Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Brooklyn Daily Times
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.

Walt Whitman had published two editions of his poems when he returned to full-time editing in 1857 for the Brooklyn Daily Times, after an interim of nine years. His return may have been motivated by the need for income, since he had just been sued for defaulting on a loan, but he may also have been attracted by the political match. The Times had supported James C. Frémont, the Free Soil party's presidential candidate for whom Whitman had drafted an impassioned campaign pamphlet, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" Whitman edited the Times from early spring of 1857 until midsummer of 1859, when the evidence suggests that discontent over his viewpoints on church issues led to his resignation or dismissal.

The Times editorship, like his other newspaper appointments, placed Whitman in a position to frame significant political developments in the United States as episodes in an ongoing narrative of imperiled self-government. Ten years earlier, as editor for the Brooklyn Eagle, Whitman wrote about the defeat of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prohibited slavery in the territories. Now, writing for the Times, he interpreted the dispute over whether Kansas should be a slave or free state as the decisive event in the long struggle between the two contenders for the future of the country—a proslavery Southern "aristocracy" afraid that political power would shift irrevocably away from slave states if the West became free soil, and free-labor advocates who feared the reverse.

In May 1857, within months after he began editing the Times, Whitman wrote the editorials "Kansas and the Political Future" and "White Labor, versus Black Labor." He published fifteen major items on developments in Kansas and Washington from the fall of 1857 through November 1858. For the 1858 Congressional election the Times editor abandoned the traditional format of a newspaper editorial to publish an election-eve public address he wrote urging voters to reject a Brooklyn congressman who had voted with the Buchanan administration for a proslavery constitution in Kansas. Lines of the address, "To the Voters of the Vth Congressional District" (1 November 1858), were double-spaced, which called attention to the oratorical form. This deliberate rhetorical strategy, like Whitman's notes about becoming a free-soil orator, suggests that he grew increasingly anxious about the political power of slave states during his work for the Times.

Scholars disagree about the correlation between the political events Whitman wrote about for the Times and the 1860 edition of his poems. Some believe that personal relationships, not politics, inspired the most significant new poems in the third edition of Leaves, but biographers have begun to explore connections between dominant themes in Whitman's new poems and the gloomy climate of economic depression and sectional conflict portending disunion while Whitman wrote for the Times. Many new poems—some written early in his Times editorship, others during or soon after—display themes of despair and manly love or "adhesiveness," the phrenological borrowing Whitman associated with solidarity and political resistance.

Whitman's Times articles display the humanitarian concerns of his earlier journalism, but most editorials in the Times were factual and less passionate, perhaps because Whitman had lost confidence in the press as an agent of reform. Nonetheless, the responsibility of filling columns for a daily newspaper gave Whitman a chance to comment on most of the political issues of his day—comments that are sometimes paradoxical or contradictory. Whitman published without comment derogatory references to black Americans in Kansas ("Good for Governor Walker!," 6 June 1857), yet he counters the argument of a Southern newspaper that hiring slaves out for pay makes them too independent. If this is so, Whitman observes, then slaves are as capable as white Americans and deserve the rights of citizenship ("A Southerner on Slavery," 27 November 1858). He calls for privatizing canals to avoid political corruption from government ownership ("The State Canals," 27 January 1859), but he favors government regulation to curb profiteering by ferry companies ("Free Ferries," 31 June 1857) and argues that government should pass laws to protect workers from accidents caused by corporate greed in the construction industry ("The Moral of the Remsen Street Accident," 19 October 1857). Whitman expresses sympathy for the poor and unemployed, yet he warns that leaders of "mobs" in the streets are "the real enemies of the poor" ("Aggravations by the Unemployed," 21 November 1857). He approves of universal suffrage in the United States, yet he concedes that in Europe—because paupers are so poorly educated—suffrage would lead to "universal confiscation" ("Universal Suffrage," 7 January 1859).

Although Gay Wilson Allen provides a thorough biographical discussion of Whitman's work for the Times, the scholarly examination of Whitman's political thought in Times editorials is incomplete. Perhaps because Whitman's stint with the Times has often been considered less pertinent to his poetry than his journalism before Leaves was first published in 1855, only 125 of more than 900 Times items by Whitman have been reprinted.

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, March, 1848–1892." Journalism Quarterly 48 (1971): 431–437.

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.


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