Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

“Memoranda of a year (1863)”: Whitman in Washington, D.C.
Ted Genoways Virginia Quarterly Review

On Sunday, December 28, 1862, Walt Whitman broke camp at Falmouth, Virginia, and began his journey back north via the Aquia Creek Railroad. Less than two weeks before he had recognized the misspelled name of his brother George in the New York Herald among the lists of wounded at Fredericksburg and rushed to the front, searching the hospitals in Falmouth, Virginia, across the Rappahannock River from the Fredericksburg battlefield. When he reached the Lacy House, he was directed outside to the dooryard to search amid a grisly scene of human carnage:

Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket. [1]

When Whitman eventually found George, he was only slightly injured, but Whitman was shocked by the conditions of the field hospitals. He felt lost, helpless, in the face of such suffering. On this particular day, however, an opportunity presented itself. At the end of the rail line, as passengers transferred to a government steamer continuing north up the Potomac, Whitman found a large number of wounded, waiting at the landing. “I went around them,” he wrote later. “Several wanted word sent home to parents, brothers, wives, &c., which I did for them, (by mail the next day from Washington.)  On the boat I had my hands full.” And for the first time, he watched as a soldier—beyond his ability to aid or comfort—died en route.

By the time Whitman arrived in the capitol in the evening, he was determined to stay in Washington and minister to the soldiers in the hospitals. Unfortunately, he was virtually penniless, having fallen prey to a pickpocket on the way south [2] , and he had no ready prospects for income. Whitman called at the apartment of his friend William Douglas O’Connor, whom he had met three years earlier in Boston when the two of them were published by Thayer & Eldridge. Whitman asked O’Connor’s assistance finding an apartment of his own, but O’Connor quickly consulted his wife, Nellie, and it was arranged that Whitman would rent the empty bedroom on the floor where the O’Connor’s lived and he would take his meals with them and their young daughter Jeannie.

            The next afternoon, Whitman wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson to ask his assistance in securing a government position. He informed Emerson that he would “apply on literary grounds, not political” and even suggested text for Emerson’s letters of introduction to Secretary of State William Henry Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase:

The bearer Mr. Walt Whitman, a literary man of distinction, is from Brooklyn, New York. He desires employment as a clerk in the departments or in any way in which he can be serviceable to the government. I commend him to the favorable consideration of any of the heads of the departments who may need his services. [3]

While he waited for a response from Emerson, Whitman enlisted the help of his former publisher Charles W. Eldridge. By then a clerk in the office of Paymaster General Lyman S. Hapgood, Eldridge found temporary work for Whitman as a copyist. But Whitman also quickly recognized that his best prospect for supplementing his income was writing for the many New York dailies hungry for news from Virginia and Washington, D. C.

            While a great deal of attention has been given to Whitman’s time in the nation’s capitol during 1863 and early 1864, his writings of that era have tended to be used as a source for biographical information, rather than studied as important war-time productions created to meet Whitman’s material demands but also to further his goals of raising public awareness of conditions in the military hospitals. Moreover, more attention needs to be given to Whitman’s ideal of providing aid to the soldiers outside of the conventional institutions of the U. S. Sanitary Commission and the U. S. Christian Commission. His efforts—often resulting in bitter failures—highlight the strained and rocky relationships Whitman nurtured with abolitionist donors in Boston, with newspaper editors in New York and Brooklyn, and with officials of the government and military in Washington, D. C. No picture of Whitman’s time in Washington is clear without considering the ways in which he was consciously framing and depicting that landscape for audiences in Northern cities. And no appreciation of his ministrations to the sick and wounded in the wards of the city’s mammoth military hospitals is complete without acknowledging his efforts to effect change on a larger scale than simply tending to a few favorite sons.

            *                      *                      *

When Whitman finally heard from Emerson on January 16, he found that Emerson had not followed his short, formal letter of introduction, but rather had written long, flattering notes to Secretaries Seward and Chase. He told both that he considered Whitman “a man of strong original genius” and, while admitting that some had criticized his poems, expressed his opinion that Whitman’s writings “show extraordinary power, & are more deeply American, democratic, & in the interest of political liberty, than those of any other poet” (Corr. 1: 65, 65-66). Whitman was exhilarated. He immediately wrote his brother Jeff to report that “this morning’s mail brings me from Buffalo, two splendid letters from [Emerson], one letter to Seward, and one to Chase, which I hope, (and though I have well learnt not to count my chickens, &c. I believe and calculate) will, by the way we shall manage it, put me through, to get something” (Corr. 7: 18).

