Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Correspondence of Walt Whitman, The (1961–1977)
Author:
Costanzo, Angelo
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The thousands of letters written by Walt Whitman during his lifetime to family, friends, and acquaintances have been collected in six volumes of The Correspondence of Walt Whitman (New York University Press, 1961–1977), edited by Edwin Haviland Miller, and in a Special Double Issue of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (University of Iowa, 1991), also edited by Edwin Haviland Miller. In 1990, Professor Miller chose 250 of the most interesting and moving letters and placed them into an edition of Selected Letters of Walt Whitman.

Of course, many other books containing Whitman's correspondence have appeared in scattered fashion and of uneven quality in the years following the poet's death in 1892, but Miller's work is the most exhaustive and responsible compilation available. It deals with all of the previously published pieces and adds, in newly collected correspondence, about sixty percent to the total of extant Whitman letters. Miller carefully and thoroughly annotates the individual items in the correspondence, providing information on topical references and identifying both the persons Whitman wrote to and the names of those mentioned in the letters.

Postcards and letters written by Whitman are still being discovered every year, many of which have been published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. However, if modern readers of the letters want to acquire a proper perspective and deeper understanding of Whitman's letter writing, they must take into consideration some of the numerous letters the poet received from his correspondents. Although many of these pieces, such as the ones from his mother, are still unpublished, many others can be found in various collections. What emerges from these letters is a fuller picture of the persons Whitman was writing to and a clearer awareness of the topics he was responding to. This approach to an examination of the letters provides insights into the extent of the relationships Whitman had with his correspondents and increases an understanding of what he was expressing to those he wrote to over the years.

In reading Whitman's many letters, scholars looking for literary discussions by the great poet are frequently disappointed. However, those writers seeking autobiographical materials are usually rewarded in their efforts because Whitman's correspondence dealt mostly with personal matters. When Whitman wrote a letter to his mother or to the parents of a dead or wounded soldier, he would express himself in a simple, natural style of language focusing on down-to-earth concerns and on human emotions relating to love and death.

Thus, most of the letters he wrote are not on artistic theories of literature. In fact, many pieces are about mundane business matters of publication and the promotion of his works of poetry. The earliest letters, which are among those that have come to light in recent years and are included in Selected Letters, date from 1840 and 1841 and reveal Whitman's concern for his self-image as he assumes various poses and postures in describing his schoolteaching experiences at Woodbury, Long Island. This behavior, plus Whitman's unhappiness and loneliness, comes through in the biting language, pretentious diction, and strained comparisons in the letters he sent to his friend Abraham Paul Leech.

In his poetry Whitman was always cognizant of his audience, and the same awareness of his readers can be seen in the letters. This is why when he writes to his mother and other family members, who he knows have little understanding of his creative work, Whitman uses a plain, practical mode of expression as he concentrates on financial worries, health concerns, and matters of day-to-day living. Addressing publishers and editors, Whitman is strictly business, asking for certain amounts of money for his poems or making sure the printing schedule for his work is on target. The letters to his longtime friends and admirers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Douglas O'Connor, Richard Maurice Bucke, and John Burroughs, are mostly detailed, factual descriptions of Whitman's current affairs, printing successes or disappointments, and personal condition and needs. Although the style of writing he uses in his correspondence to his friends is sophisticated and congenial, even here the letters rarely touch on literary topics and seldom achieve artistic levels of expression.

The most revealing and touching epistolary pieces of prose by Whitman, however, are in the letters he wrote for the wounded and dying soldiers he visited in the overcrowded, bloody hospitals during the Civil War years. Here Whitman's human qualities of caring, sacrifice, and affection are revealed in the lines written for worried and grieving families. Whether he is explaining a young man's agonizing recovery from battlefront wounds or describing the last hours of a dying soldier, Whitman's words are those of compassion and concern. The letters plainly demonstrate the poet's purpose in these communications. Whitman takes the place of the absent family members. Although they cannot be there with their loved ones, the kind, gray-bearded poet is there dispensing as much love and comfort to the young soldiers as he possibly can. Thus, Whitman enables a mother, father, sister, brother, or wife to feel some assurance in knowing that the wounded loved one is not suffering without a caring person nearby. In the letters he writes to the family members of those young men who died, Whitman gives the comforting message that their loved ones were not alone during their last agonizing moments on earth.

Whitman also corresponded with soldiers he had met in the hospitals who had recovered from their wounds and returned home. These letters show the depth of the poet's affectionate ties with the men he visited in the wards. His letters to two of the soldiers, Thomas P. Sawyer and Elijah Douglass Fox, show the extent of Whitman's attachment and love for these men.

Also of significance are the letters Whitman wrote to two other young men to whom he became fondly connected. His affectionate bond with Peter Doyle, the Washington, D.C., streetcar conductor he met in late 1865, is a testament to Whitman's manly attachment that he celebrated in his "Calamus" poems. Later, when Whitman had settled in Camden in the 1870s and 1880s, he became a close friend to another young man, Harry Stafford. The letters reveal the genuine love of the aging Whitman for these two men. How much Doyle and Stafford reciprocated his affection is somewhat uncertain, but the letters demonstrate the poet's strong commitment to his relationships with both young men.

As previously noted, Whitman's letters are rarely of a literary quality, but they frequently provide glimpses into the mind of the poet. Whether corresponding with his many friends, writing to his admirers in England, or composing practical business letters to send to his publishers and editors, Whitman's overriding purpose was to ensure that his great body of poetry would be preserved and thrive in American literature. His world was his poetry, and most of what he wrote reveals this preoccupation. In Whitman's letters the reader observes if not the making of a poet, the advertisement and preservation of one.

Because much of Whitman's correspondence deals with daily occurrences and matter-of-fact details, some readers have tended to dismiss his letters as tedious and inconsequential. However, as is evidenced in his poetry, Whitman regarded the physical world as vital and essential. In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," he expresses the idea that all the material objects and images of life, what Whitman calls the "dumb beautiful ministers," serve to furnish their parts "toward eternity" and "toward the soul" (section 9). This is why Whitman thought it important that he inform his family members and friends of the daily minutiae of living. To him these were the hard objects and everyday scenes that in their accumulative power and symbolic nature offered the clues that would lead to the deeper realities.

Bibliography

Folsom, Ed. "Prospects for the Study of Walt Whitman." Resources for American Literary Study 20 (1994): 1–15.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. "The Correspondence of Walt Whitman: A Second Supplement with an Updated Calendar of Letters Written to Whitman." Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (Special Double Issue) 8.3–4 (1991): 1–106.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Selected Letters of Walt Whitman. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1990.


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