McDonald Clarke's Adjustment to Market Forces: A Lesson for Walt Whitman

by Andrew C. Higgins





On March 7, 1842,Walt Whitman wrote a brief two paragraph editorial about a lecture by RalphWaldo Emerson called "The Poetry of the Times," probably Emerson's lecture version of "The Poet." Mostly, Whitman was concerned with describing the audience ("a few beautiful maids -- but more ugly women, mostly blue stockings..." [Rubin and Brown 105]).  However, he briefly praises Emerson, declining to summarize the Concord Sage's ideas because he could not do them justice:


...the business of the poet is expression -- the giving of utterance to the emotions and sentiments of the soul; and metaphors.  But it would do the lecturer great injustice to attempt anything like a sketch of his ideas.  Suffice it to say, the lecture was one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, for both its matter and style, we have ever heard anywhere, at any time.  (105)


While Whitman was obviously impressed by Emerson, it should be noted that hyperbole was the order of the day in the competitive newspaper world of the 1840s.

Many critics have noted Whitman's early exposure to Emerson as a watershed in his career; however, on the day Whitman was listening to Emerson, March 5, 1842, an event occurred that, at least in the short run, seemed to affect Whitman a great deal more than the lecture: McDonald Clarke drowned in his cell in Blackwell Island's insane asylum.  A few days later, on the 8th, Whitman wrote a lengthy eulogy for Clarke, and another article praising Clarke four days later (Rubin and Brown 108-09).  Then on March 18th, he published his poem "The Death and Burial of McDonald Clarke."

While Clarke hastended to be a footnote in Whitman studies, he is an important figure in Whitman‘s long foreground both for the way he anticipates many of Whitman’s thematic and rhetorical concerns, and for what his career revealed to Whitman about the roles a poet could play. The publishing industry of the early 1800s was a volatile world,and the vast changes going on (shifts from hand presses to steam-drivenpresses, access to increasingly large markets due to the introduction of better transportation networks, just to name a few) meant that American poetry would change too.  Clarke had a genius for recognizing these changes, and was able to adapt effectively to them, matching the literary landscape so well that today he is hardly noticeable.  Whitman, however, saw Clarke’s many guises, and in their example the notion that a poet need not limit him or herself to a single voiceor stance.  He saw that a poet could write intimate poems addressed directly to his readers, while also writing about anonymous encounters on the broad avenues of New York.  He saw that that same poet could speak in the very public and communal voice of the newspaper poet, speaking not just for him or herself, but for the community and the nation.  Clarke kept these voices carefully apart, using each only when the literary market place dictated.  Whitman, however, would combine them, using them to achieve theaim of the moment, like a speaker on the stage modulating his voice in response to the body language of the crowd before him. 

Clarke’s career began, in the early 1820s, when publishing was still a cottage industry.  The publisher and bookseller were usually the same person, and so the distribution networks were limited to the local communities.  So, as in the case of Clarke, the poet‘s anticipated audience tended to be correspondingly small.  As we shall see, Clarke addresses his early audience as if it is a small coterie of like-minded individuals.  The poetry has a clear rhetorical motive,but one which only had purpose to the local audience.

But as the literary market place changed in the 1830s and 40s, Clarke adapted his poetry to meet the new conditions.  The American publishing industry began to concentrate in New York and Philadelphia.  Thriving ports gave publishers in these cities first crack at the very popular European books, which, due to the lackof an international copyright law, they would quickly and inexpensively pirate.  Improved transportation networks allowed these firms access to wider markets.  As a result, publishing became less local and more national in scope, and the opportunities for American poets to publish books became fewer.  Why publish an unknown American poet, to whom you would have to pay royalties, when you could publish more prestigious European writers at a lower cost?