            Yet, Whitman was mindful of Emerson’s caution in his cover letter that, when it came to fundraising, he believed Whitman might fare “better in the journalism than in the Departments” (Corr. 1: 66). Jeff, too, had suggested that his efforts to solicit donations on Walt’s behalf would be made easier if he would keep accounts of how the money was spent and detailed descriptions of the good it had done (Corr. 1: 66n9). Whitman assured Jeff that the donors enlisted by him and Moses Lane, Jeff’s boss and chief engineer at the Brooklyn Water Works, would receive a “letter giving specific names, hospitals, No. of the particular beds, and dates, or more likely a letter in print in newspaper, for I am going to print a sort of hospital journal in some paper” (Corr. 1: 67).

            He had already embarked on this plan by publishing a dispatch from Fredericksburg, entitled “Our Brooklyn Boys in the War,” in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, on January 5. Unfortunately, this article is also the first example of Whitman’s fictionalizing events in his war-time journalism. The dateline specifies, “In Camp, on the Falmouth Side. Army of the Potomac, January 1, 1863”—a full three days after Whitman had left Falmouth. In fact, on January 1, he sketched out the beginnings of an article for a New York newspaper detailing the mood in Washington, when the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, contrasting the “animation and excitement” of New York on such occasions with the “phlegmatic coolness all through Washington.” [4] This pair of items underscores Whitman’s quick decision to fashion himself as a war correspondent. Indeed, Whitman gave his occupation for the 1863 DC directory as “reporter.” [5]

In a notebook from this period, Whitman noted that “The Herald, Times, Cincinnati Gazette, &c. have little offices here” (NUPM 2: 551). Undoubtedly articles by Whitman from this period remain unidentified, because within a month he told Jeff that he had given up actively seeking an office position, because he could make enough to cover his expenses “by hacking on the press here” (Corr. 1: 73). This sort of formulaic writing was adequate for paying his room and board, but for the articles Whitman put his name to, he had loftier ambitions.

On January 17, the day after receiving Emerson’s letters of introduction, Whitman responded by expounding on his plan of publishing the “hospital journal” that he had mentioned to Jeff the day before. He wrote Emerson that the idea had occurred to him:

as I took temporary memoranda of names, items, &c of one thing and another, commissioned to get or do for the men—what they wished and what their cases required from outside, &c—these memoranda grow bulky and suggest something to me—so I now make fuller notes, or a sort of journal, (not a mere dry journal though, I hope)—This thing I will record—it belongs to the time, and to all the States—(and perhaps it belongs to me)— (Corr. 1: 70)

He also confided that he had already begun to imagine turning that hospital journal into something more than a series of articles for newspaper circulation:

I desire and intend to write a little book out of this phase of America, her masculine young manhood, its conduct under most trying of and highest of all exigency, which she, as by lifting a corner in a curtain, has vouchsafed me to see America, already brought to Hospital in her fair youth—brought and deposited here in this great, whited sepulchre of Washington itself— (Corr. 1: 69)

To gain unfettered access to this great mass of the suffering, Whitman applied and received status as an unremunerated delegate of the U. S. Christian Commission, on January 20. One of his notebooks from this time, now in the collection of the Library of Congress, is stamped “Christian Commission” in gold on its cover, and inside Whitman wrote: “Walt Whitman Soldier’s Missionary to Hospital, Camp, & Battle Ground (Young Men’s Christian Commission 343 Pennsylvania av. Washington D. C.)” (NUPM, 2: 602).

