Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Providence, Rhode Island
Author:
Widmer, Ted
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A city at the head of Narragansett Bay, Providence is the seat of Brown University and the metropolis of Rhode Island. Now the state capital, it shared capital status with Newport in the nineteenth century. Founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, who wished to acknowledge divine assistance in his forced relocation from Massachusetts, the city early gained a reputation for attracting dissenters and freethinkers.

Providence emerged as an important mercantile port in the eighteenth century, and grew even more quickly with the Industrial Revolution. The first successful cotton mill in America (1790) was financed with Providence capital, and throughout the nineteenth century it was a major industrial center (Whitman addressed it as such in "The Eighteenth Presidency!"). The Dorr Rebellion, a contest over suffrage extension, took place there in 1842. And the giant steam engine that powered the Centennial Exposition in 1876 (admired by Whitman) was built by the Corliss firm in Providence. During Whitman's lifetime, the city's population rose from 11,767 (1820) to 132,146 (1890).

Whitman had many admirers in Providence (including the young Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and spent a pleasant vacation there in October 1868. He boasted to Pete Doyle of his "capacity of flirtation & carrying on with the girls" (Whitman 62), adding he was "having a devil of a jolly time" (63). But he also found its intellectual society "good & smart, but too constrained & bookish for a free old hawk like me" (61).

Bibliography

McLoughlin, William G. Rhode Island: A History. New York: Norton, 1986.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H. "Whitman and the Providence Literati." Books at Brown 24 (1971): 82–106.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 2. New York: New York, 1961.

Woodward, William, and Edward F. Sanderson. Providence: A Citywide Survey of Historic Resources. Providence: Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1986.


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