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

Whitman at School: Student, Teacher, and Poet
Natalie A. Naylor Professor Emerita, Hofstra University

 Note: This paper and article is adapted from a longer article that appears in New York History [86 (Winter 2005): 7-27], which includes full documentation.

            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 Jamaica, Queens, "O damnation, damnation! thy other name is schoolteaching and thy residence is Woodbury." The young (twenty-one year old) Whitman complained about the food and the "horrid dulness" of the place. "Woodbury! appropriate name!—it would-bury me or any being of the least wish for intelligent society." Whitman pleaded with his friend for "mental food" and looked forward to leaving Woodbury's "old school-room, dirty-faced urchins and moth-eaten desk." Within a few years, however, he was writing newspaper articles which were much more positive about education and rural Long Islanders.

            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 Huntington, and taught in at least eight different schools during six years—all by the time he was twenty-one. (See Appendix: Chronology of Whitman’s Early Years.)

             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.
            Whitman's own schooling in Brooklyn was at District School No. 1. It was a monitorial school, which was a system devised to cope with educating children of the masses as inexpensively as possible. Such schools were popular in urban areas when the early public schools were regarded as charity schools, since they enrolled children whose parents could not afford private schools. In a monitorial school, the teacher taught a group of older students who were monitors or unpaid assistants, and they in turn taught the other children. By this method, one paid teacher could teach a hundred or more students. This type of school naturally put a premium on memorization and rote learning, which indeed was very typical of most education in the early and mid-nineteenth century.

            Just after Whitman attended school in Brooklyn, its teacher, Benjamin Buel Halleck, described the school in a letter to a newspaper in 1831. The teacher would dictate a word and its definition to the monitors who wrote it on their slates. They then taught the word to their charges, and proceeded in similar manner with other subjects. Any breaches of discipline were met with corporal punishment.  Halleck later remembered Whitman as "a big, good-natured lad, clumsy and slovenly in appearance, but not otherwise remarkable." After Whitman became famous, Halleck said, "We need never be discouraged over anyone."

            Whitman also attended a Sunday school at St. Ann's (Episcopal) Church and at a Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn. In that era, Sunday schools sometimes taught reading and writing as well as the Bible and religion. They usually had a library of books, and typically had smaller classes and usually more humane teachers than the public schools. St. Ann's had Sunday school in the morning and afternoon and forbade any rod or cane. It may be that this contrast in method between the monitorial and Sunday schools struck a chord in Whitman's imagination, for the first fiction he published was an indictment of corporal punishment. "Death in the School-Room (A Fact)" is the story of a boy whom the teacher wrongly accuses of stealing fruit. The teacher chastises the student verbally and flogs him so severely that the beating results in his death.

            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 Long Island farmer. Whitman uses the first person in this story: "In the winters, as is customary in that part of the island, I attended school, and thus picked up a scanty kind of education. The teachers were, however, by no means overburthened with learning themselves; and my acquirements were not such as might make any one envious." This is probably a fairly accurate summary of Whitman's own schooling, though it appears in his fiction.

            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 on rural Long Island and the advantages of schooling versus education in the real world of the city. Franklin Evans' uncle, to whom Evans was apprenticed, was poor and had a large family. When Evans was nearly nineteen, his uncle offered to release him from the last two years of his apprenticeship, which "would have been of more value to him than all the others," since he was older and able to do more work. Whitman wrote in the persona of Evans: "He gave me my choice—whether to go to New York [City], and see what I could do there for a living, or to remain a while longer with him; not to labor, but to attend school, and perfect myself in some more valuable parts of education. Probably, it would have been far better had I chosen the latter of the two alternatives." Evans chooses the city and the real world rather than schooling. Whitman, we know, went to work in Brooklyn at the age of eleven.

            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. In 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" fire in New York City in 1835. That same fire interrupted Whitman's printing career in the city by burning most of the printing shops.  Whitman explains that it was poverty that led Dean to teach. He continues: "And happening accidentally to hear of a country district, where for poor pay and coarse fare, a school teacher was required, and finding on inquiry that Archie, who though little more than a boy himself, had a fine education, would fill the needs of the office." Archie Dean is discouraged after a few days of teaching when he sees around him "so many people who appear to be born into the world merely to eat and sleep, and run the same dull monotonous round." He fears that he will "fall in this current, and live and die in vain!" But his mood and spirits are changed, in part "by his country life, by his long walks over the hills, by his rides on horseback every Saturday, his morning rambles and his evening saunters." Soon, Dean finds "something to admire in the character and customs of the unpolished country-folk; their sterling sense on most practical subjects, their hospitality, and their industry."

            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 experiences in Smithtown. Whitman was paid $72.20 for five and one-half months of teaching. The district reported 64 children older than five and younger than fifteen years of age, but since a total of 85 children were taught during the year, there were a significant number of younger and older students. Students brought whatever textbooks they owned. Among those used the year Whitman taught in Smithtown were Noah Webster's blue-backed Spelling Book and Lindley Murray's Grammar and English Reader. These were very popular and traditional texts, first published decades earlier. School trustees elected at the town meeting visited or inspected schools periodically. The Smithtown Branch school where Whitman taught received three visits during the year 1837-1838.