This status gave Whitman ready access to the hospitals; now, however, he needed an editor who would allow him to explore a longer, more personal form than the standard dispatch normally allowed. And soon Whitman found that editor. Some time in mid to late January, he entered in his notebook: “have seen Swinton &c” (NUPM 2: 551). Swinton, in this case, was William Swinton, a war correspondent for the New York Times, and brother of Times managing editor, John Swinton. Whitman had a long relationship with both Swinton brothers—but especially John. In 1855, John had purchased one of the earliest published copies of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and four years later he mentioned Whitman’s rapid composition of new poems to Richard Hinton—a conversation which served as impetus for Hinton’s recommendation to Thayer & Eldridge that they offer to publish a new edition of Leaves of Grass in 1860. Bumping into William Swinton on Pennsylvania Avenue must have seemed a stroke of luck, and Whitman quickly arranged for him to visit the O’Connor’s apartment. Nellie O’Connor wrote later:

Swinton said he would come up. Great was his surprise to find Walt actually there. Swinton exclaimed, “Well, Walt, I have known you dozens of years, and made hundreds of appointments with you, but this is the first time that I ever knew you to keep one. I thought I saw signs of decay!” (Calder, 197)

But it was not decay but determination, as Whitman spent the better part of February jotting down descriptions of his hospital visits and obsessively reworking them for a long article he intended for the Times.

            On February 23, Whitman finally completed “The Great Army of the Sick.” In a letter sent directly to John Swinton, Whitman wrote simply that he had sent his article “about the Military Hospitals here—as they are so generally and sadly interesting to the public” (Corr. 1: 75-76). If Whitman did little to sell the piece to Swinton, it may be because he knew he already had a sympathetic reader. By the time Swinton responded, at 2 o’clock in the morning on February 26, the article was already on press. He wrote:

You will find the article you sent will be in the Times of this morning, when it is published. I have crowded out a great many things to get it in, and it has taken the precedence of army correspondence and articles which have been waiting a month for insertion. It is excellent—the first part and the closing part of it especially. [6]

Indeed, “The Great Army of the Sick” establishes the mode in which the majority of Whitman’s war journalism—and later Memoranda During the War—was written. The piece begins with a sketch of the hospitals (some facts and figures to establish the scope of the need). In the second section, he begins to focus more on the individual suffering of the soldiers and the general aid her provided, describing the Patent Office as “crowded close with row of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers…. I went there several times. It was a strange, solemn and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight.” The reader’s interest now peaked, Whitman selects a single case to illustrate the difference his individual efforts can make. In this case, he describes an unnamed soldier at Campbell Hospital, who, by neglect of the hospital workers, had steadily declined to the brink of death. “As luck would have it, at this time, I found him,” Whitman wrote. By a series of small kindnesses, Whitman eased his suffering and the soldier’s condition improved. “The other evening,” Whitman wrote, “passing through the ward, he called me… I sat down by his side on the cot, in the dimness of the long ward, with the wounded soldiers there in their beds, ranging up and down. He told me I had saved his life. He was in the deepest earnest about it.” Such anecdotes are clearly meant not only as journalism but as tools of fundraising. The message was simple: even a small donation might save a young man’s life.

Ironically, the same morning mail that brought Swinton’s praising letter and copies of the New York Times also brought word that several of Whitman’s poems had been rejected curtly by Harper’s Weekly: “The Editor of Harpers Weekly begs to return the enclosed verses to Mr. Walt Whitman with his compliments and many thanks” (WWWC 1: 416). The “verses” are unidentified but may have been early versions of Whitman’s Fredericksburg poems—such as “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” and “A battle (sights, sounds, &c),” which eventually became “The Artilleryman’s Vision.” Whatever the poems may have been, the note is surprisingly short and formal; Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums” had appeared in Harper’s Weekly less than eighteen months earlier—and had been widely reprinted. The cool response only furthered Whitman’s resolve in his new prose direction. Though he continued to write poems throughout the war, no record exists that Whitman again attempted to publish poems in newspapers or magazines until October 1865. To reach the mass audience he needed, he would have to turn his efforts toward prose, and emblematic of this shift, Whitman kept Swinton’s acceptance and the rejection from Harper’s Weekly together in the same envelope for the rest of his life.