American magazines, however, with the ability to adapt to local conditions, thrived.  Journals like Brother Jonathan and The NewWorld, both of which employed Whitman and published some of his early work, took advantage of advances in printing technology to quickly publish reprints of English novels in newspaper form, thus undercutting booksellers and publishers (Tebbel 12-13). Increasingly, poets began to gravitate towards magazines and newspapers as their primary venue.  As periodicals began to pay more for poetry, poets discovered they could publish their poems multiple times in different magazines and increase their income (Charvat Profession 102).  But newspaper editors weren’t eager to publish the intimate, upperclass verse of the 1820s. Their readers, the burgeoning urban middle class, demanded something different.  As a result, the poetry changes, and we see those changes in Clarke‘s work.  The intimate addresses and the distinctive voice of the early poetry disappears.  In place of the seduction poetry of Clarke‘s early books, we find homilies and parables about morals and patriotism.  In this environment, the independent aims of the poet become subservient to the newspaper's need to sell papers.  The poems may retain a rhetorical edge, but it is couched in the public voice of the newspaper, not the private voice of the author.

      During the 1830s, as newspaper and magazine verse was growing, Clarke was making a reputation for himself as "The Mad Poet of Broadway," a local character and poet who's only source of income came from selling his poems to newspapers (Rubinand Brown n144).  Clarke, according to most accounts, was a bizarre but harmless lunatic who was popular among the Knickerbocker crowd as a source of amusement. William Stone, in an 1868 letter to the New York Evening Post describes Clarke as "a poetic scintillator of some what odd fancies, who kept the town laughing while he was sometimes starving," and reports that Clarke, on occasion, would be seen wearing "one boot and one shoe." As C. Carroll Hollis describes it, "Clarke's 'Mad Poet' role was much like that of the old time jester" (193). 

Yet Clarke's reputation as a harmless eccentric was not universally held.  To Walt Whitman, at least, Clarke was the model of a true poet.  In his eulogy of Clarke in the Aurora, Whitman writes:


Whoever has power, in hiswriting, to draw bold, startling images, and strange pictures -- the power toembody in language, original, and beautiful, and quaint ideas -- is a true son of song.  Clarke was such an one; not polished, perhaps, but yet one in whose faculties that all important vital spirit of poetry burnt with a fierce brightness.... We always, on perusing Clarke's pieces, felt, in the chambers of the mind within us, a moving and responding, as of harp cords, struck by the wind.  (Rubin and Brown 106)


That Clarke was eccentric is certain, but whether that eccentricity is due to madness, or the fact that he was the impoverished illegitimate son of a wealthy family is uncertain.[1]  In either case, he is an interesting figure in the history of American poetry and the rhetorical development of WaltWhitman not so much because of his eccentricity, but due to the fact that his career reveals much about the formal and rhetorical constraints and economic pressures faced by American poets in the 1820s and 1830s.

Contrary to Rubinand Brown's assertions, Clarke did not begin surviving on his magazine publications until fairly late in his career. Clarke's earliest books, The Eve of Eternity (1820), The Elixir ofMoonshine (1822), The Gossip(1823), and Afara, a Poem (1829) are examples of pre-magazine verse of the early 1800s.  For example, the privately printed The Elixir of Moonshine is typical of the small cottage-industry publishing economy of the early 1820s. Where as magazine-verse tended to be written as entertainment for a generic audience, Clarke's early poetry is written with fairly specific readers in mind.  Clarke's book, Afara, a Poem (1829), essentially a chapbook, has an intimate feel about it, as if you -- the reader -- were one of a select group who could appreciate the poet. Sometimes this small circle is limited to specific people, as in the last poem of the volume, "To Theodore, Theresa, Cousin Cora, and Ann," written on "Theodore's Birth-day, 10th Feb. 1829.":


For ye four Faithful Ones have always been,

Kind to the haughty Outcast, through each hour,

When clasped by feeling, fancy, sense, and sin,

He sunk a heavenly in a hellish power.   (20)


One poem, "To* *," is interesting for what it reveals about the difficulties of an impoverished outcast like Clarke taking on the conventions of the romantic upper middle-class tradition of poetry. The poem is written to a wealthy woman loved at a distance by some third person identified only as "He." While "He" and the speaker are not identified as being the same person, given that the speaker describes "He's" actions in such intimate detail, it is clear that we are to infer that the speaker is "He."  The use of the third person gives the poem an eerie quality. The speaker describes "He" following the woman:


He watched your footsteps to the door -- those archeyes half peeped out;

He felt so 'shamed, his own were dropped, and quickly turned about.  (17)


This theme of the poor poet scorned by the beautiful society woman, common in Clark's early poetry, is significant not only for what it says about Clarke's love life (of lack there of), but also because the situation bears striking parallels to Clarke's authorial situation. In a time when books of poetry were still spread through small, wealthy, literary circles, often by word of mouth,Clarke, the illegitimate grandson of a wealthy shipbuilder, was a hapless outsider.

