Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Fowler, Lorenzo Niles (1811-1896) and Orson Squire (1809-1887)
Author:
Stern, Madeleine B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's interest in phrenology led him on 16 July 1849 to the Phrenological Cabinet of Fowlers and Wells in New York City's Clinton Hall, where he sat for a phrenological examination. The Fowler brothers from Cohocton, New York, were practitioners of the science of mind which held that mental faculties are indicated by the skull's conformation and can be analyzed and improved. The Phrenological Depot established by O.S. and L.N. Fowler in 1842 offered casts of skulls, phrenological busts, and books, as well as phrenological examinations. With the admission of their brother-in-law, Samuel R. Wells, in 1844 the firm was restyled Fowlers and Wells. 

Whitman's examination was made by Lorenzo Fowler, a skilled practitioner, and the written analysis, followed by a listing of faculties with their sizes, made a strong impression upon the subject. It was a perceptive reading that appraised Whitman as strong in "animal will" with large Amativeness, Self-Esteem, and Individuality. Whitman quoted from the analysis and published it several times. Phrenological themes and language appeared in his poetry. 

In 1855 Fowlers and Wells advertised Leaves of Grass as for sale at their new Phrenological Depot at 308 Broadway. With the departure from the firm of Orson S. Fowler, occupied now with the octagonal house he had built in Fishkill, New York, and with his writings on phrenological subjects, the firm became Fowler and Wells. Its London agent, William Horsell, would play a part in establishing Whitman's English reputation. In October 1855 the American Phrenological Journal, published by Fowler and Wells, carried Whitman's unsigned review of Leaves of Grass. By November, Whitman became a staff writer for another Fowler and Wells periodical, Life Illustrated, his contributions including the series "New York Dissected." 

The expanded second edition of Leaves of Grass was published anonymously by Fowler and Wells in August 1856. Stamped in gold on the spine of each volume appeared, without authorization, Emerson's words, "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career." 

The book's unfavorable reception led the firm to withdraw their support of and relationship with the poet who, in turn, became disenchanted with the phrenologist-publishers. As for the Fowler brothers, through lectures, publications, and phrenological examinations during the decades that followed, each continued to popularize the belief that self-knowledge through phrenological analysis could lead to self-improvement. This they did without reference to Walt Whitman, the poet they had once perceptively analyzed and published without an imprimatur.    Madeleine B. Stern Bibliography 

Hungerford, Edward. "Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps." American Literature 2 (1931): 350-384. 

Stern, Madeleine B. Heads & Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971. 


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