Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Osceola" (1890)
Author:
Sierra-Oliva, Jesus
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This ten-line poem preceded by a preface is one of the last thirty-one poems that Walt Whitman published in the two years before his death on 26 March 1892. It first appeared in Munson's Illustrated World in April of 1890 and was included in Whitman's collection of prose and poetry Good-Bye My Fancy in 1891. Later that year Whitman added the poetry from that collection as an annex to the Deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass under the title "Good-Bye my Fancy."

In its preface Whitman states that the poem is a reminiscence of a report he heard in 1838 in Brooklyn, New York, when he was almost eighteen years old, from a U.S. marine returned from South Carolina who gave him his account of the death of the Seminole chief Osceola captured in the Florida war and imprisoned at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. In his elegiac poem, Whitman vividly reconstructs half a century later Osceola's historic death as if he were a witness to the last hours of the young Seminole leader, evoking in the broken figure of this magnificent warrior all the courageous elements of lofty manhood that he admired, for, as he said in "By Blue Ontario's Shore," "I am for those that have never been master'd" (section 17).

The origins and death of Osceola (whose name means rising sun) still remain obscure. Legend has it that he was the son of an English trader and an Indian Creek woman. Born around 1800, he opposed the forced relocation of his tribe and fought against Andrew Jackson in 1812 and 1818, then fled to Florida and joined the Seminoles. In 1834 he refused to sign a treaty to relocate west and, angry at the threats of General Thompson, stuck his knife through the document, defacing it. Soon, some white raiders kidnapped Osceola's wife. He went to Fort King to demand justice but, instead, was put in prison for twenty months. Set free, he returned on 28 December 1835 and killed the general and his secretary. When on 22 October 1837 he appeared under a flag of truce at Three Pines he was seized and taken prisoner to St. Augustine and later transferred to Fort Moultrie, where on 10 January 1838 he died.

Walt Whitman's early journalistic training and six month's work at the Indian Bureau in Washington, D.C., in 1865 helped him to understand the plight of the American Indians and, later, to see the need to add to Leaves of Grass his homage to Osceola, one of their bravest heroes.

Bibliography

Hartley, William B. Osceola, the Unconquered Indian. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1973.

Todd, Edgeley W. "Indian Pictures and Two Whitman Poems." Huntington Library Quarterly 19 (1955): 1–11.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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