Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author:
Renner, Dennis K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

For the two years of his Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorship beginning on March of 1846, Walt Whitman's most difficult challenge was reconciling his evolving political convictions with regional and presidential politics. The Eagle was the Democratic party organ in Kings County, which gave Whitman responsibility for leadership in political communication only a river ferry crossing away from New York's diverse journalistic interpretations of important developments in Washington. It was the time of territorial expansion to the Pacific and Gulf coasts, which destabilized sectional coalitions sustaining the Union. Whitman lost the position in January of 1848, when he could not reconcile his editorial devotion to free-soil principles with a Democratic party platform moderate on the slave issue. The last straw was his decision to publish a point-by-point rebuttal of a statement by Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate, instead of the statement itself.

Thomas Brasher's definitive study of Whitman's Eagle editorials establishes the scope and competence of Whitman's commentary on the political and social developments of the day. Although Whitman was not a distinguished journalist, he was a serious, innovative political communicator who, like Horace Greeley, began to explore the potential of the penny press as an agent of reform. Whitman framed his interpretations of political events from the perspective of working-class interests, as he understood them, in opposition to commercial greed and the political corruption he blamed on the remaining influence of Old World aristocracies. His Eagle editorials display an impressive richness of specific policy analysis and knowledge about everything from local lighting, safety, and health issues to banking, tariffs, and Constitutional theory.

Whereas only a few literary items appeared during Whitman's 1842 Aurora editorship, in the Eagle Whitman displaced advertisements on the front page with two columns of literary coverage. He published more than one hundred small items on fiction alone. These items are not critical of European influence, but other articles in the Eagle display early signs that Whitman was developing a theory of postcolonial literature much like that of the Young America movement advanced by the Democratic Review, which had published Whitman's early fiction.

Brasher finds evidence that despite Whitman's occasional reflection of the negrophobia of his time and his fear that abolitionists were undermining the agreement to leave slavery alone in original Southern states, Whitman was beginning to accept the argument that slavery was incompatible with Christianity and the equalitarian ideals of the revolutionary fathers. Brasher also discerns a surprisingly militaristic expansionism in the early months of Whitman's Eagle editorship. In a detailed allegorical fable, Whitman likens critics of President Polk's military ventures in Texas to children betraying their own mother, even when some of her property has been "stolen by a neighbor" (qtd. in Brasher 90). The allegory is so elaborate that it seems to preview Whitman's analogical imagination in Leaves of Grass.

Although earlier critics expressed puzzlement over the difference between the literary quality of Whitman's journalism and his best poems, some critics now discern important continuities in Whitman's transition from editorialist to poet. In fact, they believe that political embroilments during Whitman's Eagle editorship led directly to the literary intentions of Leaves of Grass.

At first, Whitman's Eagle editorials celebrated party disputes as the lifeblood of self-government and supported the expansionist Democratic presidency of James Polk. By the end of his editorship, however, Whitman was afraid that political parties only heightened prospects for disunion, and he had become so disillusioned by Polk's support for the expansion of slavery that in the first issue of the free-soil newspaper he later started, he asked God to forgive New Yorkers who had helped make Polk president.

By the time he was fired, Whitman's free-soil rhetoric had become strident, and sentences from editorials were being structured in the participial rhythms of free verse. In notebooks from this period, Whitman mentions writing a great book and begins to write lines of experimental poetry on the same subjects that provoked his most impassioned Eagle editorials–poetry about slavery and about the survival of the Union and Republicanism as bastions of free labor.

Eagle editorials display Whitman's thinking about subjects to which he returns in his mature poetry. He celebrates the "communion" between writer and reader (qtd. in Brasher 24), covers the fine arts from sculpture to theater and ballet, denounces nativism, argues that capital punishment is "as clearly contrary to the laws of Christ as was wanton murder" (qtd. in Brasher 151), and decries the low wages for women that seem to contribute to prostitution. Eagle articles about ferries display Whitman's ambivalence toward this profitable form of mechanized transportation, which, like the growing market economy, was transforming American life.

Of more than eight hundred Whitman items that have been identified from the Eagle, some five hundred have been reprinted in modern periodicals or collections of his journalism.

Bibliography

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

Bergman, Herbert. "Walt Whitman as a Journalist, 1831–January, 1848." Journalism Quarterly 48 (1871): 195–204.

Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

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

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.


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