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John and George Keats—Man of Genius and Man of Power, to use John’s words—embodied sibling forms of the phenomenon we call Romanticism. George’s 1818 move to the western frontier of the United States, an imaginative leap across four thousand miles onto the tabula rasa of the American dream, created in John an abysm of alienation and loneliness that would inspire the poet’s most plangent and sublime poetry. Denise Gigante’s account of this emigration places John’s life and work in a transatlantic context that has eluded his previous biographers, while revealing the emotional turmoil at the heart of some of the most lasting verse in English.
In most accounts of John’s life, George plays a small role. He is often depicted as a scoundrel who left his brother destitute and dying to pursue his own fortune in America. But as Gigante shows, George ventured into a land of prairie fires, flat-bottomed riverboats, wildcats, and bears in part to save his brothers, John and Tom, from financial ruin. There was a vital bond between the brothers, evident in John’s letters to his brother and sister-in-law, Georgina, in Louisville, Kentucky, which run to thousands of words and detail his thoughts about the nature of poetry, the human condition, and the soul. Gigante demonstrates that John’s 1819 Odes and Hyperion fragments emerged from his profound grief following George’s departure and Tom’s death—and that we owe these great works of English Romanticism in part to the deep, lasting fraternal friendship that Gigante reveals in these pages.
[Gigante's] book, with its transatlantic sweep and epic narrative—including cameos from John James Audubon, Emerson, and more—offers a detailed study of the stunning vicissitudes of the brothers' lives. Even those familiar with the poet's timeline will see it anew through the lens of this intense sibling relationship...As she unravels the compelling story of John's and George's lives, Gigante easily overturns stereotypes about academics churning out dry prose. She has the descriptive power of a novelist or poet...The Keats Brothers is a major accomplishment, one that will surely influence biographies of Keats yet to come.
— Carmela Ciuraru
Gigante has had the clever idea of telling the stories of John and George as parallel lives, a dual biography of brothers. Of course, no single achievement of George's matches John's in any imaginable way...The challenge for Gigante is to give sufficiently rich detail concerning George's travels in America to outweigh the conspicuous achievement gap between the two brothers. Mostly, she succeeds brilliantly. The American wilderness, she points out, had long appealed to English poets, as a land of utopian social possibility and sublime natural imagery...Gigante memorably contrasts these imaginary worlds with the slovenly wilderness and grimy inhabitants that George and Georgiana witnessed as they traveled by barge and wagon into the interior...The book ends splendidly...with the apparition of Oscar Wilde, long after George's death by tuberculosis in 1841, lecturing on John Keats, "the real Adonis of our age," to the people of Louisville in 1882, and admiring Keats's manuscripts in the hands of his niece, Emma.
— Christopher Benfey
There have been plenty of good biographies of Keats but Denise Gigante has had the bright idea of writing a dual biography intertwining the sad history of John with the much less well-known story of his brother George...Gigante examines their sometimes strained fraternal intimacy in this resourceful and engaging book...Some of the most gripping pages in this lively and consistently interesting book are not about poetry at all, but rather recreate the adventures of the George Keatses across America, through Ohio to Cincinnati and on to Louisville. Gigante portrays very well the sheer discomfort of it all, the whiskey-soaked world of the steamboats, the reckless and chaotic entrepreneurialism and the accompanying ecological horrors of forest-clearing—out of which George did very nicely thank you...Gigante chooses to tell the story of Keats's last months by flipping to and fro between George in America and John, first in London and then in Italy, failing in the grip of his appalling disease, with "no religion to support him" (as Joseph Severn, his companion in the last weeks, said). This decision gives the book a "meanwhile back at the ranch" quality which is nothing but a pleasure, and creates some sad contrasts that Gigante is too well mannered to labor...The decision to tell their lives in parallel does make a kind of sense, and Denise Gigante has done it with much style.
— Seamus Perry
We not only learn a lot about George, who invariably and inevitably plays only a minor role in biographies of his brother—but as the lives illuminate each other, new light is shed upon material that we thought we knew already...Why is The Keats Brothers such a terrific read? What is the secret of this stunning achievement, and what makes this book so unputdownable?...The first is that [Gigante] is a hell of a storyteller. Departing from Plutarch's model, Gigante adroitly alternates between John's life and George's, counterpointing the one with the other, drawing out parallels and contrasts with an ease that can inspire only admiration...The second reason is that Gigante possesses imagination to an uncommon degree. And what is a biography without imagination, empathy and judgement? The opening pages alone (set in Margate in 1816) and the epilogue (Oscar Wilde visiting Louisville, Kentucky, in 1882) are dazzling gems of inspired life writing—but there are many, many more such passages...Gigante has that eye for the telling detail that only the born storyteller has—and, pace Plutarch, she gives us both lives and history: her vignettes of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, of New York and Louisville are first-rate history made alive—they open up a new world, and the New World, to Keats scholars. In a way different from William Wordsworth, John Keats knew how to make poetry out of loss. In Denise Gigante he has found a congenial biographer, writing as she does about what remains, even if there is all ocean between.
