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Pre-Civil War Correspondence (1840-1860)

Status: 73 published of about 80 known letters from this era

73 of 80 published

Whitman's pre-Civil War correspondence reveals Whitman's transition from a journalist and short fiction writer to a radical and controversial poet who published the first edition of his Leaves of Grass in 1855. In the 1840s, Whitman reported on the meetings of the Washington Temperance Societies for the New York Aurora newspaper, and he contributed to the cause by writing a bestselling temperance novel Franklin Evans. Whitman's short stories were reprinted across the nation and in several countries, indicating that his international literary reputation began in the pre-Civil War period. Whitman also edited several newspapers during these years, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the New Orleans Crescent. Whitman spent two months in 1848 in New Orleans. It was a trip that profoundly affected his poetry, as it was in New Orleans that he first witnessed slave auctions, that would later be depicted in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. A series of recently recovered pre-Civil War letters to the editor, authored by Whitman for the Crescent shows him writing about New York for a southern audience after he had returned to his native state, and in these letters, he expressed his support for Free-Soiler Martin Van Buren, and covered National politics and debates, as well as the California Gold Rush, that began in 1848.

The 1850s saw Whitman composing poems in response to the tense social and political climate in a nation on the cusp of Civil War. His poem, "A Boston Ballad," reveals his objection to the Fugitive Slave Law and was written in response to federal marshals' return of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns to Virginia a few days after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing Kansas to become a slave state. A year later in 1855, it became one of the twelve poems that made up his first edition of Leaves of Grass, along with Whitman's "Song of Myself." A second edition of Leaves of Grass, a smaller pocket edition, followed in 1856, and Whitman's pre-Civil War correspondence tracks some of the earliest reader responses to his poetry and details his struggle to find a publisher for an even more ambitious third edition of Leaves of Grass that he referred to as his "new American Bible." The story of Whitman's early engagement with political, social, and cultural issues is part of what the correspondence of his pre-Civil War years traces. These letters also offer valuable insights into Whitman's relationship to nineteenth-century publishing and his composition practices. For more information on the transcription and encoding of these diverse materials, please see our statement of editorial policy.

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