Biographers have always recognized Whitman's career in journalism as a prominent feature of his life and his development as the "poet of democracy." First through printing and then through news writing and newspaper editing, Whitman discovered the power of the written word in an age of increasing literacy. It was through journalism that Whitman first discovered himself to be a writer, first joined the public "conversation" on matters literary and political, and first established himself as a professional figure in an era when professionalism was on the rise.
Whitman's career in journalism was an outgrowth of his apprenticeship in the printing craft, which he began in 1831 at the age of twelve, working at the hand-press of the Long Island Patriot. The special combination of craftsman's pride, working people's democracy, and impassioned writing inspired by social and political affairs was as much a part of the journalist's environment of this time as it would be of Leaves of Grass later, though his earliest writing tended to be conventionally introspective, impressionistic, and, not surprisingly, caught up with the psychological problems of the adolescent ego. By the time Whitman graduated to journeyman printer in 1835, he was already publishing short pieces in various papers, not only routine features and news but also reviews, essays, and poems. When bad economic times left him out of work as a printer and journalist in 1836, he turned to schoolteaching, but continued to write and seek publication. By 1838, Whitman was back to regular work in journalism, this time as the founding editor and publisher of a weekly, the Long Islander. No files of this paper survive, but a few pieces were reprinted in the Long Island Democrat and thus come down to us as the earliest examples of Whitman's published work. Also dating from this time, but probably written earlier, is a series of ten essays "From the Desk of a Schoolmaster" entitled Sun-Down Papers. The Long Islander did not thrive financially under Whitman's management, and when his backer sold it, he went to work for the Democrat. Then, completing the pattern that dominated his early career, he drifted back to schoolteaching and finally moved to New York to find work as a printer. During the early 1840s, he contributed reviews and essays to papers and literary journals and also began to write fiction. In critical notices and reviews, he vigorously joined the rush to define and defend a democratic ideal of literature that then consumed the pages of periodicals like the United States Review and the New World.
In 1842, Whitman produced a sizable body of work and served as chief editor for a single paper, the New York Aurora. In this role we see him for the first time writing hotly on local political topics such as the Catholic-Protestant disputes in the streets of New York and the associated stirrings of the anti-immigrant Nativist movement. Like most journalists of his day, Whitman was not above name-calling and rabble-rousing and may well have lost his editorial post because of his refusal to tone down the editorials published in the paper. His difficulty in keeping to a schedule may have also contributed. Loafing and inviting his soul may later have served him well as a method of poetic composition, but did not suffice for newspaper work with its tight production schedules. For whatever reason, Whitman left the Aurora after a few months and for the next three years supported himself by writing prose fiction, including the temperance novel Franklin Evans, as well as piece work for a number of New York papers, including the Tattler, Sunday Times, Statesman, Plebeian, Sun, Democrat, and Mirror.
Whitman returned to Brooklyn in 1845, where for a while he served as a kind of cultural reporter for the Star, writing on such topics as music, theater, education, and books. When the editor of the leading Brooklyn paper, the Daily Eagle, died, Whitman was hired to fill the post. He remained with the Eagle for two years, writing on a variety of topics, which Thomas Brasher in a book-long study of Whitman's work at the Eagle divides into three large categories: the political and economic scene, including editorials and features on such topics as nationalism, the West, the old world versus the new, party politics, and the question of immigration; the social scene, including treatments of crime and punishment, temperance, slavery, and health issues; and literature and the arts, including reviews of plays and operas, as well as discussions of music, ballet, architecture, painting, and sculpture. Whitman's writings for the Eagle are enough to fill the two large volumes of The Gathering of the Forces, and this is only a selection of the editor's total output. The range and volume of Whitman's writing as a newspaper editor provided a more than adequate preparation for the poet who would boast in his most famous poem that he "contains multitudes," and it gave him a medium in which to try on different personae and otherwise experiment with the democratic discourse of self-assertion. He took pleasure and pride in the power of the daily paper to foster special ties between author and audience. "There is a curious kind of sympathy (haven't you ever thought of it before?) that arises in the mind of a newspaper conductor with the public he serves. . . . Daily communion creates a sort of brotherhood and sisterhood between the two parties," Whitman wrote (qtd. in Brasher 6), foreshadowing Leaves of Grass in theme and style (notice the use of parenthetical direct address of the reader). Despite such occasional flashes, however, Brasher concludes, as do most scholars and critics, that the great mass of Whitman's writing for the Eagle is the work of a literary apprentice who had yet to find his own voice. In general, Whitman's literary criticism and cultural pronouncements tended to be conventional and predictable, the labor of a busy journalist with precious little time to refine and reflect upon his style and subject matter. His political editorials, especially at the beginning of his tenure, show him to be a party man writing for a party paper, defending the Democrats against the powerful Whig papers across the river in New York, even supporting excesses such as the Mexican War, which had greatly offended Emerson, Lowell, and other liberal writers. Ultimately, though, Whitman may have lost his job at the Eagle because he was unable to sustain the hard party line his publishers demanded. In Specimen Days, he would recall, "Thetroubles in the Democratic party broke forth . . . and I split off with the radicals, which led to rows with the boss and 'the party,' and I lost my place" (Prose Works 1:288).