— Christopher Bode
In The Keats Brothers, Denise Gigante has crafted a detailed, fast-moving life of this strong-minded poet and the siblings who helped sustain him...Out of primary documents she reanimates a major poet and his world, and crafts a transatlantic adventure story with a novelist's gift for moving narrative along. In brief, Gigante convincingly demonstrates that George Keats, the poet's junior by sixteen months, served as John's "muse."
— Patrick Kurp
A bold, expressive style makes this an engaging narrative throughout. The love, misunderstanding, and rivalry between a spiritual adventurer and a worldly one are emblematic of contrasts in 19th-century British culture.
— R. K. Mookerjee
What makes Gigante's approach different...is her determination to weave the life of the poet back into the family woof, to see the Keats siblings John, George, Tom, and Fanny as their own most relevant personal and social unit, "unmoored" and isolated from society as they were by the early deaths of their parents...It is George's life that generates everything that is rich and strange about the biography, and there is much to relish in Gigante's extensively researched and detailed account of the American republic during the early decades of the nineteenth century.
— William Christie
The Keats Brothers, by the Stanford University professor Denise Gigante, is an account of the lives of the English Romantic poet John Keats and his brother George — yet it's also a love story of sorts. In her preface, Gigante advises readers to "prepare for adventure." Although that may sound like overselling, it isn't. Her book, with its transatlantic sweep and epic narrative — including cameos from John James Audubon, Emerson, and more — offers a detailed study of the stunning vicissitudes of the brothers' lives. Even those familiar with the poet's timeline will see it anew through the lens of this intense sibling relationship.
John was the oldest of four siblings another died in infancy, but it was his vital bond with George, two years his junior, that sustained him and nurtured the poetic work that began to emerge in his teen years. As Gigante notes, until now George Keats has played a peripheral role in biographies of his famous brother, or he has been portrayed as a cruel, self-absorbed figure who, when John needed him most, abandoned him in pursuit of moneymaking in America. The real story, she writes, has "gone unsung."
The Keats children, John, George, Thomas, and Fanny, endured tragedy early on, beginning with their father's death in 1804. He fell from a horse following a night of carousing. Only a few weeks later, their mother remarried, then ran off with another man, and eventually gave up her parental responsibilities. She died in 1810.
The year 1818 was one of emotional exhaustion and loss for John — one of the most difficult periods of his brief life. George, along with his new wife, Georgiana, set sail from Liverpool for America; and a few months later, their brother Tom died of tuberculosis — the disease that George would later call the "Family Complaint." As Gigante writes, John had no idea how he would go on "without the ballast of George" to support him as confidant and caretaker. "John's two greatest enemies — distance and disease — were phantoms one could not battle," she writes.
George could not forgive himself for leaving England, but he nevertheless made the leap, convinced it was worth the risks, emotional and otherwise. That the surname of the ship's captain was Coffin did nothing to assuage his anxiety about the long ocean voyage ahead. In his brother's absence, John was bereft: "But what, without the social thought of thee, / Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?" he wrote in a sonnet entitled, "To My Brother George." In a letter, he admitted that "George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend."
Gigante is careful to portray George as an honorable man, rather than a villain who carelessly abandoned his brother. She notes that he was sympathetic to the price of his brother's genius — a "sensitive and hypochondriacal" nature, someone who was "devoted and affectionate" but suffered from a "nervous morbid temperament." George understood well that he served as "his brother's safety valve, to release pressure when his passions threatened to explode." Although John persevered, he craved his brother's physical presence. "God bless you," he wrote in a letter to George, in a passage that suggests the intensity of their bond. "I whisper good night in your ears and you will dream of me."
In fact, George's emigration was fueled by a magnanimous motive: the desire to comfortably support his whole family, including his brother, if needed. He also wished to make a significant mark in life, so that his role as "John's brother" would not be his only legacy.
This story cannot end happily, and indeed it does not. Although John dreamed of someday visiting George and his wife in America, in the winter of 1821 he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. However much he had fallen headlong "quickly and irreversibly" in love with a flirtatious eighteen-year-old named Fanny Brawne, George was the great love of his life. In any case, John's poverty and ruined health assured that his romance with Fanny was doomed from the start.
The latter half of The Keats Brothers explores George's ambitious but failed business ventures in America. He eventually landed in Louisville, Kentucky, where he became mired in debt from a poorly run sawmill operation, helpless to send money to John. George felt haunted by the knowledge that "his friends back home misread his character" and judged him harshly for not coming to the bedside of his dying brother. He blamed himself for John's death.
Twenty years later, on Christmas Eve, 1841, George too died of tuberculosis. At forty-four years old, he had at one point amassed the considerable wealth he had been seeking for so long — only to be left penniless in the end as the American economy plummeted.
As she unravels the compelling story of John's and George's lives, Gigante easily overturns stereotypes about academics churning out dry prose. She has the descriptive power of a novelist or poet: "Not until the ship was out on the vast expanse of the Atlantic would the liquid element lose its translucence and transform into a dark, fathomless blue." Just as impressive is her empathetic perspective and meticulous research. The Keats Brothers is a major accomplishment, one that will surely influence biographies of Keats yet to come.
Carmela Ciuraru is the author of Nom de Plume: A Secret History of Pseudonyms HarperCollins. She is a 2011 Nonfiction Fellow from the New York Foundation of the Arts NYFA and lives in Brooklyn.
Reviewer: Carmela Ciuraru