Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Whitman, George Washington
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.

As a soldier in war and a workman in peace, George Washington Whitman manifested the common American manliness that his brother Walt Whitman lauded in poetry and prose. George's disinterest in Whitman's art was also typical of the average American, much to the poet's eternal frustration and disappointment.

Ten years Walt's junior, George Whitman was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 29 November 1829. His boyhood was spent in the Long Island countryside to which Walter and Louisa Whitman had moved the family in 1834. In "My Boys and Girls" Whitman fondly recalls carrying on his shoulders young George, "his legs dangling down upon my breast, while I trotted for sport down a lane or over the fields" (248). George learned his "3 Rs" from Walt during Whitman's brief career as a village schoolmaster.

George Whitman was trained in carpentry by his father and worked alongside his brothers Andrew and Walt in the family's house-building ventures in Brooklyn. The publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) did not impress George, who recalled: "I saw the book—didn't read it all—didn't think it worth reading—fingered it a little" (Traubel, "Notes" 35).

George Washington Whitman proved he was fittingly named after America's first patriot when he responded with full measure to his country's call following the Rebel attack on Fort Sumter. George joined the local militia (Thirteenth New York) in the spring of 1861 and then enlisted that fall with the Fifty-first New York Volunteers to serve for the remainder of the Civil War. Walt Whitman's war ministry in the capital's hospitals followed upon his nursing of brother George on the camp grounds of Falmouth, Virginia, after the Battle of Fredericksburg. In Specimen Days Whitman has left a permanent record of familial pride in this brother whose battleground heroism at New Bern, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run, the Wilderness, and Petersburg was reflected in the stripes (sergeant, captain, major, breveted lieutenant colonel) he successively earned.

After the war was won, George Whitman returned to Brooklyn. Unsuccessful in his initial house-building ventures, he obtained work inspecting iron pipes in Brooklyn and Camden, New Jersey. He married Louisa Orr Haslam on 14 April 1871 and settled in Camden. A year later, he moved his ailing mother and retarded brother Edward in with them. Mother Whitman died on 23 May 1873. Walt Whitman, who had suffered a debilitating stroke in January, came to George's home to convalesce in the summer of 1873, and never left Camden.

The brothers lived amicably together. George and Louisa named their first son, who died in infancy, after Walt. (A second boy, named for his father, was still-born.) Walt relieved George of much of the emotional and financial burden caused by Eddie's care.

George Whitman held responsible positions as a pipe inspector for the city of Camden and the New York Metropolitan Water Board, giving rise to Whitman's quip that George was interested "in pipes, not poems" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman 1:227). In 1884 George and Louisa moved into a new house they had built on a small farm outside Camden. When Walt decided to remain in the city, buying a house of his own on Mickle Street, a rift between the brothers occurred. Although Whitman remained close to his sister-in-law, he never again had warm relations with George.

Walt Whitman died on 26 March 1892. Later that year, Louisa died, followed by Edward. George Whitman lived alone on his farm in Burlington, New Jersey, until his death on 20 December 1901. He left a sizeable estate, which supported his sister Hannah and niece Jessie (Jeff's daughter). George and Louisa Whitman are buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Walt Whitman's tomb.

Bibliography 

Loving, Jerome M., ed. Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1975. 

Traubel, Horace. "Notes from Conversations with George W. Whitman, 1893: Mostly in His Own Words." In Re Walt Whitman. Ed. Traubel, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Thomas B. Harned. Philadelphia: McKay, 1893. 33–40.

____. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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