On Walt Whitman, unsung newspaperman | Daily News

On Walt Whitman, unsung newspaperman

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.

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.”

- Lit Hub


 

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