Friday, May 31, 2019

Walt Whitman: A Life in Newspapers

By Arlene Balkansky, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

In 1860, the 3rd edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass received a wildly varying reception in newspapers. At opposite ends of the spectrum, it was advertised as “America’s First Distinctive Poem” and reviewed as “armless, witless, pointless.”


Ad for “America’s First Distinctive Poem. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass,” New-York Daily Tribune, April 24, 1860, p. 1.


Review of Leaves of Grass. Cleveland Morning Leader, December 13, 1860, p. 1.

The advertisement was from the volume’s short-lived publishers Thayer & Eldridge. The anonymous review in the Cleveland Morning Leader went on to describe Whitman’s poetry as having “deliberate and premeditated indecencies…” The Morning Leader review even derided Ralph Waldo Emerson as “unscrupulous” for having championed Leaves of Grass in a well-publicized letter to Whitman.

Before Walt Whitman became famous–and to some notorious–for his masterwork Leaves of Grass and for his lifestyle, he had a long association with newspapers. At 13, he was a printer’s apprentice. At 19, he founded and edited a small newspaper, the Long Islander, which he sold after 10 months in the summer of 1839. Throughout most of the 1840s, he edited newspapers, including a brief stint that ended contentiously at The New York Aurora, March-May, 1842, and a nearly two-year tenure that also ended contentiously at The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1846-1848.

More significantly, his own prose, fiction, and poetry appeared in newspapers and periodicals beginning in the late 1830s and continuing throughout his life.


“The Child and the Profligate,” reprinted in the Green-Mountain Freeman, November 29, 1844, p. 4.


“Resurgemus,” New-York Daily Tribune, June 21, 1850, p. 3.

Some of Whitman’s writings published in newspapers were identified only recently by two scholars who discovered them while examining little seen rare newspapers held at the Library of Congress.

In May 2014, Wendy Katz, an associate professor of art history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, identified the Whitman poem, “To Bryant, the Poet of Nature,” signed “W. W.” She found the poem in the June 23, 1842 issue of the Democratic Republican New Era. At the time, Katz was examining penny press newspapers in our Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room while a Fellow in Residence at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

A little over two years later, in the summer of 2016, graduate student Zachary Turpin, now an assistant professor of American literature at the University of Idaho, found Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography, a Whitman novel serialized in six parts in the New York Sunday Dispatch, March 14-April 18, 1852. While published anonymously, Turpin was able to confirm Whitman’s authorship based on notes in a Whitman notebook held in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division’s Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman.

You can now read Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, as published in the six Sunday Dispatch issues recently digitized in the Chronicling America database from our original paper issues.


“Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography,” Sunday Dispatch (New York, NY), March 14, 1852, p. 1.

Our Walt Whitman Topics Page in Chronicling America also features Jack Engle, as well as later articles focusing on Whitman as the “Good Gray Poet,” the description his friend William Douglas O’Connor used as early as 1865 in response to Whitman’s dismissal from his clerkship at the Department of the Interior. In addition to searching Whitman’s name and relevant titles, you may want to try one of his pseudonyms, Paumanok, from a Native American name for Long Island, his birthplace. Whitman utilized that place name most notably in his poem, Starting from Paumanok.

With over 15 million digitized newspapers pages in Chronicling America, you can search to get a cross-section of Whitman’s journalism, as well as ads and reviews focused on his poetry and fiction, praising or damning his work and him.

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