard Taylor, who was always a favorite with Mr. Willis, returned from Europe, the first time, he took the letters he which he had written to a Philadelphia paper to Wiley & Putnam to publish in book form, and that firm agreed to do so, provided Mr. Willis would write an introduction for the same, and this secured the publication of 'Views Afoot'" (596).
At the height of his popularity, Willis's publishers were Baker & Scribner; Mr. Armstrong, who worked for the firm was a recent member of the Home Journal. It is through Armstrong that Derby has an account of the arrangement "A new uniform edition" Willis's prose writings that occured forty years prior to Derby's writings. The works published by this house "with the attractive and taking titles" were: "People I Have Met," "Life Here and There," "Famous Places and Persons," "Letters from Under a Bridge," Out-doors at Idlewild," and others (442).
Elizabeth Oakes Smith remarked that Poe "could turn a compliment almost as elegantly as N.P. Willis" (547).[pages:35,156,219,221,230-231,370,442,547,591,596,622,629]
Figaro reports that Miss Olive Logan will be reading a selection from Willis during her engagement at Irving Hall (137).[pages:137]
Identified as one of "The group of men at that table [who] constituted the Bohemia of a quarter of a century ago, the most notable gathering of its kind that one city has ever known."
Greenslet mentions that Willis was co-owner of the "Evening Mirror" with General Morris during Aldrich's early poetic career, when he experienced early success with "Babie Bell" (28). The "mainstay of their fortunes," however, according to Greenslet, was the "Home Journal," which Willis edited" (30).
Willis' sister was the writer known as "Fanny Fern"; who caused dissention between Willis and his sub-editor Parton. Willis did not want to publish his sister's newest novel in serial form; Parton disagreed and became engaged to her. Parton lost his editorial post on the "Home Journal," which cleared the way for Aldrich to take his post. Greenslet says that at this time Willis was beginning to feel the symptoms of the illness that would cause his death and spent much time away from the office(30-1).
Willis gave Aldrich advice on publishing in the fall of 1857: "It is no harm to keep publishing, that I know of. Of course, you give handles to your critics now, which you would not with years. But you are young and can stand it. And, after all, there is something in 'damnable iteration.' I should be sorry for you if you had not faults, and the more critics can find to blame, the more they will praise -- I found that out, long ago" (36).
Aldrich later writes to Howells that he would like to write about the New York he knew when he was seventeen or eighteen and Willis was "still prowling the streets, upon which still rested the shadow of Poe" (192).[pages:2,18,28,30-31,36,192]
The author identifies the following pseudonym: Philip Slingsby (76).[pages:76]
In 1843, he asked Thomas Dunn English to write a poem for the New Mirror. He received a poem from English "with the suggestion that he either print it or tear it up as he thought best." Willis printed English's poems, which Hemstreet claims are still his most notable work (162).
Halleck was also known to frequent Windust's with Edmund Kean, the Wallacks, Harry Placide, Cooper, Jack Scott, Mitchell, Brown, Junius Brutus Booth, Willis, and Morris (137-8).
Hemstreet mentions that he was a young man when he became associated with Morris. "He had given up the American Montly Magazine at Boston to devote his energies to the New York Mirror. He began working for Morris in 1831, at $10 a week, and went abroad to conduct a correspondence from London. While in London, he became associated with the fashionable group of Lady Blessington, and he "came to be the adoration of all the sentimental young ladies in that set" (154-5).
According to Hemstreet's description, "There was a daintiness about his dress, a suggestion of foppishness in the arrangement of his blond hair, trifles about him which suggested the dandy and the idler; but withal there was a terrific capacity for work under the smooth outside. His letters to the Mirror and other papers did much for the refinement of literature and art, and, indirectly, for the manners of the times" (155). He returned to America in 1836 with a bride (155).
Willis returned to Europe in 1839, but came back to America in 1844 to help Morris start the Evening Mirror. "From this on Willis lived an active social-literary life, singing of Broadway with the same facileness he sang of country scenes. He came to be a grave and patient invalid, living happily with his second wife as he had with his first, and ending his days at Idlewild -- his home on the Hudson" (156).
After the failure of the Evening Mirror, Willis and Morris began the Home Journal, which became known as Town and Country in the Twentieth Century (157).[pages:138, 154-156,157,162]
Levin refers to Willis' works and remarks as a travel correspondent (105-106).[pages:105-106]
A note on the forthcoming edition of the Home Journal remarks that the magazine often features "Idlewild gossip" (2).[pages:2]
A note reports Willis's return to Idlewild after a trip to Virginia with his father-in-law (3).[pages:3]
Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote for Willis's Home Journal.[pages:73]
An item suggests Willis's ideas for a fountain in Central Park.[pages:2]
Quelqu'un claims that "Barnum, like N.P. Willis, is said to have got religion" (3).[pages:3]
Quelqu'un claims that anyone who "defines their position" will be "as badly off as N.P. Willis when he got religion" (3).[pages:3]
Spofford quotes N.P. Willis as stating that Clara Louise Kellogg's debut performance "astonished her hearers with her force and execution" (366-367).[pages:366-367]
Whitman most likely met him during a visit to Pfaff's sometime during 1855.[pages:38]
Willis often dined at Delmonico's: "At another table might be Nathaniel Parker Willis, scribbler of newspaper gossip" (57).[pages:57]
Winter writes that in the early days of his acquaintance with Longfellow he noticed that Longfellow "was inclined to bright apparel;" but "not to the elaborate dandyism of his popular contemporary, N.P. Willis" (48).
When Winter arrived in New York in 1859-'60, "The Home Journal," "a conspicuous literary authority of the hour" was run by "the two bards, Nathaniel P. Willis and George P. Morris" (136-137).
Winter remarks that when Curtis was beginning his career in 1846, Willis "was presently to inherit" "the sceptre" from Griswold (264).
Willis had been one of "The Literati" written about by Poe. Winter writes that during his early career "N.P. Willis had accepted and published, with cordial commendation, one of my juvenile poems" (296).[pages:45,48,136-137,264,296]
The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015