Still, he did not give himself over to fiction with the kind of life-changing commitment he would later give to experimental poetry. He was adding to his accomplishments, moving beyond being a respectable journalist and developing literary talents and aspirations.
About twenty different newspapers and magazines printed Whitman's fiction and early poetry. His best years for fiction were between and , when he placed his stories in a range of magazines, including the American Review later called the American Whig Review and the Democratic Review , one of the nation's most prestigious literary magazines. As a writer of fiction, he lacked the impulse toward innovation and the commitment to self-training that later moved him toward experimental verse, even though we can trace in his fiction some of the themes that would later flourish in Leaves of Grass.
His early stories are captivating in large part because they address obliquely not to say crudely important professional and psychological matters. His first published story, "Death in the School-Room," grew out of his teaching experience and interjected direct editorializing commentary: the narrator hopes that the "many ingenious methods of child-torture, will [soon] be gazed upon as a scorn'd memento of an ignorant, cruel, and exploded doctrine. Another story, "The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul," offered a barely fictionalized account of Whitman's own circumstances and attitudes: the hero, Archibald Dean, left New York because of the great fire to take charge of a small district school, a move that made him feel "as though the last float-plank which buoyed him up on hope and happiness, was sinking, and he with it.
Whitman's steady stream of stories in the Democratic Review in —he published five between January and September—must have made Park Benjamin, editor of the New World newspaper, conclude that Whitman was the perfect candidate to write a novel that would speak to the booming temperance movement. Whitman had earlier worked for Benjamin as a printer, and the two had quarreled, leading Whitman to write "Bamboozle and Benjamin," an article attacking this irascible editor, whose practice of rapidly printing advance copies of novels, typically by English writers, threatened both the development of native writers and the viability of US publishing houses.
But now both men were willing to overlook past differences in order to seize a good financial opportunity. The novel centers on a country boy who, after falling prey to drink in the big city, eventually causes the deaths of three women. The plot, which ends in a conventional moralistic way, was typical of temperance literature in allowing sensationalism into literature under a moral guise.
Whitman's treatment of romance and passion here, however, is unpersuasive and seems to confirm a remark he had made two years earlier that he knew nothing about women from either "experience or observation. Interestingly, Franklin Evans sold more copies approximately 20, than anything else Whitman published in his lifetime. The work succeeded despite being a patched-together concoction of hastily composed new writing and previously composed stories.
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Whitman claimed he completed Franklin Evans in three days and that he composed parts of the novel in the reading room of Tammany Hall, inspired by gin cocktails another time he claimed he was buoyed by a bottle of port. He eventually described Franklin Evans as "damned rot—rot of the worst sort. Moreover, Whitman began another temperance novel The Madman within months of finishing Franklin Evans , though he soon abandoned the project.
His concern with the temperance issue may have derived from his father's drinking habits or even from Whitman's own drinking tendencies when he was an unhappy schoolteacher. Whatever the source, his concern with the issue remained throughout his career, and his poetry records, again and again, the waste of alcoholic abuse, the awful "law of drunkards" that produces "the livid faces of drunkards," "those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations," the "drunkard's breath," the "drunkard's stagger," "the old drunkard staggering home.
During the time he was writing temperance fiction, Whitman remained a generally successful journalist. He cultivated a fashionable appearance: William Cauldwell, an apprentice who knew him as lead editor at the New York Aurora , said that Whitman "usually wore a frock coat and high hat, carried a small cane, and the lapel of his coat was almost invariably ornamented with a boutonniere.
And he wrote on topics ranging from criticizing how the police rounded up prostitutes to denouncing Bishop John Hughes for his effort to use public funds to support parochial schools. Whitman left New York in , perhaps because of financial uncertainty resulting from his fluctuating income.
He returned to Brooklyn and to steadier work in a somewhat less competitive journalistic environment. Often regarded as a New York City writer, his residence and professional career in the city actually ended, then, a full decade before the first appearance of Leaves of Grass. However, even after his move to Brooklyn, he remained connected to New York: he shuttled back and forth via the Fulton ferry, and he drew imaginatively on the city's rich and varied splendor for his subject matter.
Opera was one of the many attractions that encouraged Whitman's frequent returns to New York. In Whitman began attending performances, often with his brother Jeff, a practice that was disrupted only by the onset of the Civil War and even during the war, he managed to attend operas whenever he got back to New York. Whitman loved the thought of the human body as its own musical instrument, and his fascination with voice would later manifest itself in his desire to be an orator and in his frequent inclusion of oratorical elements in his poetry.
