George H. Boker (director) 1892
Playwright and Poet
Nearly forgotten today, George Henry Boker was a renowned playwright, poet and diplomat in the mid 19th C. He had originally been schooled as a lawyer but after touring Europe, he found his true calling in verse. His first attempts at verse yielded unremarkable lyric poetry, but after he turned to drama, he became one of the most successful American playwrights of the mid 1800’s. He mostly wrote blank verse romantic tragedies, usually in historical European settings. His best known was the 1855 Francesca da Rimini, about Dante’s lost lover in the first ring of the Inferno. Afterward, he returned to writing poetry, sticking mostly to sonnets.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Boker helped to put together (and later presided over) the Union League, which supported the war effort and also published Poems of the War, a collection of patriotic lyric poetry. The Union League was vital in drumming up support for the war by adding men to the ranks of the militias, setting up recruitment booths and providing a rallying point for Philadelphians in favor of the Union. In recognition of Boker’s services, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1871 and in 1875, to Russia.
After the hotly contested presidential election of 1876, Boker was called back from Russia and returned home to Philadelphia. His remaining years he spent depressed, feeling that both his literary and diplomatic careers had been failures, even though his most famous work, Francesca da Rimini, found a resurgence on the Philadelphia stage demanding a reprinting of his work. Boker died in 1890 in Philadelphia.
His father, Charles S. Boker, was also a director of the Mechanics’ bank, and later was president of the much larger Girard Bank during the 1857-8 financial crisis. George Boker’s The Book of the Dead was a response to his father’s posthumous critics.