1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Willis, Nathaniel Parker

WILLIS, NATHANIEL PARKER (1806–1867), American author, was descended from George Willis, described as a “Puritan of considerable distinction,” who arrived in New England about 1630 and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nathaniel Parker was the eldest son and second child of Nathaniel Willis, a newspaper proprietor in Boston, and was born in Portland, Maine, on the 20th of January 1806. After attending Boston grammar school and the academy at Andover, he entered Yale College in October 1823. Although he did not specially distinguish himself as a student, university life had considerable influence in the development of his character, and furnished him with much of his literary material. Immediately after leaving Yale he published in 1827 a volume of poetical Sketches, which attracted some attention, although the critics found in his verses more to blame than to praise. It was followed by Fugitive Poetry (1829) and another volume of verse (1831). He also contributed frequently to magazines and periodicals. In 1829 he started the American Monthly Magazine, which was continued from April of that year to August 1831, but failed to achieve success. On its discontinuance he went to Europe as foreign editor and correspondent of the New York Mirror. To this journal he contributed a series of letters, which, under the title Pencillings by the Way, were published at London in 1835 (3 vols.; Philadelphia, 1836, 2 vols.; and first complete edition, New York, 1841). Their vivid and rapid sketches of scenes and modes of life in the old world at once gained them a wide popularity; but he was censured by some critics for indiscretion in reporting conversations in private gatherings. Notwithstanding, however, the small affectations and fopperies which were his besetting weaknesses as a man as well as an author, the grace, ease and artistic finish of his style won general recognition. His “Slingsby Papers,” a series of magazine articles descriptive of American life and adventure, republished in 1836 under the title Inklings of Adventure, were as successful in England as were his Pencillings by the Way in America. He also published while in England Melanie and other Poems (London, 1835; New York, 1837), which was introduced by a preface by Barry Cornwall (Procter). After his marriage to Mary Stace, daughter of General William Stace of Woolwich, he returned to America, and settled at a small estate on Oswego Creek, just above its junction with the Susquehanna. Here he lived off and on from 1837 to 1842, and wrote Letters from under a Bridge (London, 1840; first complete edition, New York, 1844), the most charming of all his works. During a short visit to England in 1839-1840 he published Two Ways of Dying for a Husband. Returning to New York, he established, along with George P. Morris, a newspaper entitled the Evening Mirror. On the death of his wife in 1845 he again visited England. Returning to America in the spring of 1846, he married Cornelia Grinnell, and established the National Press, afterwards named the Home Journal. In 1845 he published Dashes at Life with a Free Pencil, in 1846 a collected edition of his Prose and Poetical Works, in 1849 Rural Letters, and in 1850 Life Here and There. In that year he settled at Idlewild on the Hudson river, and on account of failing health spent the remainder of his life chiefly in retirement. Among his later works were Hurry-Graphs (1851), Outdoors at Idlewild (1854), Ragbag' (1855), Paul Fane (1856), and the Convalescent (1859), but he had survived his great reputation. He died on the 20th of January 1867, and was buried in Mount Auburn, Boston.

The best edition of his verse writings is The Poems, Sacred, Passionate and Humorous, of N. P. Willis (New York, 1868); 13 volumes of his prose, Complete Prose Works, were published at New York (1849-1859), and a Selection from his Prose Writings was edited by Henry A. Beers (New York, 1885). His Life, by Henry A. Beers, appeared in the series of “American Men of Letters” the same year. See also E. P. Whipple, Essays and Reviews (vol. i., 1848); M. A. de Wolfe Howe, American Bookmen (New York, 1898).