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  • Things Appearing, Every Day:Walt Whitman and the Ubiquity of News
  • Jeff Smith (bio)

Walt Whitman's early departure from newspaper journalism was not something his newspaper employers saw much cause to regret. During his 1842 stint as the New York Aurora editor, the long daily strolls he was known for reportedly led one of the paper's owners to call him "the laziest fellow who ever undertook to edit a city paper."1 His better-known work as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle editor a few years later received remarkably little notice in that paper's official history. Looking back from 1893, finding no journalistic achievements worth mentioning, and quoting Whitman's own recollection of his "easy work and hours," a chronicler writes that "nothing could keep [Whitman] out of the sunshine, and in pleasant weather his editorial duties received scant attention."2 Whitman's soul was apparently not a newsman's, but a poet's.

Thanks to a recent discovery, we have new information about what Whitman was probably doing while out in the sunshine. In 2016, Zachary Turpin unearthed a long-forgotten Whitman novel, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography, which was serialized in New York's Sunday Dispatch in 1852 but ignored by Whitman and his readers thereafter. One chapter offers a vivid set piece in which its hero, a young clerk whose job involves a workaday, [End Page 1] nonpoetic kind of writing, takes time to wander through a cemetery. Whitman found similar outings pleasant in real life, as he explained in his newspaper essays: on days when the weather was exactly right, he wrote in 1846, the destination he would "choose, of all the world" was a cemetery like Brooklyn's Greenwood, where he would contemplate the lives described in the tombstone inscriptions—for example, that of a talented but underappreciated "Mad Poet," whose grave prompts Whitman to reflect on the power of poetry and the dangers of genius.3 Clearly such reports foreshadow his own poetic career, as did his interest in cemeteries initially. As Desirée Henderson has explained, some famous passages in the poem eventually titled "Song of myself" (1855) recall and perhaps borrow literary conventions from the era's "rural cemetery movement."4

Jack Engle offers what appears to be a more detailed account of these cemetery visits and, with it, the means of linking more tightly the unremarkable journalist who wrote forgettable novels and the artist whose new, hybrid writing was nothing less than a "radical reconception of the art of poetry," as Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price argue.5 For Whitman scholars, the drastic change from the one to the other, the seemingly "sudden outburst of poetic genius," has been puzzling.6 The obvious difference between his journalism and Leaves of Grass (1855), says Hans Bergmann, has led readers "to wonder how Whitman could have produced such a book without a sophisticated poetic apprenticeship."7 One possible explanation is that Whitman the poet represents a sharp break from Whitman the newsman, or at least expresses a different side of the writer who would later famously say that he contained multitudes. In this view, Whitman would have been escaping his office, a busy hubbub of urban newspapering, for places of quiet repose like cemeteries, where it was easier to indulge the cosmic contemplations that he would later express through poetry. One interesting variant of this theory posits a personal [End Page 2] watershed, some dramatic event, like a mystical experience or an unchronicled love affair, that changed Whitman's life and, thus, his writing.8

Alternatively, we might regard journalism as the chrysalis from which the poet emerged. Jorge Luis Borges once suggested that Whitman somehow found a way to make "the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle into Walt Whitman, into America, into all of us" (R, 47). The idea here is that journalism itself provided the needed apprenticeship, that crossing Brooklyn ferry (with the heightened poetic awareness immortalized in the 1856 poem of that title) first required covering Brooklyn news. Some readers sensed this possibility from the start: looking at Leaves of Grass' first edition, Charles Eliot Norton observed "a compound of the New...


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