One way for Clarke to breech the circles of literary society was to adopt the persona of "the Mad Poet."  As a madman, those circles could simultaneously include and exclude him, giving him access to an audience, even while that audience read him for comic relief.  Clarke clearly relished his role as jester and used it as a platform from which to mock the very people he was entertaining.  In the final paragraph ofthe Preface to The Gossip (the fulltitle of which is The Gossip; or, a Laughwith Ladies, a Grin at the Gentlemen, and Burlesques on Byron, a SentimentalSatire; with Other Poems: In a Series of Numbers. No. One.), Clarke writesof The Elixir and its critics:


It was read with not only tongues, but the teeth of the -- [sic] rats and mice of Fulton-street(sic), and they, in my modest opinion, are the most literary part of the Gothamite gentle folks.  (226)


By the 1830s, however, Clarke dampened the "Mad Poet" role somewhat and began writing more conventional verse for a wider public.  In 1833 he published Deathin Disguise: A Temperance Poem, a fairly standard temperance story about the rise of young Sam Sub to power and fame and his subsequent downfall due to drunkenness.  By 1836, his Poems of M'Donald Clarke, has much more in common with the magazine verse of Nathaniel Parker Willis and Fitz-Greene Halleck than with Clarke's earlier poetry. The poems of this volume are more public and more prone to narrative.  For example, "The Dead Midshipman" tells the story of a sailor who died at sea.  And "The Last Indian," tells about an Indian who commits suicide by standing out on a bare hilltop in a storm delivering soliloquies about the time before the white men came.  Both of these were very common themes in1830s & 40s newspaper verse.

In these poems the link between the poet and the reader is tenuous.  The individual character of the speaker is suppressed in favor of the public voice of the balladeer. Gone is the impression of a small, intimate readership.  In its stead is the implied moderately educated, patriotic middle-class reader: the magazine and newspaper buying public.

While Clarke's impact on American literature may seem to be negligible, his impact on Whitmanis in fact quite significant.  The two share many thematic concerns, such as the unity of the body and the soul, and Clarke most likely provided Whitman with a model of the poet as unappreciated outsider, what David S. Reynolds calls the "neglected artist" myth (WWA 339-40), a pose Whitman would cultivate throughout his career. 

Of pre-Leaves of Grass American poets, Clarke was one of a handful to articulate his poetics in a preface to a book of poetry, as Whitman would do in Leaves of Grass.  Reynolds has written:


In a sense, Clarke was an early sketch of Whitman: a literary rebel who dressed indefiance of custom, wearing his shirt collar open at the neck to expose his upper chest..., and who broke poetic rules. (89)


But most important of all, the early poetry of McDonald Clarke gave Whitman a model of a poetry in which the poet and the reader are intimately involved.  The preface to his second book, The Elixir of Moonshine (1822), seems motivated primarily by the public's scorn for the poet, a scorn which the poet reciprocated in full ("no boyish lust of vulgar notoriety have induced me to appear before the ill-natured eye of public criticism" [3]). But there is much in his grousing

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 that explains his own poetics, and that is reminiscent of Whitman's.  His scorn itself prefigures Whitman's own efforts to portray himself as unappreciated and forgotten.  There are also hints of Whitman's attitudes towards convention; Clarke writes, "My soul conforms to the world'sopinion's but little, and values them less" (4).  Even Clarke's attitudes towards women in the Preface prefiguresWhitman -- "woman, God bless her, has always been my friend" (4) --though in the poetry, Clarke's lecherous attitude towards women is anything but Whitmanian.  Clarke goes to great lengths to portray himself as an outcast in terms strikingly similar to that of "Song of Myself."  He is, he tells us, "classed with the vilest vagabond on the red list of madness and debauchery," "Calumniated by ignorance, and shunned by intelligence," "wild, worn and wretched" (5).  But however Whitmanian Clarke's writings maybe, they contain a bitterness not found even in Whitman's darkest moments.  When Clarke writes that he is "an alien...from virtuous society" (5), it is a complaint.  For Whitman it would be a boast.

