Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
West Jersey Press
Author:
Matteson, John T.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The West Jersey Press was a weekly newspaper published in Camden. On 26 January 1876 the Press published the anonymous article "Walt Whitman's Actual American Position," written by the poet himself. In the piece, Whitman complained with hyperbolic self-pity that he had been almost completely ignored by the American people. He lamented, "[W]ith the exception of a very few readers . . . Whitman's poems in their public reception have fallen still-born in their country. They have been met . . . with the determined denial, disgust and scorn of orthodox American authors . . . and, in a pecuniary and worldly sense, have certainly wrecked the life of their author" (qtd. in Reynolds 516).

The day the article appeared, Whitman sent a copy to William Rossetti, calling his real situation "even worse than described in the article" and asking that the piece be printed in London (Whitman 20). Excerpts printed in the 11 March 1876 Athenaeum touched off a flurry of accusations and denials. Periodicals ranging from the London Daily News to Harper's, Scribner's, and the New York Tribune took up the issue of Whitman's status, both aesthetic and pecuniary. On 24 May 1876 Whitman added to the controversy by publishing a second anonymous article in the West Jersey Press, confirming his destitution and describing himself as "a continuous target for slang, slur, insults, gas-promises, disappointments, caricature—without a publisher, without a public" (qtd. in Reynolds 520). The two West Jersey Press articles brought Whitman a good deal of public notice and boosted both his reputation and his morale. Although the articles greatly exaggerated Whitman's actual poverty and neglect, they accurately reflected the poet's personal frustrations at having achieved neither the level of cultural influence nor the popular adulation of which he deemed himself worthy.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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