Appalachia, Battle of Buena Vista, Ben Bolt, Charles Porter, Charleston, Edgar Allan Poe, George P. Morris, Green Gables Inn, history, Huntington, Know Nothing Party, Logan, Logan Banner, Logan Grazier, McDowell County, N.P. Willis, Nelson F. Kneass, New York Mirror, Philadelphia, poems, poetry, Rafting on the Guyan, Roy Fuller, Staunton, Thomas Dunn English, Vicie Nighbert, Wayne County, Welch, West Virginia, West Virginia Review, Wyoming Hunter
From the Logan Banner of Logan, WV, comes this bit of history concerning Thomas Dunn English and his famous poem “Ben Bolt,” which was reportedly composed in Logan:
Poem Ben Bolt Not Written In This City
Legend Concerning Thomas Dunn English Is Refuted by Roy Fuller in Magazine Article
Another forceful kick has been directed against the legend that Thomas Dunn English wrote the poem Ben Bolt under the big elms back of the former Vicie Nighbert home, now known as the Green Gables Inn.
Though all reliable investigators agree that this famous poem was written before Dr. English settled in this community, the legend survives with a strange pertinacity.
The subject is discarded in an interesting and enlightening way in the current number of the West Virginia Review by J. Roy Fuller. He has written before in a similar vein for other publications.
Fuller, a native of Wayne county, had been connected with Charleston, Huntington, and Welch papers for several years. Recently he went to New York to take an editorial position on Picture Play. On the subject “As to Ben Bolt,” he writes as follows:
If a man writes a poem a little more sentimental than any other, and then some ten years later moves to another state, it seems that the towns and counties around his new home will, years later, recall the very spot where the poem was written. Such has been the case with Ben Bolt, by Thomas Dunn English. The people of Logan county point with pride to the very tree under which the poet scribbled Ben Bolt, and time and again articles have been written in support of the legend, and people who speak of it choose to believe nothing else. Why this should be considered in the least important is amusing. But that is not all. In McDowell county, it is said, Thomas Dunn English wrote the feverish lines while at the old county seat town, now called English. A clerk in a hotel informed this writer that he knew exactly where Ben Bolt was written and offered to show him the house somewhere just over the Virginia state line.
The rare honor of being the birthplace of Ben Bolt cannot be claimed truthfully for this section at all. It was written in Philadelphia nine years before he ever came to West Virginia. There was no romantic posing over the grave of the beloved lady in the song as it has been said in Logan county. A New York editor asked English to write something for him. He insisted, and finally English mailed the verses with instructions to burn them if not satisfactory, after combining parts of two poems into one. So any weeping we do can be for our own images, and not for sympathy with the poor poet.
English was once postmaster of Logan (1857), and also a resident doctor, politician, poet and lawyer. One time he attended a convention in Staunton where he made a speech that was influential in helping to bring about the downfall of Know-Nothingism. He wrote many local poems such as Rafting on the Guyan, Logan Grazier, and Wyoming Hunter. Before coming to the south he was well known in the east and was mentioned—unfavorably—by Edgar Allan Poe in his Literati. For calling him Thomas Dunn “Brown,” English wrote a severe criticism of Poe. Some time later Poe answered him in a Philadelphia paper, and brought suit against him. Poe was awarded $225 damages for English’s sarcastic literary thrust.
It has always been a matter of chagrin to English that his Ben Bolt was the most popular of his literary works. He himself called the song “twaddle.” But the German melody, mention of old mills, school, a loved one, friendship—these things made it take hold of the heart.
He wrote Ben Bolt in 1843 after having dabbled in his professions for several years, and quite unexpectedly found himself famous. The story of the song will show how far removed it is from the cherished pastoral story told in Logan county. The story persists, however, this being one of the cases where the “moving finger writes,” etc., and nothing more can be done about it.
N.P. Willis and George P. Morris had revived the old New York Mirror. The former asked English to write a poem for the paper and suggested a sea song. English tried to write it after renewed pressure but he reported to the editors that his muse was not working. Later he drifted into reminiscence and produced four and a half stanzas of the well known song. His muse balked again, and after some thought he added the first four lines of a sea song he had started and sent the whole with a note to Willis telling him that he would send something else when he was in a better writing mood. The poem was printed with a little puff, and was signed with the author’s initial.
Later it was suggested that the poem be set to music, but several attempts failed. English composed a melody for it, but another got the start of his. In 1846 Charles Porter, manager of the Pittsburgh theatre had Nelson F. Kneass, a fine tenor, in his company. Porter told the singer that if he could find a song suitable for his voice he would cast him in The Battle of Buena Vista. An Englishman, a sort of hanger-on named Hunt, had read Ben Bolt and could recall most of it. The gaps were patched up and to this Kneass adapted a German air and sang the piece. The drama was soon dropped but the song took the country by
Source: Logan (WV) Banner, 11 December 1928