1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sumner Lincoln Fairfield

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 2:199-200.



SUMNER LINCOLN, the son of Dr. Abner Fairfield, a physician of Warwick, Massachusetts, was born in that town on the twenty-fifth of June, 1803. In 1806 his father, who had previously removed to Athens, a village on the Hudson, died, leaving a widow and two children in humble circumstances. The family retired to the home of the mother's father, a farm-house in Western Massachusetts, where Fairfield remained until his twelfth year. After a twelvemonth passed at school he entered Brown University. Here he studied so unremittingly, that, after a few months, he was attacked by a severe fit of sickness. On his recovery he endeavored to eke out his support by teaching, but failing in this was forced to leave college and seek a living as a tutor at the south. He passed two years in this occupation, and in preparation for the ministry, but in consequence of the death of his friend and instructor, the Rev. Mr. Cranston of Savannah, he changed his plan of life and returned to the north. He had during this period published "two pamphlets of rhymes," which, as we are informed in his biography by his widow, "he ever after shrunk from reading," were probably of indifferent merit.

He returned to the north with the determination to pursue a literary life, and in December 1825, sailed for London. He carried letters of introduction to the conductors of periodicals, and obtained engagements as a writer. His poem, The Cities of the Plain, a description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, appeared in the Oriental Herald, edited by J. S. Buckingham, the traveller and lecturer. He was received in France by La Fayette, and wrote his Pere la Chaise and Westminster Abbey, at Versailles. He also wrote letters descriptive of his tour to the New York Literary Gazette, edited by James G. Brooks. He returned home in July, 1826, and soon after published a volume of poems, entitled The Sisters of Saint Clara, a tale of Portugal, which was followed in 1830 by Abaddon, the Spirit of Destruction, and other Poems, another volume of poetry.

The next event in his life was his marriage to Miss Jane Frazee. He removed with his wife to Elizabethtown, with the intention of forming a classical school, but before the honeymoon was over the sheriff levied on their furniture and they were set adrift. They afterwards resided at Boston, Harper's Ferry, and Philadelphia, the husband gaining a precarious subsistence by writing for the press, and becoming somewhat soured by the want of success. In 1828 he republished in a volume The Cities of the Plain, with a few miscellaneous pieces. A few months after, by the influence of his Philadelphia friends, he was placed at the head of Newtown Academy, about thirty miles from that city. The situation pleased him, and his affairs went on with unwonted serenity until one July afternoon a favorite pupil, while bathing with him in the river, was unfortunately drowned. The event caused a temporary disarrangement of the duties of the school, and threw such a gloom over the mind of the teacher that he insisted upon leaving his situation and removing to New York. By the exertions of his wife, in personally soliciting subscriptions, the means were secured, principally in Boston, whither the pair resorted in 1829, for the publication of a new poem, The Last Night of Pompeii, which appeared on their return to New York in 1832. It was maintained by Mr. Fairfield that he had anticipated in this poem the leading material of Bulwar's novel, bearing a similar title, published in London in 1834. His next enterprise was a monthly periodical. His wife was again his canvasser, and the North American Magazine was started in Philadelphia in 1833. He continued to edit it for five years, when, the enterprise proving unproductive, he disposed of the property to Rev. Nathan C. Brooks of Baltimore.

The poet now became completely disheartened, fell into irregularities, and with a family of five children was often straitened in his finances. His health rapidly failed, and in the fall of 1843 he left Philadelphia with his mother for New Orleans. He arrived in the following spring, and was cheered by meeting with his old friend Mr. George D. Prentice. He died soon after, on the 6th of March, 1844.

His wife had for some time previously been engaged in obtaining subscriptions for a complete edition of his poems. The first of two contemplated volumes, but the only one published, appeared in 1841. In 1846 Mrs. Fairfield issued a small volume containing the life of her husband, from her pen, and a few of his poems.

Mr. Fairfield possessed an ardent poetical temperament, with many of the qualities commonly assigned to the man of genius. He always maintained a certain heat of enthusiasm, but the flame burnt too rapidly for genuine inspiration. He was frequently common-place and turgid. His imagination was active but undisciplined, and led him to undertake comprehensive and powerful themes which required greater judgment than he had to bestow. He possessed various accomplishments, and particularly excelled as an instructor in his favorite historical and belles-lettres departments.