Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Lawrence, Kansas
Author:
Schroeder, Steven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman visited Lawrence once, for the Kansas Quarter Centennial Celebration (1879). During his three days there, he was a guest of Mayor John P. Usher, who had been Interior Secretary under Abraham Lincoln. In Specimen Days, he described Lawrence and Topeka as "large, bustling, half-rural, handsome cities" (207). He attended the celebration on 15 September but was absent the next day, when he had been scheduled (without his prior knowledge) to present a poem written for the occasion. He recalled that he had such a good time with "the Usher boys," John and Linton, that he just let the hours slip away. This was Whitman's only journey west of the Mississippi, carrying him as far as Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, and it gave him an opportunity to experience a region that had long been vividly alive in his imagination: "I have found the law of my own poems," he wrote (210). The Quarter Centennial commemorated the origins of Kansas and Lawrence in the struggle that followed enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill (1854). That bill precipitated a contest between proslavery and antislavery forces to see who could move more settlers into the territory before the issue of slavery was decided. Lawrence was settled with the support of an antislavery "Emigrant Aid Society" organized in Boston and was named for one of its most prominent supporters; it was the de facto capital of the free-state movement in Kansas from 1854 until Topeka was selected as capital in 1861. Lawrence continued as an important symbol of that movement during the Civil War. Located only forty miles from the Missouri border, it was a prime target for proslavery forces active in Missouri before and during the war. Its history from 1854 to the time of Whitman's visit was a crucible for the struggle that played such a central role in shaping his work, including his editorial involvement with the Free Soil press.

Bibliography

Eitner, Walter H. Walt Whitman's Western Jaunt. Lawrence, Kans.: Regents Press of Kansas, 1981.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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