at School: Student, Teacher, and Poet
Before Walt Whitman the poet, there was Walter Whitman, student, teacher, and journalist. My focus is on Whitman's prose writings and experiences, including his early fiction and newspaper articles that relate to education. Like many others in the nineteenth century, Whitman spent a few years teaching in one-room rural or country schools.
In 1840, when Walter Whitman was teaching
in a one-room country school in Woodbury, Long Island, he
wrote to a friend in
Whitman attended school for five years,
was a clerk for a doctor and lawyer for several months, apprenticed
four years to learn the printing trade, worked as a printer
in Manhattan, founded and edited the Long
Islander newspaper in
Thereafter, throughout his life, in his newspaper
editorials and in his poetry, Whitman continued to teach—and
it was that aspect of his poetry that he valued most. In his
later years, Whitman said, "I don't value the poetry
in what I have written so much as the teaching; the poetry
is only a horse for the other to ride." The lessons can be seen in much of his poetry, which, like education in
the nineteenth century, is quite didactic. Moreover, some
of his poems explicitly mention schools or education.
Just after Whitman attended school
Whitman also attended a Sunday school
Although Whitman did not write in any detail about his own education in his memoirs or newspaper articles, we can make some inferences about it. During his months as a clerk in a law office, Edward Clarke helped him with his handwriting and composition and provided a subscription to a "big circulating library." Good penmanship was an essential skill for nineteenth-century teachers. The library opened up a wider world, and Whitman later referred to it as "the signal event of my life up to that time." He also tells us in Specimen Days that he was "a most omnivorous novel-reader, these and later years, devour'd everything I could get."
An important part of Whitman's education was his apprenticeship in printing, which Justin Kaplan refers to as his "college and trade school." Self-education was important to Whitman, and though his formal schooling was over early, he never stopped learning, just as he never stopped revising Leaves of Grass. He attended lectures, lyceums, and the theater, and participated in debating societies, all of which were part of his self-education. A number of times he wrote that, "There should be men's & women's schools, as well as children's." Around the same time he published Leaves of Grass, he wrote, "Before we become grown, we are incapable of really learning any thing—but only prepare to learn."
During his twenties, Whitman tried
his hand at fiction—a novel and some short stories, which
are, deservedly, not well-known today. Nonetheless, an analysis
of some portions of his fiction can give insight into Whitman's
experiences at school. Like many writers, he drew on his own
experiences in his writings. Franklin
Evans is an early temperance novel, which Whitman first
published in 1842 and was reprinted
several times. Evans was an orphan by the age of thirteen;
two years before she died, his mother apprenticed him to an
uncle who was a
The next incident in Franklin Evans may not
be based on Whitman's own experience, but it is an
interesting commentary on a choice he might have had or wished
he had. It certainly is an insight into his view of the opportunities
Whitman began to teach in 1836 when
he was only seventeen; this, however, was not
unusually young for the time.
Most rural teachers at that time, like Whitman, had
attended a one-room school and had only the equivalent of
today's elementary schooling, and no special training to teach.
a short story published in 1848, Whitman tells us what may
have been behind his decision to teach. In "The Shadow
and the Light of a Young Man's Soul," Archibald
Dean's widowed mother is ruined financially by a "destructive"
Whitman calls Archie Dean's story a "Fact Romance," and it is clearly autobiographical. The evolution of Archie Dean's attitude—from hostility toward Long Islanders and their country schools to a sanguine respect—mirrors a similar shift in Whitman's thinking, from his "damnation" of Woodbury to admiring the "the upright common-sensible people . . . of the country districts on Long Island."
Whitman "kept school" in eight or ten different districts in Queens and Suffolk counties on Long Island during his five years of teaching. Whitman usually taught only one term in a district, but it was fairly common not to be rehired. At this time in his life, Whitman was trying to "find himself," in today's terminology. Teaching was rarely undertaken as a career during that period. Whitman later wrote in an 1845 newspaper article, "The schools of Long Island, are taught as a general thing altogether by what we may call chance teachers—young men during college vacations, poor students, tolerably intelligent farmers, who have some months leisure in the winter, and wish to make a little money,—and so on. There are very few permanent teachers."
Rural schools usually had one room. Typically, one teacher taught students ranging in age from four or five to sixteen or eighteen. School was in session five and one-half or six days a week and between three or four months (the state minimum) to seven and twelve months a year.Student attendance was not compulsory and was often sporadic. Though eighty-five students were on the rolls in the Smithtown Branch district school the year Whitman taught there, the usual daily attendance was probably fewer than thirty or forty.
