Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Harlan, James W.
Author:
Hammond, Joseph P.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

On 30 June 1865 James Harlan, Secretary of the Interior, discharged Walt Whitman from his second-class clerkship in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The facts surrounding Whitman's dismissal are ambiguous, though its results are certain: Harlan achieved a notoriety that initiated the decline of his political career, while Whitman's public stature began to grow. 

Soon after taking office, Harlan, a former college president and Methodist minister, circulated a notice dated 30 May which expressed his intention of releasing all employees who performed perfunctory or unnecessary services, or whose "fidelity to duty" and "moral character" were questionable (qtd. in Allen 344). Most Whitman biographers conclude that Harlan dismissed Whitman on the sole grounds of his being the author of Leaves of Grass. J. Hubley Ashton, at the behest of Whitman's fiery, combative supporter, William Douglas O'Connor, held a personal interview with Harlan the following day. Ashton reports that Harlan, while snooping through the building after hours, discovered a copy of Leaves of Grass either on or in Whitman's desk. Since Whitman was in the process of editing poems for subsequent editions, Harlan found numerous underlined, amended, and marked off passages. Curious, he carried it back to his office. Upon further reading, he declared the book obscene and its author immoral, discharging Whitman the next day. 

Within 24 hours of Whitman's dismissal, Ashton secured for him a position in the Attorney General's office. At the time, Whitman did not respond publicly to the affair, but later he would privately berate Harlan's "cowardly despicable act" (Traubel 477). Harlan afterward expressed regret concerning the incident, yet insisted that he fired Whitman for no reason other than that of forced economy. Whitman was often absent from his desk attending the sick and wounded soldiers, an activity which spoke volumes for his personal character but which also may have rendered his services dispensable. Most likely, Harlan dismissed Whitman for a combination of the reasons stated in his letter of 30 May. 

The situation's apparent injustice galvanized support for Whitman and helped to form the beginnings of his literary following. O'Connor's spirited defense of Whitman's moral character, The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, enhanced Whitman's public image, influencing a gradual change in the poet's public reception. Gay Wilson Allen notes that Harlan's actions may have caused Whitman to become less acquiescent in the face of prudish critics, and may even have led him to retain and strengthen specific, overtly sexual passages in the "Calamus" poems.

Bibliography 

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

Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman's Champion: William Douglas O'Connor. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1978. 

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.


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