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He bought a press and type and hired his y ounger brother George as an assistant, but, despite his energetic efforts to edit, publish, write for, and deliver the new paper, it folded within a year, and he reluctantly returned to the classroom. Newspaper work made him happy, but teaching did not, a nd two years later, he abruptly quit his job as an itinerant schoolteacher. The reasons for his decision continue to interest biographers. One persistent but unsubstantiated rumor has it that Whitman committed sodomy with one of his students while teachin g in Southold, though it is not possible to prove that Whitman actually even taught there.

The rumor suggests he was run out of town in disgrace, never to return and soon to abandon teaching altogether. But in fact Whitman did travel again to Southold, wr iting some remarkably unperturbed journalistic pieces about the place in the late s and early s. It seems far more likely that Whitman gave up schoolteaching because he found himself temperamentally unsuited for it. And, besides, he had a new care er opening up: he decided now to become a fiction writer.

Best of all, to nurture that career, he would need to return to New York City and re-establish himself in the world of journalism. How ambitious was Whitman as a writer of short fiction? The evidence suggests that he was definitely more than a casual dabbler and that he threw himself energetically into composing stories. 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. 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 fi ction 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.

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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 pri nting advance copies of novels, typically by English writers, threatened both the development of native writers and the viability of U. But now both men were willing to overlook past differences in order to seize a good financial oppo rtunity.

The novel centers on a country boy who, after falling prey to drink in the big city, eventually causes the death 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.

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 new writing and previously composed stories. Whitman cl aimed 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. 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 Whi tman "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 write r, his residence and professional career in the city actually ended, then, a full decade before the first appearance of Leaves of Grass.

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 dur ing 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 freq uent inclusion of oratorical elements in his poetry. For Whitman, listening to opera had the intensity of a "love-grip.

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. The Long Island Star recognized his value as a journalist a nd, 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 o f 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 ofte n superficially, on writers such as Carlyle and Emerson, who in the next decade would have a significant impact on Leaves of Grass.

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 Whitman this usually meant white working class interests.

He sometimes dreaded slave labor as a "black tide" that could overwhelm white worki ngmen. 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 expresse d 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 li ke Lincoln that the more extreme abolitionists threatened the Union itself. In a stunningly short time—reportedly in fifteen minutes—McClure struck a deal with Whitman and provided him with an advance to cover his travel expenses to New Orleans.

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 t he "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 wi th Mexico, and his first encounters with young men who had seen battle, many of them recovering from war wounds, occurred in New Orleans, a precursor of his Civil War experiences.

He was entranced by the intoxicating mix of languages—French and Spanish an d 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.

Lost in the River of Grass (Carolrhoda Ya)

Whitman never forgot the experience of seei ng humans on the selling block, and he kept a poster 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 incorpo rate 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, thou gh, 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 unorthodo x ideas, especially about slavery.

Personal Canon

His trip South produced a few lively sketches of New Orleans life and at least one poem, "Sailing the Mississippi at Midnight," in which the steamboat journey becomes a symbolic journey of life:. Vast and starless, the pall of heaven Laps on the trailing pall below; And forward, forward, in solemn darkness, As if to the sea of the lost we go.

Throughout much of the s Whitman wrote conventional poems like this one, often echoing Bryant, and, at times, Shelley and Keats. Instead, tired language usually renders the poems inert. 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 abo ut 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 learning to write not in the manner of his predecessors but a gainst them. The mystery about Whitman in the late s is the speed of his transformation from an unoriginal and conventional poet into one who abruptly abandoned conventional rhyme and meter and, in jottings begun at this time, exploited the odd loveliness of ho mely imagery, finding beauty in the commonplace but expressing it in an uncommon way.

Famous passages on "Dilation," on "True noble expanding American character," and on the "s oul enfolding orbs" are memorable prose statements that express the newly expansive sense of self that Whitman was discovering, and we find him here creating the conditions—setting the tone and articulating the ideas—that would allow for the writing of Leaves of Grass. A pivotal and empowering change came over Whitman at this time of poetic transformation. His politics—and especially his racial attitudes—underwent a profound alteration. As we have noted, Whitman the journalist spoke to the interests of the day and fr om a particular class perspective when he advanced the interests of white workingmen while seeming, at times, unconcerned about the plight of blacks.

Perhaps the New Orleans experience had prompted a change in attitude, a change that was intensified by an increasing number of friendships with radical thinkers and writers who led Whitman to rethink his attitudes toward the issue of race. Notebook passages assert that the poet has the "divine grammar of all tongues, and says indifferently and alike How are you friend? In any event, his first notebook lines in the manner of Leaves of Grass focus directly on the fundamental issue dividing the United States. His notebook brea ks into free verse for the first time in lines that seek to bind opposed categories, to link black and white, to join master and slave:.

I am the poet of the body And I am the poet of the soul And I am I go with the slaves of the earth equally with he masters And I will stand between the masters and the slaves, Entering into both so that both will understand me alike.

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The audacity of that final line remains striking. While most people were lining up on one side or another, Whitman placed himself in that space—sometimes violent, sometimes erotic, always volatile— between master and slave. His extreme political despair led him to replace what he now named the "scum" of corrupt American politics in the s with his own persona—a shaman, a culture-healer, an all-encompassing "I.

That "I" became the main character of Leaves of Grass , the explosive book of twelve untitled poems that he wrote in the early years of the s, and for which he set some of the type, designed the cover, and carefully oversaw all the detail s.