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Title: The New York Aurora

Creator: Jason Stacy

Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2017.

Whitman Archive ID: per.00476

Contributors to digital file: Kevin McMullen


The New York Aurora was a mid-sized Democratic newspaper among many other political journals of similar stripe. First published by Anson Herrick and John F. Ropes in 1841, the Aurora claimed to be non-partisan, though like most papers during the period, it was fiercely embroiled in the local political debates of its time.

Whitman first became involved with the Aurora in the spring of 1842. At that time, Herrick and Ropes, the paper's owners, positioned the Aurora as the Democratic critic of Tammany Hall, thereby providing a voice against the power of the nascent political machine from within the Party itself. This aligned the Aurora on the side of self-proclaimed workingmen's rights advocates like Mike Walsh, who himself wrote for the paper in the 1840s and, with his Spartan Association of like-minded Democrats, eventually became part of the Tammany establishment. As the voice of the anti-Tammany Hall Democracy, the Aurora rivaled Tammany-aligned papers like the New Era, which Whitman occasionally lambasted in his Aurora editorials.

Whitman was announced as the editor of the Aurora on March 28, 1842, and, like Walsh, actively engaged the political and social issues of the moment and often commented on political wrangling within the Democratic Party itself. Whitman's former tone from the "Sun-Down Papers—From the Desk of a Schoolmaster" (1840-1841), where he played a bemused urban observer of doings in the countryside, proved untenable in the city pages of a political paper like the Aurora. As editor, Whitman cultivated the tone of a knowing political observer and man-about-town. A picture from the 1840s shows him with a carefully groomed beard without a moustache, a cane, a three-piece suit, silk tie, and cocked hat. In the April 6 issue of the Aurora, he described this natty attire in an editorial where he spent much of the morning loafing in a manner that presages the Bard's wanderings in Leaves of Grass.

Whitman's arrival at the Aurora coincided with Charles Dickens' visit to New York City in 1842. On February 15, 1842, a little over one month before Whitman became editor of the paper, the Aurora reported on the "Great Boz Ball" at the Park Theater and described Dickens as "the lion of the day, the immortal Boz." In an article published on February 16th, Thomas Low Nichols, who preceded Whitman as editor of the Aurora and went on to publish on topics as varied as hydropathy and free love, described the ball's "strange magnificence…like a dream." This began a love affair between the Aurora and Dickens into which Whitman gladly entered upon taking over as editor. In one editorial, Whitman vigorously defended Dickens against a detractor in John O'Sullivan's Democratic Review. The Aurora's young editor, like the newspaper itself, was willing to punch above his weight.

In the spring of 1842, the conflict of greatest interest to the Aurora was over the Maclay Bill, a proposal to fund Catholic schools with public money. The Maclay Bill was backed by the Whig governor of New York, William Seward, who sought to use the debate over the bill to pry Irish Catholic support away from the Democratic Party in New York City. Bishop John Hughes, who aimed to enhance Catholic education against the Protestant-inflected curriculum of the Public School Society, led the fight for the Maclay Bill in the city. The Aurora published a number of scathing editorials opposing both Hughes and the bill. In this regard, the Aurora positioned itself against Levi Slamm's New Era, which reflected Tammany interests in maintaining Irish support for the Democrats. This inter-party fight fit loosely with Whitman's loco-foco inclinations, which, following the model of William Leggett from the previous decade, sought to push Tammany Hall into stronger support for anti-monopoly and anti-tariff reforms in the name of working-class wage earners. The Aurora's anti-Catholic inclinations in the spring of 1842 also tracked with Whitman's antipathy toward organized religion, the origins of which perhaps lay with his father's admiration of Thomas Paine or his mother's Hicksite Quakerism.

But throughout his short time as the editor of the Aurora, Whitman struggled with the nativist sentiments brought out by the Maclay Bill controversy. Over the course of these editorials, Whitman skirted a line between attacking publicly funded religious education and Irish Catholics themselves. When a reader in the March 30th issue of the Aurora accused Whitman of "vindictiveness" and a "want of charity," the editor claimed his "love capacious enough" and his arms "wide enough" to "encircle all men . . . whatever their origin or native land." According to Whitman, the fight over the Maclay Bill was not against New York Irish Catholics, but against the "dastardly [Bishop John] Hughes and his kindred fanatical demagogues." Like many family squabbles, this inter-party fight was short-lived, but virulent.

Whitman's editorials in the Aurora range from politics to culture to "peeps" into locales exalted and common that in purview offer tantalizing glimpses of the roving and cataloging bard of Leaves of Grass. One review described Ralph Waldo Emerson's lecture "Poetry of the Times," which Whitman attended in early March 1842. While Whitman was critical of Horace Greeley and others in the audience at this lecture, his praise for Emerson was effusive. "Suffice it to say, the lecture was one of the richest and most beautiful compositions," Whitman wrote, "both for its matter and style, we have heard anywhere, at any time."

While Whitman most likely published pieces for the Aurora before March 28, 1842, the Walt Whitman Archive has transcribed, annotated, and encoded only those that appear between his announcement as editor and when he most likely left the paper, about one month later. We have also consulted The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman: The Journalism, Vol. 1 (1998) to help us identify Whitman's writings in the Aurora, while also identifying some editorials based on stylistic similarities with known Whitman editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other publications that are known to be Whitman's. It is not entirely clear whether Whitman was fired from the Aurora or quit of his own accord. Jerome Loving, in Walt Whitman: Song of Himself, speculates that Whitman may have left after his one-month contract ended. Whitman's contract was perhaps so short-lived because the Aurora was run on a shoestring budget throughout its short existence. While there is some evidence that Whitman argued with the owners of the paper during his tenure, he also later worked for other publications owned by Anson Herrick, most prominently the Atlas, where he published the recently discovered series "Manly Health and Training" in the fall of 1858 under the pseudonym Mose Velsor.

To read Whitman's editorials written for the Aurora, click here.

To view full page images of the Aurora from the period for which Whitman was editor, click here.


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