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On Walt Whitman, Unsung Newspaperman

whitman

There are many professions that can rightly claim Walt Whitman as their own. He was, at different times in his life, a carpenter, a schoolteacher, a government clerk, a volunteer nurse, a printer, a typesetter, and the operator of a stationary store.

He was also, you might have heard, a poet. And, though he didn’t make a fortune from Leaves of Grass, the volume that he wrote and rewrote throughout his lifetime, he now enjoys a near-unmatched degree of critical acceptance. Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, has called him “the first truly American poet.” The Poetry Foundation describes him as “a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare.” The scholar James Miller Jr. has written that “Leaves of Grass must. . .be recognized ultimately as America’s great archetypal poem—as the national epic.” Ezra Pound once wrote, bluntly, of Whitman: “He is America.”

There is little debate that we have embraced Whitman the poet. His bicentennial on May 31st will be marked by celebrations large and small, including a convention, an exhibit at the New York Public Library, and a series of readings, exhibits, performances, and other events presented by the University of Pennsylvania.

But to only focus on Whitman the poet is to miss a large part of the picture: he was a reporter who wrote hundreds of articles, edited newspapers, and often sang the praises of journalism and the principles of a free press. Given the current climate in America for journalism and those who practice it, that simple fact feels nearly as important as any line of verse. Long revered by poets, Walt Whitman is, in his own way, a hero to journalists, too.

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If Whitman had never published a line of poetry, he would have still had a remarkably prolific life as a journalist. In the introduction to their 2015 book Walt Whitman’s Selected Journalism, scholars Jason Stacy and Douglass A. Noverr note that by the time “Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he had been a journalist for fifteen years.”

Journalism played a role in nearly every phase of Whitman’s life. By age 12, he was assisting printing operations at a newspaper called the Long Island Patriot. By the year he turned 16, “he was already publishing short pieces in various papers, not only routine features and news but also reviews, essays, and poems,” according to an entry about his journalism in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. In his 1980 biography, Walt Whitman: A Life, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Justin Kaplan describes how, when Whitman’s gig as a school teacher ended in the Long Island village of Smithtown, he “bought a used press and a case of types, rented space above a stable, and in June 1838 went into business as a founder, publisher, and editor of a Huntington weekly, the Long Islander.” The first edition was published a few days after his 19th birthday.

Journalism played a role in nearly every phase of Whitman’s life.

When Whitman moved to New York City soon thereafter, he would embark on a period of frenzied journalistic productivity. At age 23, he was made chief editor of a new paper, the New York Aurora. Thanks to the invaluable Walt Whitman Archive, dozens of his editorials from that time—pieces like “The New York Press,” “The English troubles in India, and our difficulties with Great Britain,”  “Life and Love,” and “Broadway Yesterday”—are available to read online. By September 1845, a few months after his 26th birthday, he had worked for nearly a dozen papers.

A scan of these years, and the decades that followed, reveals an astonishingly vast and eclectic body of writing. Arriving in New York in the midst of a great newspaper boom, Whitman worked as both an editor and a freelancer. He composed pieces for weeklies and dailies. He wrote about slavery and schools and parks and sanitation and tariffs and the exploitation of female workers and immigration and the U.S.-Mexico war. He had a stint as a cultural reporter, covering theater, music, and books. In many cases, he sold articles by the bushel, publishing series with titles like “Letters from a Travelling Bachelor,” “Paragraph Sketches of Brooklynites,” “Church Sketches,” and “New York Dissected.” One such series, entitled “Manly Health and Training,” made headlines in 2016 when it was discovered by a University of Houston doctoral candidate. “In long, sometimes self-indulgent passages,” the Houston Chronicle reported at the time, “Whitman offers his thoughts on diet and exercise, bathing, male beauty, prizefighting, alcohol, aging, sex, footwear and the importance of spending time outdoors.”

In his late thirties, after the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman returned for a two-year stint as a full-time editor at the Brooklyn Daily Times. This would be his last foray into full-time journalism, but even afterward, he remained remarkably active as a writer and correspondent, writing more than 130 newspaper articles and 50 magazine articles before his death in 1892. To pick one memorable example: while he was living in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War (a time important to Whitman scholars for his visits to war hospitals and the poetry it inspired), he wrote nine lengthy letters to The New York Times. Last year, the Times commemorated this with an article titled, “When Walt Whitman Reported for the New York Times,” with a link to an original article from August 12, 1863 titled “Washington in the Hot Season.”

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Two themes emerge when you read what scholars say about Whitman’s journalism.

The first is that Whitman’s journalism, on its own, isn’t so special. In a 1990 book on Whitman’s life and work, the scholar James E. Miller Jr. marveled at both the depth of Whitman’s journalistic output and its striking lack of artistry. “In browsing through these newspaper pieces,” he wrote, “the reader can hardly escape the mystery at the heart of Whitman—how did such an ordinary journalist transform himself in midcareer, and without practice or warning, into America’s genius and epic poet?”

These articles and experiences were crucial to Whitman’s evolution as a poet.