            *                      *                      *

While waiting for “The Great Army of the Sick” to appear in the Times, Whitman began sending letters to likely donors in hopes of arousing sympathy and drumming up support for his cause. Though no list of recipients survives, we do know that Whitman sent a letter to James Redpath—another of Whitman’s fellow authors at Thayer & Eldridge—probably at the suggestion of Eldridge himself or William Douglas O’Connor. Redpath responded warmly, calling Whitman an “Evangelist,” and enclosing an article he had written for the Boston Commonwealth trumpeting Whitman’s war efforts:

One of the most beloved and tender hearted of the visitors at the hospitals in Washington, is Walt. Whitman, author of Leaves of Grass. However his “barbaric yawp” may sound over other roofs, it sends sweet music into the sick wards of the Capital. A gentleman who accompanied him on several of his visits, relates that his coming was greeted by the soldiers unvarying pleasure, and that he soothed the homesick boys so often seen there, with a tenderness that no woman could excel. His friends say that he cured one or two young soldiers who were dying of homesickness, by his sympathy and loving-kindness. Dying of homesickness is no figure of speech, but a reality of weekly occurrence in our army. To such invalids the religious tract, or the mechanical consolations of theology, give no relief; not musty manna from the church wilderness, but living waters of sympathy from the warm heart of man who loves them is what they need to save them. And this they get from the rough singer of Brooklyn. Walt. like other poets, is not excessively rich, and therefore may not stay in Washington much longer; but as long as he can afford to remain he means to keep at his self-elected and unpaid post, doing good to the sick and wounded. What a pity that when so many thousands of dollars are spent to but little purpose for this work that a hundred or two could not be devoted to retain this efficient volunteer. [7]

As an intimate of John Brown and several members of the Secret Six who had helped finance the Harpers Ferry raid, Redpath was extremely well situated within the New England abolitionist community. His appeal for “a hundred or two” dollars on Whitman’s behalf was a welcome endorsement, but Redpath went one step further, again enlisting Emerson’s assistance, hoping “to get him to interest some of his friends (he has several rich ones who give away large sums to good causes) in your Christian Commission Agency. I trust that the result will be what I hoped.” Emerson had responded positively, if cautiously, assuring Redpath, “I shall make some trial whether I can find any direct friends and abettors for him and his beneficiaries, the soldiers.” [8]

            While he waited eagerly for word from Emerson, Whitman set to work on the second in his series of hospital journals, submitting “The Great Washington Hospitals: Life Among Fifty Thousand Sick Soldiers” to the Brooklyn Eagle on March 17. Whitman’s relationship with the Eagle had been complicated and strained since the days he had served as its editor until his firing in January 1848. Its successive editors had decidedly mixed feelings toward Whitman, sometimes courting him as a contributor and publishing positive reviews of his books, other times ridiculing him personally and ruthlessly attacking his poems. This stormy relationship is perhaps best typified by the appearance of Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums!” in the Eagle on September 25, 1861, and then the appearance of a mean-spirited parody of the poem four days later. Whatever the editors’ personal opinions of Whitman may have been, they seemed universally to recognize his value as a topic of conversation and his ability to sell newspapers.

            Still, after the publication of his article in the Eagle, genuine warmth seems to have crept briefly into the correspondence. Isaac Van Anden, the paper’s founder, even sent a contribution of ten dollars to Whitman’s hospital fund in early April. Nevertheless, Walt was unhappy with some of the editorial revisions to “The Great Washington Hospitals,” which he thought had been undertaken maliciously, and his anger boiled over when his next contribution, sent on April 27, went unacknowledged and unpublished. The possibility of its rejection had never occurred to Whitman; he even wrote Jeff on April 28 to let him know that his new article had been “sent yesterday to the Eagle—it ought to appear to-day or to-morrow” and enclosed ten cents for Jeff to purchase ten copies to send back to Washington (Corr. 1: 95). When nearly a month had passed with no response, Whitman declared, “I shall send them no more, as I think likely they hate to put in any thing which may celebrate me a little, even though it is just the thing they want for their paper & readers. They altered the other letter on that account, very meanly” (Corr. 1: 105).

            The news from Boston was still worse. For all of April, Whitman’s letter to James Redpath asking the progress of Emerson’s efforts on his behalf went unanswered. When a response finally did arrive in early May, it was a crushing blow:

Friend Walter: I did not answer your last letter because I could not reply to the question it put. I have heard since that Emerson tried to have something done about you, but failed….