We know most about Whitman's teaching
Whitman joined and helped revive the
debating society in
There are a few descriptions of Whitman
as teacher. Charles A. Roe, one of his students
in Little Bay Side,
Whitman's younger brother, George, was his student for a year, and though he is hardly an unbiased source, said the consensus was that "Walt made a very good schoolmaster." Whitman filled in for the regular teacher in Woodbury in the summer of 1840. That teacher later commented that Whitman "must have spent most of his time writing poetry, 'for the pupils had not gained a "whit" in learning when he took them over again.'" Former student Sandford Brown of West Hills, interviewed years later, admired Whitman greatly, but felt he "warn't in his element" as a teacher. "He was always musin' an' writin', 'stead of 'tending to his proper dooties." One of his students in Whitestone later recalled that Whitman had sat writing at his desk most of the time, and kept the class writing, too.
Whitman's school-teaching career ended
in 1841. Thereafter he resumed his newspaper career in Brooklyn
In "Song of Myself,"
Whitman may have been remembering when he kept school on
It is appropriate to conclude with
a poem which Whitman wrote for the
opening of a public school in
—In "Autumn Rivulets"
Appendix: Chronology of Whitman's Early Years
Born May 31 at West Hills (now Huntington Station),
Whitman family moves to
Attends Sunday school at
Attends public school in
1830 Serves as office boy in a law office and later for a doctor
Learns printing trade in
1836-38 Joins family living in Hempstead and in June 1836 begins teaching at East Norwich; by winter 1837-38 has taught at Babylon, Long Swamp [Huntington Station], and Smithtown on Long Island.
1838-39 Begins weekly newspaper in Huntington, the Long Islander, with the assistance of his 10 year-old brother, George. Editor, writer and compositor, he also delivers the papers on horseback. No copies survive from this first year of the newspaper.
1839-40 Begins working on a newspaper in
Campaigns for Van Buren (autumn 1840); teaches school
1841-1842 Publishes short story, "Death in the School-Room," in Democratic Review in August; writes for various newspapers and publishes other short fiction (Franklin Evans in 1842).
1844-48 Serves as editor, New York Democrat (1844), Brooklyn Eagle (1846-48); writes for various publications.
1855 Publishes Leaves of Grass at the age of thirty-six (twelve poems and ninety-five
pages). Sends a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson and his
literary career is launched. Emerson
writes him from
[Joann P. Krieg. A Whitman Chronology (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1998), pp. 2-17, 29; see also "Chronology" in Whitman Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), pp. 1347-48.]
Excerpts from Whitman's "Autobiographical Data" on Teaching
"I went up to Hempstead from
"I kept the school west of "
"In the winter succeeding [1839-40],
I taught school between
"In summer of 40 I taught at Woodbury
. . . "
"Winter of 1840, went to Whitestone
and was there till next spring—"
[The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 1921, ed. Emory Holloway, 2 vols. (Reprint; Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1972), 2:86-88.]
Bibliography on Whitman and Education
Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as
Editor of the
University Press, 1970.
Funnell, Bertha H. Walt Whitman on
Golden, Arthur. "Nine Early Whitman Letters, 1840-1841," American Literature 58 (October 1986): 342-60.
Krieg, Joann P. "
Marshall, Bernice. "Master Walt."
Molinoff, Katherine. "Walt
——. Monographs on Unpublished Whitman Materials.
No. 1. An Unpublished
Whitman Manuscript; The Record Book
No. 4. Walt Whitman at Southold.
Naylor, Natalie A. "Walter Whitman
at School: Education and Teaching in the Nineteenth Century."
Van Doren, Mark, ed.
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Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.
Days & Collect, 1882-1883. Reprint;
Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by
Walt Whitman's New York: From Manhattan
to Montauk, edited by Henry M. Christman.
The Walt Whitman
Birthplace State Historic Site and
Selected Bibliography on the History of Education
——. The American Common School: An Historic Conception.
Greene, Maxine. The Public School and the Private Vision: A
Kaestle, Carl. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860, 1983.
Naylor, Natalie A. "'Diligent in
Study and Respectful in Deportment': Early
Rocheleau, Paul. The One-Room Schoolhouse: A Tribute to a Beloved