For Whitman, listening to opera had the intensity of a "love-grip. Whitman once said, after attending an opera, that the experience was powerful enough to initiate a new era in a person's development. When he later composed a poem describing his dawning sense of vocation "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" , opera provided both structure and contextual clues to meaning.
By the mids, Whitman had a keen awareness of the cultural resources of New York City and probably had more inside knowledge of New York journalism than anyone else in Brooklyn.
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The Long Island Star recognized his value as a journalist and, once he resettled in Brooklyn, quickly arranged to have him compose a series of editorials, two or three a week, from September to March With the death of William Marsh, the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle , Whitman became chief editor of that paper he served from March 5, , to January 18, He dedicated himself to journalism in these years and published little of his own poetry and fiction.
However, he introduced literary reviewing to the Eagle , and he commented, if often superficially, on writers such as Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in the next decade would both have a significant impact on Leaves of Grass. The editor's role gave Whitman a platform from which to comment on various issues, from street lighting to politics, from banking to poetry. But Whitman claimed that what he most valued was not the ability to promote his opinions, but rather something more intimate, the "curious kind of sympathy. He gets to love them.
For Whitman, to serve the public was to frame issues in accordance with working-class interests—and for him this usually meant white working-class interests. He sometimes dreaded slave labor as a "black tide" that could overwhelm white working men. He was adamant that slavery should not be allowed into the new western territories because he feared whites would not migrate to an area where their own labor was devalued unfairly by the institution of black slavery. Periodically, Whitman expressed outrage at practices that furthered slavery itself: for example, he was incensed at laws that made possible the importation of slaves by way of Brazil.
Like Lincoln, he consistently opposed slavery and its further extension, even while he knew again like Lincoln that the more extreme abolitionists threatened the Union itself. In a famous incident, Whitman lost his position as editor of the Eagle because the publisher, Isaac Van Anden, as an "Old Hunker" a member of a political faction within the New York Democratic party that opposed anti-slavery agitation , sided with conservative proslavery Democrats.
He could no longer abide Whitman's support of free soil and the Wilmot Proviso a legislative proposal designed to stop the expansion of slavery into the western territories. In a stunningly short time—reportedly in 15 minutes—McClure struck a deal with Whitman to become editor and provided him with an advance to cover his travel expenses to New Orleans.
Whitman's younger brother Jeff, then only 15 years old, decided to travel with Walt and work as an office boy on the paper. The journey—by train, steamboat, and stagecoach—widened Walt's sense of the country's scope and diversity, as he left the New York City and Long Island area for the first time.
Once in New Orleans, Walt did not have the famous New Orleans romance with a beautiful Creole woman, a relationship first imagined by the biographer Henry Bryan Binns and further elaborated by others who were charmed by the city's exoticism and eager to identify heterosexual desires in the poet.
The published versions of his New Orleans poem called "Once I Pass'd Through a Populous City" seem to recount a romance with a woman, though the original manuscript reveals that he initially wrote with a male lover in mind. Here, as is so often the case, Whitman's manuscripts provide an insight into the original motivations and tonalities of his poems, often revealing aspects of his thoughts that his published versions erased or disguised. Whatever the nature of his personal attachments in New Orleans, he certainly encountered a city full of color and excitement.
He wandered the French quarter and the old French market, attracted by "the Indian and negro hucksters with their wares" and the "great Creole mulatto woman" who sold him the best coffee he ever tasted. He enjoyed the "splendid and roomy bars" with "exquisite wines, and the perfect and mild French brandy" that were packed with soldiers who had recently returned from the war with Mexico, and it was in New Orleans that his first encounters with young men who had seen battle, many of them recovering from war wounds, occurred, a precursor of his Civil War experiences.
He was entranced by the intoxicating mix of languages—French and Spanish and English—in that cosmopolitan city and began to see the possibilities of a distinctive American culture emerging from the melding of races and backgrounds his own fondness for using French terms may well have derived from his New Orleans stay. But the exotic nature of the Southern city was not without its horrors: slaves were auctioned within an easy walk of where the Whitman brothers were lodging at the Tremont House, around the corner from Lafayette Square. Whitman never forgot the experience of seeing humans on the selling block, and he kept a notice of a slave auction hanging in his room for many years as a reminder that such dehumanizing events occurred regularly in the United States.