Turn to the entry on Whitman’s journalism in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia and you’ll find a similar verdict. Entry author M. Jimmie Killingsworth notes that “most scholars and critics” agree that much of Whitman’s newspaper work reflects a time before he had found his voice. Even Whitman, himself, who had no shortage of confidence when it came to poetry, admitted that he lacked certain essential skills for journalism. “My opinions are all, always, so hazy—so slow to come,” he once wrote. “I am no use in any situation which calls for instant decision.”

But at the same time, scholars seem equally confident that these articles and experiences were crucial to his evolution as a poet. Killingsworth notes that journalism was the way Whitman first discovered himself to be a writer and joined the public conversation about literature and politics. In Kaplan’s biography, the author points out that Whitman’s time writing dozens of book reviews in the Brooklyn Eagle, on works by Goethe, Coleridge, and others, gave him a literary education to draw from, or rebel against, in his poetry. Elsewhere, Stacy and Noverr point out that newspaper gigs offered Whitman a chance to roam around the city, down crowded streets, describing what he saw, much in the same way he would do later in his poems. “[I]n these articles Whitman was an urban loafer before he was loafing on the grass,” they write.

My personal favorite hint of Whitman’s journalism in his poetry is in “Song of Myself” when, during one glorious, panoramic ode to working people, he includes a hat-tip to the profession that he knew so well. In a section that mentions singers, carpenters, whalers, deacons, spinning-girls, farmers, gate-keepers, policeman, machinists, wagon-drivers, fur-trappers, steamboat deck-hands, bookkeepers, shoe-makers, band conductors, sign-painters, masons, train fair-collector, prostitutes, and presidents, one excerpt reads:

the clean-hair’d Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine

or in the factory or mill,

The paving-man leans on his two-handed rammer, the

reporter’s lead flies swiftly over the note-book…

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As both a journalist myself and a Whitman super-fan, I find great joy in learning about his journalism career. But even I would stop short of calling him a role model.

It appears some of the things that made him such a distinct and gifted poet were liabilities in the journalism world. In his biography, Justin Kaplan notes that Whitman’s stint as the operator of a newspaper at age 19 meant that he was his own boss for the first time—and it didn’t go well. “He was careless of schedules, money and toil, the villagers said, devoted instead to books and other pastimes, like the game of ring toss he and [his brother] George played in their office for stakes of a mince pie or twenty-five cents,” he writes. “After a year of vagrant management. . .Whitman’s backers sold the Long Islander out from under him.”

Whitman’s stints for other bosses didn’t fare much better. In the American Experience documentary on Whitman from 2008, the narrator rings off seven papers where Whitman lost favor in four years, and says, “His bosses apparently found him all but ungovernable.” In the Whitman encyclopedia, M. Jimmie Killingsworth dryly notes, “Loafing and inviting his soul may later have served him well as a method of poetic composition, but did not suffice for newspaper work with its tight production schedules.”

Whitman also occasionally ran afoul of journalistic ethics. In 1855, in his zeal to promote the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman published a (now-famous) laudatory letter about the book from Ralph Waldo Emerson in the New York Tribune without Emerson’s permission. Around the same time, he wrote three rave reviews of his own book that he published anonymously in local papers. “An American bard at last!” one of them proclaimed.

And yet despite all of this, there are aspects of Whitman’s journalism career I admire. As freelancer, myself, I’m well aware of the hustle and entrepreneurial spirit necessary to survive in publishing. And, for all of his flaws and foibles, Whitman certainly had this in abundance.

Whitman’s love for the United States and the practice of journalism were intertwined.

And what I find most lovable and admirable—and urgently important, in light of the political climate in 2019—is Whitman’s simple passion for the idea of journalism, itself. Today, as we approach Whitman’s bicentennial, the long-accepted notion that press freedom is essential to American society seems, at best, up for debate, and, in many cases, under siege. Our commander-in-chief routinely attacks the press from his Twitter feed and, during rallies, hurls insults at the occupants of the press pen. Death threats and online intimidation toward journalists have become commonplace. And it isn’t just threats: during the last half-decade, American journalists have been murdered during live-TV interviews and while working at newspaper offices. In late 2018, the press-freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders added the U.S. to its list of the world’s five deadliest countries for journalists.

Whitman would have surely been aghast at all this; his love for the United States and the practice of journalism were intertwined. And he was a particular champion for the penny press, which he trumpeted for its ability to “disperse the clouds of ignorance; and make the great body of the people intelligent, capable, and worthy of performing the duties of republican freemen.” At one point, he called these papers “mighty engines of truth.” Elsewhere, he compared the U.S. favorably to nations across the Atlantic, which were characterized by “kingcraft,” “priest-craft,” and “the old and moth-eaten systems of Europe.” The U.S. was different. “The people of the United States are a newspaper-ruled people,” he wrote.

But it wasn’t just patriotism at play here. Some of Whitman’s comments about the press strike me as extensions of his exceedingly gentle, curious, and empathetic nature. “There is a curious kind of sympathy. . .that arises in the mind of a newspaper conductor with the public he serves,” he once wrote. “Daily communion creates a sort of brotherhood and sisterhood between the two parties.”

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