Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
New York Aurora
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 two heady months in 1842 Walt Whitman edited the New York Aurora, a two-penny daily with a circulation of more than five thousand. At age twenty-two he was a peer of influential journalists like James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley, competing for readers in the city he considered the mecca of the New World. The Aurora targeted a more sophisticated demographic than Whitman would address for papers he later edited, and he adopted the appropriate accessories—a top hat, boutonniere, and walking cane. He soon claimed that circulation had grown another thousand under his editorship (Whitman 116).

The location of Aurora offices near Tammany Hall, New York's political hub, gave the young editor a taste for the rough and tumble of urban political life and reinforced his conviction that the written word can have political power. In the end, when his publisher wanted the paper to support a Whig presidential candidate, John Tyler, Whitman would not abandon his Jeffersonian loyalties and was fired.

As Aurora editor, Whitman joined public debates over presidential politics, public education, the desecration of revolutionary-era burial grounds, and "kidnappings" of prostitutes in a crackdown on Broadway. However, his editorials display less research and policy analysis than in his mature journalism, applying a simple interpretive frame of concern for republican principles of self-government. Even for the subject of his greatest attention on the Aurora, a controversy over schools for the influx of immigrant children, Whitman ignores the educational policy issues.

The New York governor—in touch with a leading educator, Horace Mann—had proposed granting funding authority to elected instead of appointed city school officials. More accountable to immigrant voters, elected authorities would probably have supported church and synagogue efforts to operate and improve schools. What Whitman wrote about, however, was not the need for schools nor who should be given authority for them, but the corruption he saw in the political process. He wrote editorials attacking "meddling" by "foreign" priests and decrying the disruptions of public meetings by immigrant political activists (Whitman 57–72).

Biographers since the mid-1980s have recognized more similarities between Whitman's Aurora writing and Leaves of Grass than were recognized previously. Catalogues of Americana, bombastic rhetoric, slang, French phrases, and a composite and democratic persona appear in the Aurora and later in Whitman's mature poetry. Aurora editorials also provide previews of the political agenda that would dominate Whitman's career—anxiety over the fragility of the Union as the foundation of New World hopes, suspicion of government as a threat to individual freedom, and fear that greed in the commercial world would undermine republican virtue.

Four years later, as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman expanded literary coverage, but in the Aurora he includes only a few small cultural items about J.F. Cooper, Charles Dickens, Italian opera, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He does not display much interest in the content of Emerson's lecture "Poetry of the Times," other than Emerson's statement that "the first man who called another an ass was a poet." Instead he provides superficial details about the full house in attendance: only "a few beautiful maids" and too many "blue stocking" women were present, he reports. He mocks Horace Greeley's visible "ecstasies" when, every five minutes or so, Emerson said something "particularly good" (105).

Most Aurora articles by Whitman have been reprinted in Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora.

Bibliography

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

Greenspan, Ezra. Walt Whitman and the American Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

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.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora. Ed. Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles H. Brown. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle, 1950.


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