In the next post he took as a journalist, traveling south with his younger brother Jeff to work for the New Orleans Crescent, he avoided politics almost entirely, reporting on cultural events, reviewing books, and writing feature essays. He capitalized on his trip south in "Excerpts from a Traveller's Note Book," published in several installments soon after his arrival in New Orleans; he warmed up for the famous catalogs that would appear in Leaves of Grass with impressionistic essays of characters and places around the city; and he used the occasion of controversy over a performance by the "model artists," who used human groupings to portray famous scenes from art and history, to defend the fundamental purity of celebrating the human body in art. Working for a paper that accepted advertising from slave traders and in every way catered to a slave-owning population, Whitman must have felt his status as a political outsider. This may have contributed to the decline of his political muse and even his rather early departure from his only Southern post, which was also hastened by his own homesickness and that of his brother. He lasted only two months with the New Orleans paper.
By the end of 1848, he was back in Brooklyn, publishing the Freeman, a weekly devoted to the free-soil ideal. In his first editorial, he wrote of Thomas Jefferson, "How he hated slavery! He hated it in all its forms—over the mind as well as the body of man" (qtd. in Kaplan 145). In the charged and changeable political atmosphere of the day, he could keep the Freeman going only a year, after which time he again took up the life of a freelance journalist, contributing travel letters and man-on-the-street essays to a number of New York and Brooklyn papers. He would continue to produce this kind of work right through the time of the first two editions of Leaves of Grass in 1855 and 1856. Notable among these pieces were those published in Life Illustrated under the sponsorship of the phrenologists Fowler and Wells, who also published the second edition of Leaves.
Feeling the pinch of tight finances after focusing his efforts on producing the first two editions of his poems, Whitman gave full-time journalism one last try in 1857, accepting an editorial position on the Brooklyn Daily Times. Despite having become the controversial author of Leaves of Grass, Whitman cultivated a persona in the Times that remained a largely conventional one. He replicated his earlier stance, which Jerome Loving has called "the pose of the journalist as moral paragon" (60), taking charge of his readership's public education, moderating local disputes such as the treatment of slavery in the churches, and chiding the "ultraabolitionists" and radical advocates of social programs like women's rights even as he resisted the extension of slavery and pondered the position of women in a society that offered few options for the unmarried. Yet we can see a slightly greater independence in Whitman the editor in this later period. He was no longer a party man, for example, arguing at one point that an overweening commitment to political parties had led to corruption and naiveté in American politics, local and national. He seems a bit more willing to take on controversial stances—favorably reviewing W.W. Sanger's History of Prostitution, for instance, which argued for controlled legalization—and he stretched the limits of sensationalistic news reporting with regular stories of rape, murder, and incest, and even one account of a homosexual rape. In all, he portrayed a "detached yet sympathetic spirit," in the words of Emory Holloway (I Sit 24), a recognizable, if watered-down, version of the speaker in "Song of Myself," both "in and out of the game" (section 4). Why Whitman left the Times in June 1859 is not clear, though it has been suggested by various commentators that he offended the church people of the town, either with his stance on slavery or with his liberal attitude toward sexuality, even the attenuated version he developed for his newspaper audience. Though he never again worked formally for a single paper, Whitman kept his journalistic connections alive throughout his life, publishing poems, essays, and sketches in various papers and journals.
Much work remains to be done on Whitman's journalism. Though selections appear in the various collections listed in the bibliography below, no complete collection of extant work, comparable to Floyd Stovall's edition of the prose works, exists. (Whether some of his freelance works should be characterized as literary journalism or prose nonfiction in fact remains an unsettled question.) Nor has any biographer or critic fully accounted for the continuities and discontinuities between Whitman the poet and Whitman the journalist, though the differences have fascinated scholars since Whitman's own day. The significance of journalism in Whitman's overall development is at least partly clear, however. Newspaper work provided Whitman with a way of earning an income through writing in an age where the dominance of crafts was giving way to professionalism. It also gave him room to experiment—though in a closely controlled environment—with the rhetoric of democratic discourse, in which an ordinary citizen, the journalist, takes on the task of informing, educating, and exhorting a large and active readership composed of fellow citizens.
Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970.
Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.
Loving, Jerome. Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1982.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces.2 vols. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. New York: Putnam's, 1920.
____. I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times. Ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz. New York: Columbia UP, 1932.
____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.
____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. 2 Vols. Ed. Emory Holloway. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.
____. Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora. Ed. Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles H. Brown. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle, 1950.