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Marie Cleary

Thomas Bulfinch: An Introduction

Note: Portions of the following account are drawn from Marie Sally Cleary, The Bulfinch Solution: Teaching the Ancient Classics in American Schools (Salem, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, Inc., l990), ISBN 0-88l43-ll2-5. ISBN 978-0-8204-6536-4. For complete new biography of Thomas Bulfinch, see Myths for the Millions, described on this page.

Imagine yourself in Boston's financial district in the 1850s. The buildings on State Street are tiny compared with today's skyscrapers. But eastward, at the end of State Street, is the same expanse of water you would see if you walked there today--Boston Harbor into which sailed, decade after decade, the merchant ships that had made Boston a great city and State Street a center of trade. It is the end of bank hours, and people are bustling out of the banks and investment houses. If you should turn your gaze toward a building marked by a sign "Merchants Bank," you would see coming through the door with the other employees (a dozen or so in all) a dignified-looking man with graying sideburns, dressed in a dark suit with high white collar, bow tie, and a gold watch chain strung across his vest.* If you kept track of him in the crowd, you would see him trudging westward, away from the harbor and State Street. He would be heading toward his bachelor quarters in a boarding-house in Bowdoin Square (a neighborhood now laid to rest beneath Government Center).

Although he would have worked all day in the bank, his other working day was about to begin. After dinner, this bank clerk's custom was to study and write, not just as a pastime, but with a larger aim: to instruct his fellow citizens, old and young, male and female, in the literature of the European past.

Paradox marked the life of Thomas Bulfinch, the man I have described above. His hard-working days and rented room contrasted with the elegance of his family's former days. His seeming tameness and propriety masked the boldness of a pioneering thinker about the role of traditional literature in the rapidly changing society of the United States.

Thomas Bulfinch was born in l796 to Charles and Hannah (Apthorp) Bulfinch, the sixth of their eleven children and third in line of those who survived infancy. His father was Charles Bulfinch, famous for his designs for buildings in the federalist style--for example, the Massachusetts State House, and portions of the Capitol in Washington. Thomas was born in Newton, Massachusetts in a residence where his parents were living temporarily, but his life and that of his family were rooted in Boston. In the year of his birth, his father, who had been prosperous, lost his own fortune and that of his wife because of his investment in his own bold building scheme for a row of residences in Boston. Charles Bulfinch's complete financial failure in this business venture drastically and permanently changed his life and that of his family.

Thomas Bulfinch, although brought up in a family with limited financial means, had advantages which in the long run served him well. Because his forebears, the Bulfinches and the Apthorps, had been influential both in Boston and elsewhere, he was acquainted with some of society's leaders. In addition, he was educated at some of the finest institutions America boasted at the time: Boston Latin School, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Harvard College.

After graduating from Harvard in l8l4, he taught briefly at Boston Latin School and then began a business career, which he would later consider a serious mistake. He went from one to another branch of business, never achieving financial security until l837 when he settled into a modest post as a clerk at the Merchants' Bank. He held this position the rest of his life. Eventually he became a part-time writer. The Age of Fable ( the book did not acquire its other name Bulfinch's Mythology until the l880s) was published when was fifty-nine. Happily, it brought him renown and the first real prosperity he had ever known.

Except for a few years when he lived with his family in Washington, he lived in Boston. He never married. His attachments to his family of birth were always close, particularly to his parents near whom he lived much of the time until they died. He volunteered his services to at least two of the city's most respected institutions--King's Chapel where he was a lifelong parishioner, and the Boston Society of Natural History where he served as Secretary during the l840s. Until his publishing success in the l850s, his life was inconspicuous.

How did it come about that in late middle age Thomas Bulfinch decided to write books, most of them aimed at making accessible to people who were not members of the elite, traditional works of literature? He was following in the footsteps of his architect father Charles Bulfinch who earlier had set an example of using one's personal resources, even to the point of prodigality, to serve the general public. Thomas's immediate motivation sprang from work on a prayer book for King's Chapel in the early l850s. As he studied the Psalms, he devised the plan of making them more accessible to the ordinary reader. For this reason, he wrote his first book, Hebrew Lyrical History, published in l853, in which he arranged the Psalms not in their usual order, but as they corresponded, either in fact or spirit, with events in Jewish history. In his Preface to that work, he says that he hopes this arrangement will "make the Psalms more interesting by linking them in a chain or narrative."

Hebrew Lyrical History was a dress rehearsal for The Age of Fable. In the former work, the Psalms are the main subject matter. This subject matter is controlled by a guiding hypothesis: the reading of Psalms which are related in either fact or spirit to historical events, in the order in which these events occurred, will help readers better to understand both the Psalms and Jewish history. In The Age of Fable, myths, chiefly Greek and Roman, are the main subject matter. This subject matter is also controlled by a guiding hypothesis: the reading of certain myths told in a certain way (so as not to dispel their charm) will help readers better understand both the myths, and British and American poetry which in Bulfinch's time (as well as earlier) drew heavily from mythology. In the book, he includes l88 passages of myth-related poetry.

Bulfinch would go on to write six more books. After dinner with his fellow lodgers at the landlady's table, he would ordinarily go to his room to study and write. His niece Ellen Susan Bulfinch, editor of The Life and Letters of Charles Bulfinch, Architect, with Other Family Papers (Boston, l896) describes the room as resembling "that of a student" with "volumes of Latin, Italian, German, and English classics piled on chair and sofa." A close friend, most likely George Barrell Emerson who was a well-known educator, summed up his motives in the following words:

For many hours of every day, occupied with the details of trade, his real day was given to study, to the highest poetry of the ancients and the moderns, and to the history of the thoughts and deeds of great men and heroes, not as an idle amusement, but that he might gather thence facts and principles for the guidance of the young to the more complete understanding of much of the best of English literature.

(This passage is drawn from Andrew P. Peabody, Voices of the Dead; a Sermon Preached at King's Chapel, Boston, June 2, l867, Being the Sunday following the Decease of Mr. Thomas Bulfinch [Boston, l867]. )

These lines written by one who knew him well attest to the fact that public-spiritedness and generosity were the motives that compelled Thomas Bulfinch to make his enduring contribution to American life.

Myths for the Millions: Thomas Bulfinch, His America, and His Mythology Book by Marie Sally Cleary was published by Peter Lang in 2007. It is the first biography of Thomas Bulfinch. The book may be ordered from online retailers, or directly from the publisher at www.peterlang.com or Fax ++41 (0) 132 376 17 27.

*This description of Thomas Bulfinch's appearance is based on his portrait which appears on this web site, and which appeared originally in Ellen Susan Bulfinch, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Bulfinch, Architect, with Other Family Papers (Boston, l896).

[The portrait above appeared originally in Ellen Susan Bulfinch, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Bulfinch, Architect, with Other Family Papers (Boston, l896).]