            There is a prejudice agst you here among the ‘fine’ ladies & gentlemen of the transcendental School. It is believed that you are not ashamed of your reproductive organs, and, somehow, it wd seem to be the result of their logic—that eunuchs only are fit for nurses. [9]

This rationale—which would seem to hearken back to the controversy surrounding the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass—is puzzling coming, as it did, from Redpath’s circle of friends. The Commonwealth, the official publication of the group, was edited by Franklin B. Sanborn and Moncure D. Conway. In 1860, when a judge threatened to extradite Sanborn to Virginia to hang for his involvement in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Whitman had taken charge of the door to the courtroom as part of the plot to rescue Sanborn by force, if necessary. Sanborn himself remembered seeing Whitman there—and remarked on it often in his recollections of Whitman. After the war, Sanborn was also one of the first to praise the poems in Drum-Taps, writing in the pages of the Commonwealth that Whitman was “a poet of original powers, occupied with the most important themes.” [10] As for Conway, though he did not meet Whitman until after the Civil War—when he was instrumental in arranging for William Michael Rossetti’s English edition of Whitman’s poems—he had already publicly expressed his support for Whitman’s work. In August 1860, when he was then editing the Dial in Cincinnati, Conway declared “that Walt Whitman has set the pulses of America to music.” [11]

            Were these editorial connections not enough, Whitman was also familiar with many of the Commonwealth’s contributors. Redpath worked as an occasional correspondent; Emerson himself often contributed poetry. Most intriguingly, John James Piatt, who worked in the Treasury Department and had met Whitman through O’Connor, frequently contributed poetry to the Commonwealth. Piatt later dated a poetic reminiscence of Whitman to this very period—“Washington, May, MDCCCLXIII”—in which he remembered meeting Whitman on a streetcar, headed for home, one night after midnight. “[Y]ou spoke to me of hospitals,” Piatt wrote, “That know your visits, and of wounded men / (From those dread battles yonder in the South).” Hearing Whitman’s stories, he was struck but the realization that perhaps the best nurturer was:

Not only a slight girl, as poets dream,

With gentle footsteps stealing forth alone,

Veiling her hand from her soft timid eyes

Lest they should see her self-forgetful alms,

Or moving, lamp in hand, through glimmering wards

With her nun’s coif or nurse’s sacred garb:

Not only this,—but oft a sunburnt man,

Grey-garmented, grey-bearded, giantesque… [12]

Who exactly Piatt meant when he referred to the “poets” is unclear. However, it is worth remembering Franklin Sanborn’s claim that Emerson wanted to take Whitman to the Saturday Club in Boston in 1860, but Longfellow, Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes declined to have dinner with him; when Emerson instead suggested inviting Whitman to Concord to dine with Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, Sanborn remembered that the women of their houses refused to allow it. Though Sanborn was irritated by these prejudices, he apparently was unwilling to go against them by publishing Whitman in the Commonwealth.

To add insult to injury, Louisa May Alcott—daughter of Bronson Alcott—began publishing her series “Hospital Sketches” in the Commonwealth on May 22. Appearing in four installments, Alcott’s account presented a fictionalized version of her experiences as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown. She had arrived in Washington on December 15, 1862—just two weeks before Whitman—and began sending home letters, full of shock and wide-eyed wonderment. Intended to reassure her skittish father, the letters emphasized humor over heartfelt detail, and much of the work in her “Hospital Sketches” suffers from the same curious distance. Alcott turned herself into Tribulation Periwinkle, and turned the Union Hotel Hospital into Hurly-Burly House. Only the second entry, entitled “The Death of John” is fully realized and emotionally moving, describing the scene as the Virginia blacksmith John Sulie (based on the real John Suhre) slowly dies over the course of a night while he awaits a letter from his mother. The Boston Evening Transcript, however, praised the entire series as “productions of uncommon merit… Fluent and sparkling in style, with touches of quiet humor and wit, relieving what would otherwise be a topic too somber and sad.” [13] If the praise were not enough, the Commonwealth had paid Alcott $200 for the series—and its success brought additional offers at $50 per story. [14] By contrast, Whitman had managed to scrape together a total of $121.50 (one or two dollars at a time) for the months of April and May (see NUPM 2: 608-609).

But the final blow for Whitman came when James Redpath, who had long harbored an interest in starting his own publisher, offered to launch his venture by publishing Alcott. She entered in her notebook for June: “a request from Redpath to be allowed to print the Sketches in a book. Roberts Bros also asked, but I preferred Redpath & said yes, so he fell to work with all his might” (Myerson and Shealy, 119). Redpath’s correspondence with Whitman stopped altogether during the summer, as he hurriedly made preparations for the publication of his first book.

