Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Bureau of Indian Affairs
Author:
Huffstetler, Edward W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

On 1 January 1865 Whitman was hired as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a governmental agency within the Department of Interior. Six months later, the newly appointed Secretary of Interior, James Harlan, a former Methodist minister and senator from Iowa, fired Whitman upon discovering he was the author of Leaves of Grass, a book Harlan knew by reputation as immoral and pornographic. The incident caused considerable stir within the administration as prominent supporters of Whitman came to his defense, eventually securing him a position in the Attorney General's Office. 

Upon deciding in 1862 to stay in Washington, Whitman had initially secured a position in the Paymaster's Office as a clerk, but was dissatisfied. To secure a better position, he sought help from several influential friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a recommendation on his behalf. After receiving the Department of Interior appointment, Whitman, from all accounts and from his letters home, was delighted for a number of reasons. First, he was fascinated by the visiting delegations of American Indians from the plains tribes. It was even reported that he would sometimes visit them in the evenings in their hotel rooms and speak with them via an interpreter. Secondly, he enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of the office, which allowed greater flexibility in his schedule so that he could visit the nearby field hospitals to help with the wounded. He wrote in a letter to his brother Jeff that though he was supposed to work from nine to four, he almost never arrived as early as nine and only stayed until four if he wanted. Finally, he was delighted with the per annum pay of $1200, a considerably higher sum than his previous position, which he needed both to support himself in Washington and to send home to his mother and younger siblings. 

The job, which primarily consisted of copying out reports made by BIA officials, was suited to Whitman's needs at the time, and he was well-liked by his immediate superior William P. Dole, who promoted him to a second-class clerkship on 11 May 1865, just a few days prior to his dismissal. 

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960-1962. 

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. 

Schyberg, Frederik. Walt Whitman. Trans. Evie Allison Allen. New York: Columbia UP, 1951.


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