Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Washington, D.C. [1863-1873]
Author:
Murray, Martin G.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The decade that Walt Whitman lived in the nation's capital proved remarkably rich for him both professionally and personally. Whitman's Civil War experiences gave rise to Drum-Taps and Memoranda During the War, his grief for the slain president was expressed in the Lincoln elegies, and his disgust with the corruption and materialism of postwar society erupted in Democratic Vistas. The man who had proclaimed himself the "poet of comrades" ("These I Singing in Spring") formed loving friendships with Charles Eldridge, Lewy Brown, William and Ellen O'Connor, John and Ursula Burroughs, and Peter Doyle. But for a stroke that caused him to retire to Camden, New Jersey, Whitman might have spent the remainder of his days in the Federal District.

Drawn initially to D.C. to nurse his brother George, a Union soldier who had been wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg (13 December 1862), Whitman remained in the capital to comfort the casualties of the Civil War. Psychically wounded by the prospect that the Union would falter, Whitman found healing in the willingness of his countrymen to defend the Republic against the evil twins, Secession and Slavery. A self-styled "dweller in camps" ("Hush'd be the Camps To-day"), Whitman could easily walk to barracks set up in government office buildings, as well as in larger campgrounds such as Carver Barracks on the grounds of Columbian College or in the numerous defensive forts that ringed the city. Daily visiting one of the dozens of Washington hospitals—Armory Square, Finley, and Harewood being a small sample—Whitman befriended scores of soldiers. The camaraderie that Whitman witnessed and often shared with such convalescents as Lewy Brown, Tom Sawyer, and Reuben Farwell affirmed the belief expressed in "Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice" that "affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet."

Whitman's poetical response to the War, Drum-Taps, was ready for the printer when Robert E. Lee's army surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on 9 April 1865. This zenith for the Union was succeeded five days later by its nadir, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. The poet's quaternary on the death of Lincoln includes Whitman's most popular poem, "O Captain! My Captain!," and one of his most critically acclaimed, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

During his Washington years, Whitman published nearly a hundred new poems. He shepherded Leaves of Grass through two new editions (1867 and 1871) and separately published a major poem, Passage to India (1871). He also cooperated with William Michael Rossetti's publication of a selection of Whitman's poems in England (1868), an edition which gained Whitman an appreciative and influential British audience that included Anne Gilchrist, Edward Carpenter, Edward Dowden, Bram Stoker, and John Addington Symonds.

Between 1863 and 1873 Whitman supported himself in the same manner as most Washingtonians, by working for the federal government. Through Charles Eldridge, the publisher of the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860) who was serving as Assistant Army Paymaster during the War, Whitman obtained part-time employment in the Paymaster's office. A full-time berth came in January 1865, when Whitman was appointed to a First Class (lowest grade) clerkship in the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, located in the Patent Office Building. There the "poet-chief" (Notebooks 2:881) welcomed visiting delegations of Indian tribes, when not performing the more prosaic duties of his job, such as writing reports for Congressional oversight committees. Dismissed on 30 June 1865 by Interior Secretary James Harlan for authoring "that book" (Notebooks 2:799), Whitman started work the next day through the influence of his friends in the Attorney General's office in the Treasury building, adjacent to the White House. Investigating government malfeasance during the Johnson and Grant administrations provided steady employment for Whitman, who rose to a Third Class clerkship.

Whitman lived modestly on his clerk's salary, settling for inexpensive rooms in boardinghouses. He relied on his married friends, William and Ellen O'Connor, and John and Ursula Burroughs, to provide social stimulation. At the O'Connors' evening salons, Whitman met many of Washington's political and literary elite, including John and Sarah Piatt (poets), John Hay (Lincoln's personal secretary), Count Adam Gurowski (Polish ex-patriot and radical Abolitionist), and Frank Baker (later head of the National Zoo ).

O'Connor and Burroughs were strong Whitman loyalists. After Whitman was fired from Interior, O'Connor took on the poet's persecutors in a stirring polemic he titled The Good Gray Poet (1866). In the process, Whitman obtained additional celebrity status and a lasting sobriquet. Burroughs provided a more balanced assessment in the poet's first critical biography, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867).

Whitman found friendship with Peter Doyle. The twenty-one-year-old horsecar conductor and former Confederate soldier became acquainted with the forty-five-year-old Whitman in the early months of 1865. Thereafter, the comrades were inseparable, spending long hours riding on Doyle's streetcar, or taking moonlight walks along the Potomac, or feasting on melons at Center Market on Pennsylvania Avenue.

With its unpaved roads and swampy terrain, wartime Washington was notorious as a city of mud. After the war, Washington experienced a building boom under the leadership of Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, whose administration laid sewers, paved roads, and built schools. Municipal corruption mirrored national scandals such as the Credit Mobilier and formed the backdrop to Democratic Vistas (1871), Whitman's lamentation on the unfulfilled promise of the "American Experiment."

During and after the War, the city's population was swelled by Southern refugees, especially African Americans escaping oppression and poverty. The large influx of poor blacks exacerbated racial tensions in the nation's capital, whose residents had long regarded themselves as more Southern than Northern in their beliefs and practices. While Eldridge and the O'Connors worked tirelessly to improve the life of the district's freedmen, Whitman refrained from personal involvement in their plight. David Reynolds attributes Whitman's conservative political perspective, in part, to his warm personal regard for Attorneys General Henry Stanbery and William Evart, under whom Whitman served. Both Stanbery and Evart were closely tied to President Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policies favoring Southern whites at the expense of blacks. William O'Connor's advocacy of Negro suffrage and Whitman's indifference bordering on hostility was the fault line running through their friendship, which finally ruptured in 1872.

While reading in his office in the Treasury Building on the evening of 23 January 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke. Exactly four months later, on 23 May, he was dealt an equally painful blow when his mother died. Moving that summer to his brother George's home in Camden, New Jersey, Whitman never regained the health that would have enabled him to return to Washington, D.C.

Bibliography 

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

Freedman, Florence Bernstein. William Douglas O'Connor: Walt Whitman's Chosen Knight. Athens: Ohio UP, 1985.

Green, Constance McLaughlin. Washington, A History of the Capital, 1800–1950. 1962. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.

Leech, Margaret. Reveille in Washington, 1860–1865. New York: Harper, 1941.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Wecter, Dixon. "Walt Whitman as Civil Servant." PMLA 58 (1943): 1094–1109.

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.


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