The slave auction was an experience that he would later incorporate in his poem "I Sing the Body Electric. Walt felt wonderfully healthy in New Orleans, concluding that it agreed with him better than New York, but Jeff was often sick with dysentery, and his illness and homesickness contributed to their growing desire to return home.
The final decision, though, was taken out of the hands of the brothers, as the Crescent owners exhibited what Whitman called a "singular sort of coldness" toward their new editor. They probably feared that this Northern editor would embarrass them because of his unorthodox ideas, especially about slavery. Whitman's sojourn in New Orleans lasted only three months. EPF , 42 Throughout much of the s Whitman wrote conventional poems like this one, often echoing the poet and editor William Cullen Bryant, and, at times, Shelley and Keats.
Bryant—and the eighteenth-century graveyard school of English poetry—probably had the most important impact on his sensibility, as can be seen in his pre- Leaves of Grass poems "Our Future Lot," "Ambition," "The Winding-Up," "The Love that is Hereafter," and "Death of the Nature-Lover. Instead, tired language, conventional forms, and predictable thoughts usually render the poems inert: O, beauteous is the earth! EPF , 8 By the end of the decade, however, Whitman had undertaken serious self-education in the art of poetry, conducted in a typically unorthodox way—he clipped essays and reviews about leading British and American writers, and as he studied them he began to be a more aggressive reader and a more resistant respondent.
His marginalia on these articles demonstrate that he was now committed to write not in the manner of his predecessors but against them.
On July 16, , the publisher, health guru, and social reformer Lorenzo Fowler confirmed Whitman's growing sense of personal capacity when his phrenological analysis of the poet's head led to a flattering—and in some ways quite accurate—description of his character.
Whitman at this time believed strongly in phrenology, the reading of the "bumps" on the skull to determine which emotions and qualities were well developed and which needed further work. Fowler was a well-known manipulator of skulls, and often gave examinations and wrote out his "charts of bumps" in his New York office.
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On this particular day, he registered his new client as "W. Whitman Age 29 Occupation Printer " Stern , As Fowler felt around the bumps and indentations of Whitman's head, he expressed some amazement at this printer's "large sized brain" and noted how "few men have all the social feelings as strong as you have.
You are in fact most too open at times and have not alway[s] enough restraint in speech. Your sense of justice, of right and wrong is strong and you can see much that is unjust and inhuman in the present condition of society. You are but little inclined to the spiritual or devotional and have but little regard for creeds or ceremonies. You have a good command of language especially if excited. Stern , It's as if Fowler's phrenological reading gave Whitman certification as a kind of ideal person, large in appetites and yet balanced in temperament, someone with what Fowler called a "grand physical constitution" Stern , and therefore fit to become America's poet.
In addition to bolstering Whitman's confidence, the positive reading of the "bumps" on his skull gave him some key vocabulary for Leaves of Grass. Whitman's association with Lorenzo Fowler and his brother Orson would prove to be of continuing importance well into the s. The Fowler brothers, along with their brother-in-law Samuel R. Wells, ran the firm of Fowler and Wells, which would distribute the first edition of Leaves of Grass , publish the second anonymously, and provide a venue in their firm's magazine for one of Whitman's first self-reviews of his book.
Whitman would later work for Fowler and Wells as a bookseller and as a writer for their Life Illustrated magazine. While he eventually drifted apart from them, the impact of phrenology always stayed with him: late in his life, Whitman admitted that "I probably have not got by the phrenology stage yet" WWC , When he later wrote in "Song of Myself" that "my palms cover continents" LG , 61 , he was still imagining himself as a kind of cosmic phrenologist, reading the mountains and valleys of continents to determine their telltale characteristics just as Fowler read the nooks and crannies of skulls.
Whitman entered Fowler's studio as a "printer," but he left dreaming of larger ambitions. Along with Fowler's description of Whitman as a "printer," we have other evidence about just how Whitman's career was perceived in James J. Brenton, owner of the Long Island Democrat , a newspaper on which Whitman had worked, put together a book in that collected what he called "sketches, essays, and poems by practical printers.
He is presented as one of the printers who could also write, and in the contributors' notes we find a short biography of Whitman that describes him as a printer, former schoolteacher, and writer of popular sketches; he is now, we are told, "connected to the press" and is "an ardent politician of the radical democratic school. In , only five years before publishing Leaves of Grass , a book that would forever change American literature, Whitman was still very much seen as just a "practical printer," but a huge transformation was just around the corner.
There has always been a mystery about Whitman at the end of the s and through the early s.