- - Friday, February 22, 2013

GEORGE KEATS OF KENTUCKY: A LIFE
By Lawrence M. Crutcher
University Press of Kentucky, $40, 342 pages, illustrated

Anyone who has delved into the works of the great English Romantic poet John Keats knows that his intense letters packed with his philosophical and aesthetic credo come a close second in importance to his marvelous poems. Many of the most important statements in that correspondence are addressed to his brother and sister-in-law with the harmonious names of George and Georgiana, who had gone to make a new life in the United States right after they married while still in their teens. So the name of George Keats has long been happily established in the firmament surrounding his more famous brother and, less happily, in biographies where he has been faulted for avariciousness in the settlement of family legacies and neglect of his tubercular siblings.

George Keats‘ latest biographer, Lawrence M. Crutcher, is his great-great-great grandson, so it is not surprising that he offers a stout, impassioned, defense of his forebear’s conduct and character. But his advocacy is consistently plausible and buttressed with plenty of supporting evidence. It goes a long way toward providing a necessary corrective to an unfair characterization of someone who was a good and supportive brother, albeit one struggling to make his way in unfamiliar terrain with a wife and family.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of this biography — and in all probability its mission — is to establish George Keats as a remarkable figure quite apart from his connection to one of England’s greatest poets. First of all, he possessed the grit and determination that anyone who wanted to make a new life in the frontier society of the United States needed in massive quantities. And not just on the frontier either: Mr. Crutcher’s description of the sea voyage in a tiny sailing ship from Liverpool to Philadelphia in 1818 makes for harrowing reading. The ship and its passengers had to wait two weeks in port for favorable winds before they could even begin their 51-day passage in cramped quarters so unstable in the rough waters that poor George was seasick the entire time.


When the young couple finally reached these shores, their travails continued. Plans to settle in one of the utopian settlements in Illinois proved unsuccessful, possibly inspiring the early experiences of Charles Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit.” Then a spell working with none other than John James Audubon proved disillusioning and disastrous. Still the Keatses did not give up and eventually made their way to Louisville, Ky., where they were to settle until George’s death more than two decades later.

In Louisville he finally found success, operating a sawmill and prospering as a real estate developer and entrepreneur. He built a grand hotel and, for his family, a fine mansion. He became one of the city’s most prominent citizens and a cultural as well as a civic leader, serving on various boards and being active in a philosophical society. Clearly, those pronouncements in his brother’s letters fell on fertile ground, for George Keats appears to have been a kind of Renaissance man of the American frontier.

But these were turbulent times in the financial affairs of the fledgling republic, though the United States offered vast entrepreneurial opportunities for immigrants as well as its own natives, there was a great deal of instability. All this is mirrored in George’s ups and downs, fortunes made and lost, cycles of boom and bust. Mr. Crutcher takes us through it all with admirable clarity and verve, putting the particular problems faced by his subject in the wider context of a vibrant but at times uncertain economy. The book provides a fine portrait of the times, including some of its more unpleasant features. George had specifically wanted to live in Illinois because it was a free state, but finding himself in Kentucky, he had little choice but to adapt to the “necessary evil” and “peculiar institution” of slavery if he was to survive in an economic climate where it was entrenched. As Mr. Crutcher writes, “Keats overcame his antislavery scruples and participated in the system because it was, in effect his only choice.” Rebarbative as this seems now, it was part of his assimilation: by 1838, three years before his death, he could proudly write “I am now a Kentuckian.”

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.