            Presented with these sizable reverses, Whitman responded in typical fashion: He fell back to his familiar plan of supporting himself as a lecturer. He told his mother on June 9:

I think something of commencing a series of lectures & readings &c. through different cities of the north, to supply myself with funds for my Hospital & Soldiers visits—as I do not like to be beholden to the medium of others—I need a pretty large supply of money &c. to do the good I would like to… So, mother, I feel as though I would like to inaugurate a plan by which I could raise means on my own hook, & perhaps quite plenty too. (Corr. 1: 109)

Whitman began scribbling hasty notes and outlines for his rhetorical approach in his notebooks: “Lectures—pieces must not be dry opinions & prosy doctrines, &c.,” he wrote in one such entry, “must be animated life-blood, descriptions, full of movement—with questions—apostrophes—declamatory passages, &c” (NUPM 2: 571). Jeff discussed the matter with Moses Lane and wrote to express their shared doubts about Whitman’s prospects. “I fear that you would not meet with that success that you deserve,” he wrote. “Mr Lane and I talked about the matter and both came to the conclusion that it would be much better if you could be appointed dispensing agent, or something of that kind, for some of the numerous aid societies” (Corr. 1: 109).

            Whitman, however, objected to the idea of connecting up with an established organization. “I have quite made up my mind about the lecturing &c project,” he wrote his mother:

I have no doubt it will succeed well enough, the way I shall put it in operation—you know, mother, it is to raise funds to enable me to continue my Hospital ministrations, on a more free handed scale—As to the Sanitary Commissions & the like, I am sick of them all, & would not accept any of their berths—you ought to see the way the men as they lie helpless in bed turn away their faces from the sight of these Agents, Chaplains &c. (hirelings as Elias Hicks would call them—they seem to me always a set of foxes & wolves)—they get well paid, & are always incompetent & disagreeable— (Corr. 1: 110-111)

Appropriately, just as Whitman was voicing his ardent dislike for members of the Sanitary Commission, one of its new nurses arrived at Armory Square and—in the months to come—would prove a foil and sometime nemesis to Whitman.

            *                      *                      *

Shortly after she arrived at Armory Square Hospital in mid-June, Amanda Akin’s sister suggested that Akin should undertake a series of articles similar to Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches.” Still overwhelmed by the scope of her new responsibilities, Akin responded, “I feel the want of time for letter writing or scribbling in my journal as much as any sacrifice I am making, and should dearly love to write hospital sketches.” [15] But Akin did keep a journal and copies of all of her letters, which he published nearly fifty years later as The Lady Nurse of Ward E. In one early letter, she wrote her sister:

Walt Whitman… visits our hospital almost daily. He took a fancy to my fever boy, and would watch with him sometimes half the night. He is a poet, and I believe has written some very queer books about “Free Love,” etc. He is an odd-looking genius, with a heavy frame, tall, with a turned-down Byronic collar, high head with straggling hair, and very pink rims to his eyes. When he stalks down the ward I feel the “prickings of my thumbs,” and never speak to him, if not obliged to do so, though I hear some of the other ladies offer him a cup of tea, which he enjoys with the relish of a little talk with them. With all his peculiar interest in our soldier boys he does not appeal to me. (Stearns, 56-57)

The “fever boy” mentioned by Akin was Erastus B. Haskell, whom Whitman, in a letter to Haskell’s parents now famous for it heartbreak and eloquence, had worried was improperly cared for by the hospital staff. “From the first I felt that Erastus was in danger,” he wrote, “or at least was much worse than they in the hospital supposed. As he made no complaint, they perhaps [thought him] not very bad” (Corr. 1: 127).

            As the summer wore on, Whitman’s ambitions to begin a lecture series quickly faded. On July 15, he wrote: “Mother, I have no doubt I shall make a few hundred dollars by the lectures I shall certainly commence soon,” (Corr. 1: 117-118), but little more than two weeks later, he confessed to Lewis K. Brown that he had been sick for the previous two or three weeks from the oppressive heat in the hospital. On August 4, Jeff wrote that “[a] ‘Mr Fulton, of the New York Times’ came some time since and got your address and again a few days since and wanted me when I wrote you to ask you if you had received a letter from him. He said that he had written you but had not received a reply and [was] afraid you had not received it.” [16] Jeff was evidently encouraged by this and had spoken to Dr. Edward P. Ruggles, the Whitmans family physician, about it. In closing his letter, Jeff added that “Ruggles thinks that you could make a good thing by writing letters to the Times, better than the lectures” (Berthold and Price, 69).

