In 1818, the newly-wed George and Georgiana Keats left London and their families to travel 4000 miles across the Atlantic to follow the American Dream. Swept up in the Romantic enthusiasm for founding a Utopian settlement in the west of America they were destined for disappointment. Settling in Kentucky and dealing with poor housing, sickness and money worries theirs was a great adventure that has long been neglected in the life story of George’s famous brother – the poet John Keats. Instead George has regularly been depicted as the selfish, unromantic sibling who drained his gifted brother of what few funds were available to him; who left him nursing their other brother Tom who was dying of consumption. John’s devoted friends loathed him for failing to offer help when John himself needed support to travel to Rome in a vain attempt to halt the progress of the consumption that would end his life too.
Denise Gigante offers us a different picture of George and his relationship and impact on the life and poetry of John Keats. Her defence of George (for this is one in some ways) rests on his hopes to provide a secure financial future for his brothers as well as his new family and his fixed intention of returning to England with a fortune made. He is an adventurer into the lands of hostile Native Americans and equally hostile settlers, of prairie fires and fierce animals and of huge speculation and risk. Far from being the ‘unpoetical’ brother, Gigante stresses Georges own thoughtful nature and his love of books and seeks to connect much of the great work John produced shortly after his departure to the loss of both his brothers – one through death and the other parted from him by miles of seas and strange land. Indeed Hyperion and the great odes of 1818 and 1819 are filled with images of distance and separation; despair, dreams and monumental change.
This is a brave book. There have been wonderful biographies of the poet that have treated his brother’s American adventure in little more than a chapter, preferring to focus on incidents in the life of John rather than his internal experience of loss, abandonment and grief in the face of a brother’s enduring and fascinating struggle in a new world. Many Keats’ scholars might assume there was little left to say. Undaunted, Gigante offers ruffians eating bear grease sandwiches, slatternly women and feckless swindlers such as John James Audubon, whose character has an impact on George’s life in a way comparable to that of Leigh Hunt on John. The book is an accessible, thoroughly researched and fascinating account of the lives of the brothers from childhood to the grave and to my mind as an enthusiastic amateur scholar of Keats and his writing, has added a rich new layer to his biography.
As with the Enlightenment, Romanticism encompassed a number of disciplines. The focus may often be on poetry but there were great Romantic scientists, medical men and explorers; men who risked their lives to take the boundaries of our understanding and appreciation of this world out a little further, as the poets did with their verse. Gigante depicts George Keats in these Romantic terms – the ‘Man of Power’ rather than the ‘Man of Genius’; the ‘Cockney Pioneer’, brother of the ‘Cockney poet’. He did become a successful businessman in Louisville but long after John’s death in Rome in 1821. He built a mansion fitted with some opulence, described in detail as a result of some wonderful research undertaken for this book. But as John Keats always suspected, the seeds of unhappiness were sown for the Keats family whilst such happiness existed. Financial ruin took its toll on George and he quickly succumbed to the ‘family illness’ (TB) twenty years after his brother. If his life story doesn’t contain the genius, pathos and poetry of his brother’s then it isn’t, in Gigantes hands anyway, one unworthy of a proper biography.
This book has taken me to places that I would never have before connected with John Keats. Descriptions of riverboats, log cabins and the lives of the settlers are vividly depicted, as they would have been to John in the letters George and Georgiana sent back on the long journey across the Atlantic in response to his journal letters to them; letters which contain many of Keats’s greatest comments on the philosophy of poetry. Coming from this book one wonders why no-one had thought to take us on this adventure before, so obvious seems the connection between the lives of the brothers and their impact on the genius of Keats’ poetry. The fraternal bond was never broken.
Where George hero-worshipped his intense, socially awkward older brother for his literary gifts, John saw his younger, taller and more gregarious and charming sibling as the ‘rock’ upon which he maintained a hold upon the world. If anyone has cause to despair of a relationship with George Keats it must be the one sister, Fanny Keats, who was unforgivably neglected by him. It is not surprising therefore that all her long life she worshipped the memory of John, who took pains to maintain contact with her whilst she was a child, almost a prisoner in the home of the Keats’ family guardian Richard Abbey.
The transatlantic relationship between John and George is reflected in the language Gigante uses which occasionally grates on an English ear – ‘he gotten sick’ for example felt slack. But that is really a small grumble. I was surprised how easy this was to read, how much the history of Victorian England and the development of the United States is enhanced by detailed research from untapped primary sources, and how much more sympathetic I now feel towards George Keats.
This book does offer something other biographies have not chosen or managed to describe effectively –it looks at two ‘lives’ and weaves them into one ‘life’, recognising an intense bond between two different but remarkable young men.
Harvard University Press (14 Oct 2011)