The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Gilder, Richard Watson

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Gilder, Richard Watson

GILDER, Richard Watson, b. at Bordentown, N. J., 8 Feb., 1844; d. in New York City, 18 Nov., 1909, son of Rev. William H. and Jane (Nutt) Gilder. His taste for literature was inherited. He was educated in a school conducted by his father, a Methodist clergyman, at Flushing, L. I., where he also learned to set type and published the “St. Thomas Register.” He was far from rugged physically, yet when the Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Lee, invaded Pennsylvania, young Gilder was among the volunteers who rallied to defend the Union. He enlisted in Private Landis' Philadelphia Battery, 24 June, 1863, and saw active service in the Gettysburg campaign. From his military service the young soldier learned the value of discipline and of self-control, and that life contains some things for which it is not unworthy even to die. The death of his father, while serving as chaplain of the Fortieth New York Volunteers, obliged him to relinquish the study of the law, and a little later he became a reporter on the Newark (N. J.) “Advertiser,” of which he subsequently was editor. He afterward established, with Newton Crane, the Newark “Register,” and in 1870 became editor of “Hours at Home,” a monthly magazine published by Scribners. When “Hours at Home” was merged with “Scribner's Monthly,” conducted by Dr. J. G. Holland, Mr. Gilder served as managing editor. Upon the death of Dr. Holland in 1881, Mr. Gilder became editor of “Scribner's,” which in April, 1891, appeared as the “Century Magazine,” a position which he occupied until his death. Richard Watson Gilder was not only a poet; he was also a prophet and civic leader. His life and example controverted the general conception of a poet as an unpractical dreamer, shrinking into retirement from the rude clamor and battle-shocks of the great world. He might have worn with pride the bronze button of the Grand Army of the Republic. Though his physique was frail, his spirit was martial; and any righteous, cause, however desperate, awoke in him a quick and militant ardor. He gloried in the struggle for right, and was never dismayed though the victory seemed to be long postponed. He loved the sights and sounds of country life, yet he was a true metropolitan. He declared in his song of “The City” that no other music was half so sweet to him “as the thunder of Broadway.” The mighty tides of human life, the endless activity, and the varied aspects of the city stirred him like a trumpet-blast. His prose was wrought carefully and finely like a delicate arabesque, yet its texture was firm, full, and rich. Few understood better than he the noble possibilities of the English language. As an editor he exerted a wide influence upon the literature of his day. He understood his profession, and rallied round him contributors and associates toward whom he was unfailingly courteous and considerate. His eyes were keen to discover merit in new places, and his recognition of good work was immediate and cordial. Lowell, Aldrich, and Gilder formed a triumvirate of poet-editors of whom Gilder was not the least. He was among the first, if not the very first, to discern the possibilities of photographic reproduction. He pursued it through its entire development, and was one of those who welcomed the use of color even at a lavish cost. His friendships were like himself, frank, honest, and sincere. The New York Authors Club, the Art Students League, and the Society of American Artists all came into being in his house. He was one of the early members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and an original member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. As a member of the Simplified Spelling Board, he hoped that the English language might ultimately be fitted to become a world-language. He was a leader in the organization of the Citizens' Union, a founder and the first president of the Kindergarten Association, and of the Association for the Blind. Mr. Gilder was chairman of the first Tenement House Commission in the city of New York, an office which he filled with diligence and intelligence, and was largely responsible for the abatement of conditions and evils that had become intolerable. During his service on the commission, he arranged to be called whenever there was a fire in a tenement house; and at all hours of the night he risked his health and his life itself to see the perils besetting the dwellers of the tenements, in order to make wise recommendations as to legislation that would minimize these perils. Notwithstanding his gentleness of manner and perfect courtesy, no man could more bravely stand up in civic contests and for the rights of the poor and oppressed. Radical and permanent improvements were effected in the housing of the poor in New York, in the opening of small parks in the crowded districts, and in the establishment of playgrounds in connection with the public schools. After the tenement law had been passed, mainly through Gilder's great work, it was well said that “it needed the inspiration and passionate love of the poet to feel the danger to women and children in the tenement houses of New York.” Shortly before his death his poems were gathered up into a single volume containing his latest revisions and definitive corrections. In his poetry there is the true lyric cry. The poems are almost invariably beautiful, and are characterized by transparent simplicity and spontaneity. He touched art as well as life upon many sides, music, painting, architecture, and sculpture appealing to him scarcely less than nature itself. He cherished a lofty scorn for whatever was mean and ignoble; hypocrisy roused him to an indignation that scorched and withered like the breath of a furnace. As one whose interest in reforms was practical and unselfish, Mr. Gilder set an example of enduring and altruistic fidelity. He was an optimist, a poet of distinction, and an editor of exceptional ability. But fine as was the work which he achieved, his manhood challenges admiration from all who are interested in the noblest developments of the human soul. Mr. Gilder received the degree of LL.D. from Dickinson College in 1883 and from Wesleyan in 1903, and Litt.D. from Yale in 1901 (Bi-centennial). In 1890 Harvard conferred upon him the degree of A.M.; and he received the degree of L.H.D. from Princeton in 1890 (Sesquicentennial). He was also decorated by the French government with the cross of the Legion of Honor. Besides the official relations which Mr. Gilder held in the organizations already mentioned, he was president of the Public Art League of the United States; a member of the council of the National Civil Service Reform League; an organizer of the International Copyright League; and was acting president of the City Club. His published volumes include “The New Day,” “The Celestial Passion,” “Lyrics,” “Two Worlds,” “The Great Remembrance” (these included in “Five Books of Song”), “In Palestine,” “Poems and Inscriptions,” “A Christmas Wreath,” “A Book of Music,” and “Grover Cleveland: A Record of Friendship.” In 1908 the “Household Edition” of his poems was published by the Houghton, Mifflin Company, who in 1916 published “Letters of Richard Watson Gilder, edited by his daughter, Rosamond Gilder.” He married Helena, daughter of Commodore George de Kay, and granddaughter of the poet, Joseph Rodman Drake, 3 June, 1874.