Cornelius Mathews

Cornelius Mathews (1817–89)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 6, 363–364.

Sometimes called “The Centurion,” after the centurion Cornelius who appears in the tenth chapter of Acts, this American author and editor did more than anyone else to help EBB win recognition west of the Atlantic. A member of an old New York family, Mathews was born in Port Chester on 28 October 1817, a son of Abijah and Catherine (née Van Cott) Mathews. In 1834 he received an A.B. degree during the first graduation ceremony at the University of the City of New York, which later became New York University. On that occasion he delivered a speech about “Females of the American Revolution.” Mathews studied law at the desire of his father, gaining admission to the bar in 1837; but he soon turned to literary work, which became his primary field. He espoused the idea that New World literature should develop along its own lines and with its own background, and accordingly he himself drew heavily on American Indian lore and other basically American themes. He contributed prose and verse to various magazines as early as 1836, and in 1839 published his first full-length romance, Behemoth: A Legend of the Mound Builders. Among the more successful of his later works were Poems on Man in His Various Aspects under the American Republic (1843) and Witchcraft, or the Martyrs of Salem (1846). In December 1840 Mathews and his close friend Evert A. Duyckinck established Arcturus, A Journal of Books and Opinion, a monthly magazine which lasted only until May 1842. In this periodical Mathews published a novel, The Career of Puffer Hopkins, dealing with New York politics; and his poem “Wakondah,” with an American Indian theme. Mathews was a strong advocate of international copyright arrangements to protect the interests of writers on both sides of the Atlantic. He had frequent literary dealings, not always friendly, with James Russell Lowell. In 1856 he compiled his Indian Fairy Book of lore supplied by the traveller and ethnologist Henry R. Schoolcraft. This reappeared in 1877 as The Enchanted Moccasins. Mathews remained active in later life, and was a contributing editor of The New York Dramatic Mirror at the time of his death, which occurred on 25 March 1889.

EBB’s relationship with Mathews really began in February 1841 when he and his associate Duyckinck published in their Arcturus a review (written by Duyckinck) of The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838). In December 1841 the two men sent her some copies of their magazine, including the issue which carried the review. No copy of their accompanying letter has survived, but its contents can be conjectured from EBB’s reply (letter 986) which was not written until 18 July 1842. After explaining the delay, she thanked them for “the assurance of the editors of Arcturus, that her poetry will be ‘heartily received by the lovers of poetry in America’.” She then went on to place “at the disposal of the editors the few enclosed sonnets & stanzas.” By this time, however, Arcturus had already been absorbed by The Boston Miscellany of Literature and Fashion. One of EBB’s poems, “The Cry of the Human,” appeared in this latter publication in November 1842. Four untitled sonnets were sent by Mathews to Graham’s Magazine, with which he maintained close connections, and which published them in the following month. On 4 October 1842 EBB reported to Mary Russell Mitford (letter 1016): “Yesterday I had most cordial greeting from a Mr. Cornelius Mathew [sic], who embraces the office of trustee for the further extension of my reputation in America!… Is it a hard office? Peradventure.” At about this time, Mathews sent EBB a copy of his Wakondah, by then in booklet form (Reconstruction, A1572), as reported by her to Miss Mitford on 21 November (letter 1057). EBB then told Mathews (letter 1059) that her friend would see the book, and on 28 December (letter 1103) he replied: “I am glad that anything of mine is going into the hands of Miss Mitford—a name thronged with kindly associations in America.” In the course of their correspondence, EBB and Mathews exchanged views on British literary figures—including Wordsworth, Tennyson, and RB—and on contemporary American writings. Besides placing a number of EBB’s individual pieces in American periodicals, such as Graham’s Magazine and The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, Mathews handled the New York publication of her Poems (1844) under the title A Drama of Exile: and Other Poems. After making favourable arrangements with the Henry G. Langley publishing firm (Reconstruction, D1462), he received proofs from the London edition and saw the job properly completed. A presentation copy (Reconstruction, C77) of the London version, which appeared about a month and a half ahead of the New York one, was inscribed to Mathews in August 1844. Meanwhile, as a part of Mathews’ deal, A Drama in Exile had appeared separately in the July and August issues of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. In return for Mathews’ numerous favours, EBB tried to further his interests on her side of the Atlantic, but she did not succeed as well for him as he did for her. His materials, inferior to hers, were harder to promote. One favour she did perform was to write a review (see Reconstruction, D1277) of his Poems on Man … under the American Republic (1843). This review appeared in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in June 1845. But, unfortunately for Mathews, EBB’s authorship went undiscovered for many years. The review would have carried greater weight than it did, had it come openly from the then-prominent Elizabeth Barrett Barrett. By mid-1845 EBB was, of course, involved in correspondence and courtship with RB, while other correspondents—including Mathews—were brushed somewhat aside. (RB’s own contacts with Mathews were relatively few, though he did mention some in a letter written to EBB on 9 December 1845.) EBB, after apparently neglecting Mathews for more than a year, wrote to him from Pisa, Italy, in January 1847. She promised to “leave off sinning” and “behave better” in the future, but the promise was not kept and the correspondence died out.


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