Thomas Bulfinch was born on July 15, 1796, in Newton, Massachusetts. He was descended from a distinguished New England family; his grandfather was a well-known surgeon, and his father, Charles Bulfinch, was one of the foremost architects of his day, responsible...read more
Thomas Bulfinch was born on July 15, 1796, in Newton, Massachusetts. He was descended from a distinguished New England family; his grandfather was a well-known surgeon, and his father, Charles Bulfinch, was one of the foremost architects of his day, responsible for many Boston monuments, including the State House on Beacon Hill, as well as being an important public official and city planner. Thomas, who was one of eleven children, pursued a more sheltered career. He received the education of a member of the Boston elite--Boston Latin, Phillips Exeter, Harvard (where his classmates included the historian William Prescott)--but after he graduated in 1814 his life showed little sense of strong direction. He taught briefly at Boston Latin, assisted at a store owned by his elder brother, and worked desultorily and without much success in a number of different businesses in Washington, D.C., and Boston.
In 1837 Bulfinch began working as a clerk in the Merchant's Bank of Boston; he stayed on in that capacity until his death. The position was not a demanding one, and Bulfinch evidently had ample leisure time in which to pursue his other interests. He was secretary of the Boston Society of Natural History for a number of years, and published books reflecting the range of his interests, including Hebrew Lyrical Poetry (1853); The Boy Inventor (1860), a tribute to a precocious student of his who died young; Shakespeare Adapted for Reading Classes (1865); and Oregon and Eldorado (1866), an account of an expedition to the Pacific Northwest his father had been involved in planning. The only works of his which have retained their readership are the three volumes--The Age of Fable (1855), The Age of Chivalry (1858), and Legends of Charlemagne (1863)--eventually reprinted under the title Bulfinch's Mythology.
The thoroughness with which Bulfinch combed through his sources made his mythological books standard reference works for a long time, while the skill with which he wove the separate versions into coherent tales endeared them to a wide audience. They continue to be read for the vigor of their storytelling even when superseded by twentieth-century approaches. Bulfinch was concerned not only with recapitulating the ancient myths and legends but also with demonstrating their relationship to literature and art, and his copious cross-references to poetry and painting make his Mythology an indispensable guide to the cultural values of the nineteenth century. "Without a knowledge of mythology," he wrote, "much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood or appreciated." He added: "We trust our young readers will find it a source of entertainment," and his trust seems to have been justified, judging from the many generations who have found his books an enthralling and loving introduction to the worlds of classical and medieval myth and legend.