Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Attorney General's Office, United States
Author:
Graham, Rosemary
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman worked in the Attorney General's Office from July 1865 until he left Washington in January of 1873. His friends William O'Connor and J. Hubley Ashton arranged this position within twenty-four hours of his dismissal from the Office of Indian Affairs.

The job in the Attorney General's Office was not, by Whitman's own account, very difficult. He kept up a wide correspondence during this time and in his letters often described the work as "light and modest," leaving him "plenty of leisure" (Whitman 265). Whitman used this leisure to continue his visits to the injured in the war hospitals. Though the war had been over for a year, a good number of injured men, whom he referred to as "the old dregs & leavings of the war . . . who have no place to go" (276), were slowly dying or recovering while the federal government went about the business of putting the nation back together.

As a "third class clerk" earning sixteen hundred dollars a year, Whitman's primary duty was to copy out letters and legal documents from drafts written by the Attorney General and his assistant. He boasted to one of his younger correspondents, a soldier he had nursed during the war years, that he was personally responsible for copying out the Attorney General's communications with "the big men," the president, Secretary of State, and other such department heads (Whitman 283). Much of the work done in the Attorney General's office involved the legal status of Southern property owners. As Whitman explained, "all the rich men & big officers of the reb army have to get special pardons, before they can buy or sell, or do anything that will stand law" (265). In letters to his mother, he alluded to scandal and intrigue surrounding the buying and selling of such pardons.

During his tenure at the Attorney General's Office, Whitman from time to time insinuated himself into legal affairs, as when at the prompting of his friend Abby Price he made a personal plea to Attorney General Henry Stanbery for the pardon of a Massachusetts postal clerk jailed for theft. During that year, Abby Price also asked Whitman to do some lobbying on behalf of her dressmaking business, offering him a thousand dollars if he could convince members of Congress to exempt dress ruffles from new taxes they were levying.

For the most part, however, Whitman spent these postwar years in Washington as an observer. Continuing to work among wounded veterans, witnessing the rancorous Congressional battles over Reconstruction and the attempt to impeach Andrew Johnson, he remained keenly aware of how deeply the nation was wounded by the Civil War. It was during this time that he first conceived of the idea for the series of essays—"Democracy," "Literature," and "Personalism"—that would eventually become Democratic Vistas. Perhaps the most explicitly political prose work Whitman was to write, this effusive essay offers the divided nation a vision of a utopian future where, as Whitman first projected in the Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, poets would wield more power than politicians.

Bibliography

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

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

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877. New York: Knopf, 1966.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1961.


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