The correspondences between Clarke and Whitman extend to the poems.   The first poem of The Elixir of Moonshine, "Broadway," recounts ananonymous encounter between the author and a beautiful young girl at night on Broadway, a common theme in the early nineteenth-century.[2]   In Clarke's poem, he kisses the nameless woman on the hand, they embrace, and part forever.  At points the poem is simply adolescent.  Writing about leering at women on the streets of New York, Clarke sings:


What prodigious queer feelings will leap in the breast,

And make us feel funny in more parts than one,

If a fine girl is only transparently drest,

And shows what would puzzel a seraph to shun.  (9)


As Reynolds has argued, this passage prefigures Whitman's use of eroticism in his poetry(89).  But Clarke soon backs away from sexuality.  Though in light of his voyeurism, it‘s difficult to take the poet seriously when he later pleads:


I mean not that mangled connexion of foul

or unclean sensations, that squalid minds love;

But the delicate union of body and soul

That angels might witness -- nor wish to reprove (14)


The "union of body and soul" may be the key theme of Leaves of Grass.  And Clarke's mixture of sexuality and spirituality would take on a whole new form in Whitman's hands.  No matter how doubtful modern readers may be about Clarke's spiritual sincerity, his move here in this poem anticipates Whitman's in section 5 of "Song of Myself" when he writes:


I mind how once welay such a transparent summer morning,

How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me,

And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,

And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet.

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth. (LG 6)


In the 1836 edition of Poems of M'Donald Clarke,Clarke's range is broader, and the connections to Whitman fuller. In the picture of the poet in the 1836 book he is dressed in casual but not workman's, dress. His collar is open, and he wears an open great coat, anticipating Whitman's famous photograph from the 1855 edition. The poems of the 1836 collection are much more diverse. There are poems like "The Dignity of  Democracy," about "an old Wood-Sawyer” who has some how obtained a turkey for Christmas dinner. Marching up Broadway with it flung over his back,


He cock'd his eye at two Aldermen, as he past,

As if to say -- my belly will beat yours, at last. (32)


The scene is oneWhitman would have relished, and might have included in "Song of Myself."  The sawyer cocks his eye just as Whitman cocks his hat "indoors or out" (CPCP 45); the encounter occurs on the street in New York; the theme is democracy.  All of this would appeal to the man who wrote "the genius of the United States" would be found "always most in the common people" (LG 710).

And Clarke's poem"New-York" is striking in its parallels to Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."  Like Whitman's poem,"New-York" opens with the poet looking out over New York harbor at twilight:


I love to lean on the Battery's rail,

When the ghost of daylight leaves the fading west (33)


He describes "our broad unfetter'd bay, / Wreath'd with the canvass of a hundred flags--" (33).  The poet imagines New York as a great center of commerce, where business "answers with a golden smile, / The sign of Poverty's silvery lips" (34).  Eventually, Clarke writes, the "Arch Poet of America" will twine a wreath for New York.  But in the last two stanzas of the poem, all that the poet imagines disappears:


But the mind faints, before Future's spell --

Imagination turns, and shuts her eyes --

Reason, ere then, will ring Pomp's funeral bell --

Democracy shroud her -- never more to rise (35)


It is unclear just what causes this turn of events, but some how reason could not sustain Clarke's vision.  Whitman would solve this problem by side stepping reason, and looking straight into the eyes of his reader:


What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?

Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you? (LG164)


Perhaps more significant to Whitman is the intimacy of Clarke and his readers in the early books.  Most of The Elixir consists of poems about encounters that are not anonymous, poems with titles like "To ____" and "To Agnes."  And frequently, as in the case of Agnes, the women write responses -- or at least they are presented as such by Clarke.  Most of these poems to Clarke's lovers are simple, somewhat sordid, paeans to beauty, as in the following:


I've sunk my headon many a breast

As white, but --warmer than thine own;

But, could my cheek but there be press'd,

'Twoud be more sweet than all I've know.  (45)


Though one has to wonder at the efficacy of such praises, in that the poet was writing a poetry that anticipated some response from the reader, and in fact (or fiction) occasionally solicited one, the poems anticipate Whitman's own"seduction" of the reader, as when he writes "I stop somewhere waiting for you" (LG 89). 

