Poet and Pioneer
The Keats brothers’ saga.
Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By SARA LODGE
John, for his part, cheered George and his young wife Georgiana through his sprightly, conversational letters: some of the best literary letters ever written, many of which contained original verse. When the couple took ship for America, George was only 21, Georgiana 16, and they had been married but a few months. Like many English emigrants, their idea of what they would encounter in the American West was sketchy and rose-tinted. Georgiana was pregnant as she entered the new country and John Keats sent her a poem imagining that her daughter, little child / O’ the western wild, would be the “first American poet.” Perhaps by “first” he simply meant “best.” But he may simply not have been aware that America already had a thriving literary scene. John’s vision of American geography was equally confused. He imagined George in Kentucky, by the Mississippi, hunting monkeys.
Gigante’s book tacks between the two narratives of John’s life and George’s life, which diverge after George’s departure for America in 1818. We follow John as he nurses his younger brother Tom through terminal illness, as he falls in love with Fanny Brawne, and writes some of the great poems that, published in his collection of 1820, would make his name just as he was succumbing to the disease that would seal his fate. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, we follow George’s laborious journey over the Allegheny mountains, down the Ohio River; his visit to new settlements on the “English prairie” of Illinois and his decision not to buy land there but to sink his inheritance into a sawmill and a steamboat. The latter sank but the former, after years of doubtful debt, eventually yielded a profit.
There is some eye-opening material here about the general experience of British emigrants in the early 19th century, which Gigante has gathered from various sources, and which will be of particular interest to those readers whose own families arrived in America on the same trail. Conditions varied widely. George stayed for a time with John James Audubon, whose house was smartly equipped with carpets, furniture, and books, and whose table bore wild turkey, beans, cherries, and honey. But many of the Western settlements were primitive in the extreme: squalid dwellings separated by streets of mud, infested by bedbugs and lice, and with swampy environs that bred malaria, typhus, and dysentery.
Financial and legal infrastructure was no more reliably established than that of road and sanitation. Twice, George lost his shirt in a general crash (once in 1819, once again in 1837), partly caused by a loose credit system where parties endorsed one another for large sums without sufficient security and liquidity in the market to support the chain of investments should one collapse. Plus ça change.
Although there is a great deal of information here relating to George’s American travels that will be new to those familiar with biographies which focus on John Keats alone, the structure of The Keats Brothers is choppy and ultimately dissatisfying. Channel-surfing between John’s life and George’s, it is impossible fully to engage with John’s writing career and the composition of his major works—which are, after all, the reason we are interested in the brothers in the first place. Occasionally, Gigante produces a telling insight on Keats’s poetry or philosophy; but too often we learn, in passing, that Endymion has been published and negatively reviewed, or that John has been working on a masterpiece that, unless the reader is already familiar with it, will remain a closed book to him. Since there is so much American scene-setting, it takes ages, in narrative terms, for George to get to Louisville and have his first child. And by then, we’ve already learned facts about his later family life that rob us of the suspense.
A better edit would have mitigated these problems, and a loose attention to detail in the writing that gives an impression of a book long in gestation but hastily dressed. Gigante seemingly began the work in collaboration with Lawrence Crutcher, George Keats’s great-great-great-grandson, but the two parted company—with Gigante holding the greater part of their joint findings. Both hastened into print, under different titles, and Gigante’s rushed departure shows.
By the end, I knew more about John’s relationship with his brother and about early-19th-century America. Yet I wasn’t altogether convinced that the parallel between John’s life and George’s is illuminating for Romanticism—or, as the jacket claims, that we have George’s emigration to thank, as such, for Keats’s annus mirabilis of 1819 in which much of his best poetry was produced.