William Winter was an American poet, essayist, theatre critic and biographer.
He was born on the 15th July 1836 in the coastal town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Little is known of his formative years other than to say that he attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 1857. Rather than choose a career at the bar he had ambitions to be a writer and he began a journalistic career as drama critic for the Saturday Press in New York City from 1859. He followed this with a short spell on the New York Albion before settling on a long tenure lasting 40 years writing for the New York Tribune.
As a poet, Winter was generally known for his Romantic style of writing which was perhaps influenced by the company that he kept as a young man enjoying the Bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village during the middle part of the 19th century. He excelled amongst his peers and, besides being a prolific poet, he was regarded as one of the best drama critics of his time. The literary and artistic group of which he was such a prominent part were known as the “Pfaff’s Circle of Greenwich Village”, meeting regularly at the Vault at Pfaff’s Beer Hall on Broadway and Bleeker. Eventually Winter took it upon himself to become unofficial biographer of the “Pfaffians”. This high-brow group of radical thinkers was populated by the likes of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman who, of course, went on to have stellar writing careers.
His membership of this group would have a significant effect on the rest of his life and he recalled his life as a “young Pfaffian” in the 1909 biography called Old Friends. There were great minds at work there, as well as a great social life. Whitman described it as
Winter used this time to further his own career, with a fellow member recruiting him to write for The Saturday Press. This was virtually the main outlet for publication of most Pfaffian output, and much of the early work of Twain and Whitman was seen in its pages.
Winter was married in 1860, his new wife being the Scottish poet and novelist Elizabeth Campbell. They had five children, all raised on Staten Island, New York. It was at this time that he turned to writing theatrical biographies, publishing a number on thespian subjects such as Edwin Booth and the Jefferson family. He was a forthright critic of so-called “modernist theatre”, as written by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, preferring to see plays that depict a strictly moral tone. For this attitude he was called “an intolerant prude” by one theatre historian.
While he will be remembered mostly for his theatrical writing, he did publish a number of collections of poetry, titles including The Queen’s Domain, and other Poems (1858), Poems: Complete Edition (1881) and Poems: Definitive Author’s Edition (1909). Here is an example of his work, an evocative, haunting piece called The Night Watch:
William Winter died on the 30th June 1917 after suffering from angina pectoris. He was 80 years old.