Today Clarke's poetry seems disjointed, confused, or merely unoriginal.  In part this is because he so fully inhabited each stage of his career with little overlap.  As the mad poet of The Elixir he speaks only to his small circle of confidants.  As the patriotic magazine poet of Poems of M'Donald Clarke, he speaks only to the broad masses.  But the strength of Whitman, who most likely discovered Clarke's poetry all at once just prior to Clarke's death, was that he was able to combine both stances by addressing his poetry not to a single group, but to a much broader range of audiences, while, by emphasizing the physical conditions of publishing ("I pass so poorly with papers and types" [CPCP 89]) and the physical conditions of communication ("My words itch at your ears till you understand them" [LG 85]), retaining the intimacy of face to face communication.  Great or small, the parts and poses of McDonald Clarke -- persona, purpose, and poetry -- furnished themselves toward Whitman‘s soul.  And so not only do they provide us with an important perspective on how the changing literary marketplace affected American poets, they also provided Whitman with an important lesson in the many ways an American poet could reach out to his audience.

[1] . For a thorough biography of McDonald Clarke, see Hollis, "The 'Mad Poet' McDonald Clarke," in Essays and Studies in Language and Literature. Ed. Herbert H. Petit. Pittsburgh: Duquesne U P, 1964: 176-206; and Joseph V. Medeiros,"McDonald Clarke, 'The Mad Poet of Broadway': His Life and Works." MA Thesis. Brown University, 1944. For a complete bibliography of Clarke's publications in book form, see Jacob Blanck, Bibliography of American Literature, Vol. II, New Haven: Yale U P,1957: 169-72.

[2] . See Nathaniel Parker Willis's "The Lady in the White Dress, Whom I Helped Into the Omnibus," for another version of this theme. Both poems are urban American versions of Keats's "To A Lady Seen For a Few Moments At Vauxhall" and Wordsworth's distant encounters with peasant women in poems like "To a Highland Girl" and "The Solitary Reaper."


Works Cited

Charvat,William.  Literary Publishing inAmerica: 1790-1850. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1959.

---.  The Profession of Authorship in America:1800-1870.  1968. Ed. Matthew J.Bruccoli.  New York: Columbia U.P.,1992.

Clarke, McDonald.  Afara, a Poem.  New York: n.p., 1829.

---.  A Cross & Coronet!  New York: Le Blanc, 1842.

---.  Death in Disguise; A Temperance Poem.  Boston: B. B. Mussey, 1833.

---.  The Elixir of Moonshine; Being aCollection of Prose and Poetry, by the Mad Poet.  Gotham [New York]: Printed at the Sentimental Epicure's Ordinary,A.M. 5822 [1822].

---.  ...The Eve of Eternity...  New York: n.p., 1820.

---.  The Gossip.  New York: Gray & Bunce, 1823.

---.  Poems of M'Donald Clarke. New York: J. W. Bell, 1836.

Hollis,C. Carrol. "The 'Mad Poet' McDonald Clarke." Essays and Studies inLanguage and Literature.  Ed.Herbert H. Petit.  Pittsburgh: DuquesneU. P., 1964: 176-206.

Jillson,Clark.  Sketch of M'DonaldClarke.  "The Mad Poet.".  Worcester, MA: Priv. print., 1878.

Medeiros,Joseph V.  "McDonald Clarke, 'TheMad Poet of Broadway': His Life and Works."  MA Thesis.  BrownUniversity, 1944.

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

Rubin,Joseph Jay and Charles H. Brown, eds.  WaltWhitman of the New York Aurora, Editor at Twenty-Two: A Collection of RecentlyDiscovered Writings.  1950.Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972.

Tebbel,John.  Between Covers: The Rise andTransformation of Book Publishing in America.  New York: Oxford U. P., 1987.

Whitman,Walt.  Complete Poetry and CollectedProse.  Ed. Justin Kaplan.  New York: Library of America, 1982.

-----.  Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition.  Eds.  Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley.  New York: W. W. Norton, 1965.