In response, Whitman set about aggressively publishing his prose. In the span of a month and a half, he published “Washington in the Hot Season” (New York Times, August 16, 1863), “From Washington” (Brooklyn Daily Union, September 22, 1863), and “Letter from Washington” (New York Times, October 4, 1863). These letters simultaneously display Whitman’s resourcefulness as a writer and the caution one must exercise in using his published writings as biographical source material. Though he portrayed all the events depicted in those articles as occurring in the present, in fact, they incorporate material from diary entries from as early as February 15 and as late as the end of August.

            Unable to raise the money himself, Whitman again turned to charity. Redpath had announced in all the newspapers the forthcoming publication of Hospital Sketches. Perhaps it was their appearance that prompted Whitman to send a long, heartfelt letter to Redpath, reminding him of his own hospital efforts and emphasizing the good done by even the smallest donations. Given its style, it is seems apparent that it was intended to be distributed among Redpath’s friends in Boston. Indeed, the letter concludes:

I wish you would ask any body you know who is likely to contribute—It is a good holy cause, surely nothing nobler—I desire you if possible could raise for me, forthwith, for application to these wounded & sick here, (they are from Massachusetts & all the New England states, there is not a day but I am with some Yankee boys, & doing some trifle for them)—(Corr. 1: 122-123)

At some point, Whitman must have mentioned to Redpath that he remained hopeful of publishing this literary journal as a book. Shortly after the third of these articles appeared, Redpath returned to the subject, signing off one of his letters transmitting donations by asking, “By the Bye—how about your Hospital Sketches? Are they ready yet for press?” (Corr. 1: 164n86). The comparison to Alcott’s successful book was no doubt intended as a compliment—especially coming, as it was, from her publisher—but Whitman bristled at Redpath’s associating his journal with Alcott’s book, responding, “My idea is a book of the time, worthy the time—something considerably beyond mere hospital sketches—” (Corr. 1: 171). The scale of Whitman’s ambition is revealed by an exuberant proposal for a publisher’s announcement that he enclosed with his letter:

Probably no greater year has ever sped to its close, in the world’s history, than the one now about terminating. At all events the year 1863 is by far the most important in the hitherto history of America. And this book, with its frame work jotted down on the battle-field, in the shelter-tent, by the way-side amid the rumble of passing artillery trains or the marching of cavalry, in the streets of Washington, the gorgeous halls of gold where the national representatives meet, and above all in the great military hospitals, amid the children of every one of the United States & the representatives of every battle, amid the ashy face, the bloody bandage, with death & suffering on every side… an ardent book arresting many of the most significant things, the flashes, stormy & quick, that characterize the time,—a book of the spirit & the fact of the events we are passing through—a book indeed full of

these vehement, these

tremendous days,

—full of incidents, full of the blood & vitality of the American people,—

            —a book, ante-dating from a mentality gestated amid the ocean life & cosmopolitanism of New York, with all the proclivities of

Nationality, Freedom, &

real Democracy.

—such is the new volume the publisher offers to the public, confident it will prove all that the foregoing description claims for it. (NUPM 2: 660-661)

His plans for his book were not only grand in literary scope but also typically specific in terms of his notions of the physical appearance of the volume:

My idea is a book of handy size & form, 16 mo or smallish 12 mo, first rate paper (this last indispensable), ordinary binding, strongly stitched, to cost including copyright not more than 35 or 40cts or thereabouts to make, to retail for a dollar. It should be got out immediately. I think an edition, elegantly bound, might be pushed off for books for presents &c for the holidays, if advertised for that purpose. It would be very appropriate. I think it a book that would please women. I should expect it to be popular with the trade. (Corr. 1: 172)

Whitman could not have known, but the sales of Alcott’s Hospital Sketches in paperback were, by now, far outpacing the sales of the cloth edition. The difference was so distinct that Redpath had given up the idea of publishing any future titles in hardback. Instead, he hoped to reach the untapped audience of the common soldier by publishing his books as thin, paperback editions with a small trim-size capable of slipping into the breast pocket of a Union uniform. Alcott’s collection of short stories, On Picket Duty, and Other Tales, eventually became the first book in this series, dubbed by Redpath “Books for the Camp Fires.” However, manuscript correspondence reveals that he originally intended to begin with a slightly shortened version of Hospital Sketches. The challenge of publishing so cheaply was that everything had to be done at great volume—and that volume often meant steep upfront expenses. Redpath wrote Alcott:

