Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Boston, Massachusetts
Author:
Round, Phillip
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Boston, the capital of the state of Massachusetts, was founded in 1630 by English Puritans under the leadership of John Winthrop, a Suffolk lawyer. Boston was early on a center for the literary culture of English-speaking America, establishing within its jurisdiction a printing press at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638 and another in Boston proper in 1675. The city's importance to American literary culture was sustained in the nineteenth century by the establishment of the prestigious publishing houses of Ticknor and Fields and James Osgood, and the founding of two important journals— The North American Review in 1815 and the Atlantic Monthly in 1857.

Whitman's ongoing relationship with Boston was both symbolic and actual, at times bringing him face to face with an actual city of well-wishers and publishers, and at other times, with a symbolic metropolis of abolitionist strength and, just as often, Victorian hypocrisy. But it was the old city's crooked streets and "multitudinous angles" that most delighted the poet, and in Specimen Days he describes its haphazard beauty in language that reflects his own improvisational poetics: "crush up a sheet of letter paper . . . throw it down, stamp it flat, and that is a map of old Boston" (Prose Works 1:265).

Whitman's first public recognition of Boston refers to the symbolic city, recording its struggles with the slave question in "A Boston Ballad (1854)," a near doggerel satire written in 1854 on the transport of fugitive slave Anthony Burns. The poet actually visited Boston for the first time on 15 March 1860, in order to oversee the publication of the third edition of Leaves of Grass by the firm of Thayer and Eldridge. Almost as soon as he arrived, Ralph Waldo Emerson called on him, and, as Whitman recalled later, spent much of his time trying to convince the poet not to include the "Children of Adam" poems in the forthcoming edition. Within days, Emerson had acquired borrowing privileges for him at the Boston Athenaeum, the venerable private library frequented in Whitman's day by the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (with whom he shared a "short but pleasant" visit), James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. For the next few months, Whitman divided his time in the Massachusetts capital between reading proof sheets and sauntering along Boston Common, discovering on these walks that "Everybody here is so like everybody else—and I am Walt Whitman!" (Correspondence 1:50). On Sunday mornings, he liked to visit the Seaman's Chapel to hear the Methodist minister Edward Thompson Taylor deliver his sermons in the powerful nautical language that Melville had reproduced in Moby Dick in the oratory of "Father Mapple"; Whitman eventually produced an essay on the subject, "Father Taylor (and Oratory)" (1887). During his visit Whitman also took time out from his work to attend the trial of Frank B. Sanborn, who was being tried for aiding some of John Brown's followers. It was on this trip, as well, that Whitman met William Douglas O'Connor, who would become one of his most vehement and vigilant supporters.

Whitman would not return to Boston until April of 1881, when he traveled to the city to deliver his Lincoln lecture in the Hawthorne Room of the St. Botolph Club on the anniversary of the president's death. In August of that year, Whitman found himself back in the city, this time to supervise a new edition of Leaves of Grass to be brought out by James R. Osgood, one of America's leading publishers. He quickly settled into the routine he had developed twenty-one years before, reading page proofs in a small office in the forenoon and strolling on Boston Common or meeting with friends in his time off. It was during this trip that Frank Sanborn took Whitman to Concord to visit the rapidly aging Emerson, with whom the poet sat quietly during their several evenings together, soaking up his early mentor's aura and chatting with Mrs. Emerson about the personal life of Henry Thoreau, who had died in 1862. While in Concord, Whitman also visited "Sleepy Hollow" cemetery and the graves of Hawthorne and Thoreau; took in the Old Manse, where Hawthorne had written several of his best tales; and toured the Concord battlefield, where the Revolutionary War had begun. 

While in Boston completing the page proofs to the 1881 edition, Whitman received news that President Garfield had died of the wounds inflicted by an assassin's bullet more than a year before, and he responded with "The Sobbing of the Bells," inserting the freshly composed poem into the "Songs of Parting" cluster just before the pages were set.

In March of 1882, after Osgood had printed three issues of the book amounting to 2,000 copies, the Boston District Attorney ordered the publisher to cease publication, having officially declared Leaves to be obscene literature. After agreeing to revise "a half a dozen . . . words or phrases" (Correspondence 3:267), Whitman found Boston's District Attorney unwilling to budge and finally reached a settlement with Osgood in May in which he received the plates, dies, and remaining copies of the edition (along with $100) and the freedom to seek another publisher.

Bibliography 

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

Baxter, Sylvester. "Walt Whitman in Boston." New England Magazine 6 (1892): 714–721.

Furness, Clifton J. "Walt Whitman Looks at Boston." New England Quarterly 1 (1928): 353–370. 

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

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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