Only after a sale of 15 to 20,000 can a publisher of Dime Books make his one cent a vol (his maximum) & hence copyrights are impossible…. The very best I could do, (after a close calculation) wd be to pay you $50 now, that is in addition to what I have paid, for the entire right to the Book. [17]

In addition to skimping on copyright and author payments, Redpath planned to print the books in uniform editions—with covers featuring the same engraving of soldiers sitting around a campfire reading—and on the cheapest available, pulp paperstock. All of Whitman’s demands—applying for copyright, printing on high-quality paper, trimmed to a standard size and elegantly bound, selling it for a dollar, and targeting women buyers—ran exactly counter to Redpath’s new business plan.

            He responded kindly but with understandable reluctance to entertain Whitman’s proposal:

I have taken your proposition under consideration.

There is a lion in the way—$

I could easily publish a small Book, but the one you propose—to stereotype, advertise and push it—implies an expenditure that may be beyond my means…

Suppose you finish it and send it on: if I can’t publish it, I will see if some other person won’t.

This is the best I can safely promise. If I can get one or two jobbers to read and like it, and they will make an advance order, or give a favorable trade opinion, the way is clear.

What say? (WWWC, 418)

Without a firm commitment, Whitman was unwilling (and too unwell) to make the concerted effort to construct a finished narrative from the pinned-together scraps and scattered notebooks he carried in his satchel. Instead, on November 1, Whitman returned to New York to check on his mother and see his brother Andrew, who was in precipitously failing health. The time away from Washington also allowed Whitman a much needed break and fresh perspective on his goals as a writer. He wrote Charley Eldridge late one night after returning from the opera, full of pointed thoughts and renewed urgency. “I feel to devote myself more to the work of my life, which is making poems,” he wrote. “I must bring out Drum Taps. I must be continually bringing out poems—now is the hey day” (Corr. 1: 185).

[1] Stovall, Floyd, ed. Walt Whitman: Prose Works 1892 (New York: NYU Press, 1963), p. 32.

[2] Whitman’s friend and former publisher Charles W. Eldridge, by then working in the office of the paymaster general, joked that “any pickpocket who failed to avail himself of such an opportunity as Walt offered, with his loose baggy trousers, and no suspenders, would have been a disgrace to his profession” (Ellen M. Calder, “Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman” in Whitman in His Own Time [Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2000], p. 196). Hereafter Calder.

[3] Walt Whitman: The Correspondence, Edwin Haviland Miller, ed. (New York: NYU Press, 1963), 7: 15. Hereafter Corr.

[4] Grier, Edward F., ed. Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. New York: New York University Press, 1984, 2: 545. Hereafter NUPM.

[5] Special thanks to Kim Roberts for calling this to my attention.

[6] Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. New York: Small, Maynard, 1906, 1: 416. Hereafter WWWC.

[7] Commonwealth, April 10, 1863, p. 2.

[8] Donald, Thomas. Walt Whitman, The Man. New York: Francis P. Harper, 1896, p. 144.

[9] Original held at Historical Society of Pennsylvania. When Donaldson reprinted this letter (Donaldson, 144), he omitted the final two sentences of this passage.

[10] “Literary Review.” Commonwealth, February 24, 1866, p. 1.

[11] Dial , August 1860, pp. 517-19.

[12] Bain, Robert. Whitman’s & Dickinson’s Contemporaries: An Anthology of Their Verse. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996, p. 327.

[13] Clark, Beverly Lyon. Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 9.

[14] Myerson, Joel and Daniel Shealy. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. New York: Little, Brown, 1992, p. 122. Hereafter Myerson and Shealy.

[15] Stearns, Amanda Akin, The Lady Nurse of Ward E. New York: Baker & Taylor Company, 1909, p. 32. Hereafter Stearns.

[16] Berthold, Dennis and Kenneth Price. Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1984, p. 69. Hereafter Berthold and Price.

[17] Original held at the University of Virginia, Special Collection Library.

Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place