            Whitman joined and helped revive the debating society in Smithtown which met Wednesday evenings in the schoolhouse. He became secretary, served on the committees to draw up the constitution, and to select topics for debates. The Record Book of the debating society has minutes in Whitman's handwriting. He had good penmanship, which became sloppier in later life. Katherine Molinoff, who wrote about the Smithtown debating society found fault with his minutes. "Whitman's secretaryship during ten of the meetings left much to be desired," she maintained. "He made several glaring errors in recording the business of the society, mis-spelled the names of the members, and was poor at punctuating." I think she is too critical. Whitman probably did not rewrite or copy over the minutes. It is easy to spell people's surnames wrong if you have not seen them written. Punctuation standards and styles in the nineteenth century differed from today's, although, admittedly, Whitman's punctuation was always a bit idiosyncratic, even throughout his newspaper career.

            There are a few descriptions of Whitman as teacher. Charles A. Roe, one of his students in Little Bay Side, Queens, recalled years later the neatly dressed young man who did not smoke or drink, but was a "hearty eater." Whitman, he tells us, maintained "complete discipline" without being severe or ever using corporal punishment. The students "obeyed and respected him." Roe remembered that Whitman's "ways of teaching were peculiar." He "taught orally" rather than confining his students to memorizing and reciting books. He taught grammar and the usual three R's—reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. But he also was "very fond of describing objects and incidents to the school . . . He was always interesting, a very good talker." Roe remembered mental arithmetic and that Whitman used a game of "twenty questions." He gave students poems to recite, and some were his own. Roe recalled: "I had other teachers, but none of them ever left such an impress upon me. And yet I could not mention any particular thing. It was his whole air, his general sympathetic way, his eye, his voice, his entire geniality. I felt something I could not describe." Roe said none of the students or their parents complained about Whitman. "What I say, others will also say." He concluded, "here was a man out of the average, who strangely attracted our respect and affection."

            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 and New York City and continued to write short stories and poetry. Whitman dealt frequently with education and schools in the articles and editorials he published in Brooklyn newspapers beginning in the mid-1840s. He had progressive (though not unique) ideas on education and teaching. He wanted students to understand, to reason and reflect, to question, and to love knowledge. He urged more careful selection of and higher pay for teachers and greater financial support of schools, abolition of corporal punishment, teaching of American history, free evening schools, and uniform textbooks supplied by the school.

            In "Song of Myself," Whitman may have been remembering when he kept school on Long Island: "No shuttered room or school can commune with me, / But roughs and little children better than they."

            It is appropriate to conclude with a poem which Whitman wrote for the opening of a public school in Camden, New Jersey in 1874.

An Old Man's Thought of School
An old man's thought of school,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.

Now only do I know you,
O fair auroral skies—O morning dew upon the grass!

And these I see, these sparkling eyes
These stories of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping like a fleet of ships, immortal ships,
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the soul's voyage.

Only a lot of boys and girls?

Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?

Ah more, infinitely more;
(As George Fox rais'd his warning cry, "Is it this pile of brick and mortar, these dead floors,
windows, rails, you call the church?
Why this is not the church at all—the church is living, ever living souls.")

And you America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
To girlhood, boyhood look, the teacher and the school.

            —In "Autumn Rivulets"

 Whitman is still at school, teaching us in his poetry and prose.


Appendix: Chronology of Whitman's Early Years


1819               Born May 31 at West Hills (now Huntington Station), Long Island

1823               Whitman family moves to Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Navy Yard on May 27

c. 1825           Attends Sunday school at St. Ann's Episcopal Church

1825-30          Attends public school in Brooklyn

1830               Serves as office boy in a law office and later for a doctor

1831-34          Learns printing trade in Brooklyn as an apprentice

1835                Printer in Manhattan until the great fire, August 12, which destroys printing shops

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 Jamaica as a writer (August 1839). Teaches at Jamaica Academy in Flushing Hill (fall 1839) and at Little Bay Side in the Town of Jamaica (December 1839).

1840-41          Campaigns for Van Buren (autumn 1840); teaches school at Trimming Square (spring 1840), Woodbury (summer 1840), Dix Hills (?), Whitestone (fall 1840 and spring 1841), and possibly in Southold.

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 Concord: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career which yet must have a long foreground somewhere for such a start."

[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 New York 1st of May 1836—went to [East] Norwich to teach school in June the same year."

"I kept the school west of Babylon the winter of 36-7"

"At Long Swamp [Huntington Station] the spring of '37"

"At Smithtown the fall and winter of 37" [-38; edited Long Islander, 1838-39] . . .

"In the winter succeeding [1839-40], I taught school between Jamaica and Flushing [Bay-side]—also in February and spring of '40 at Triming Square" [West Hempstead/Franklin Square]

"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 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State

         University Press, 1970.

Freedman, Florence Bernstein. Walt Whitman Looks at the Schools. New York: King's Crown

           Press, Columbia University, 1950.

Funnell, Bertha H. Walt Whitman on Long Island. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1971.

Golden, Arthur. "Nine Early Whitman Letters, 1840-1841," American Literature 58 (October 1986): 342-60.

Krieg, Joann P. "Long Island Letters of Schoolmaster Whitman." West Hills Review 6 (1986) 41-49.

——.  A Whitman Chronology. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998.

Marshall, Bernice. "Master Walt." Nassau County Historical Society Journal 12 (1950-51): 19-23.

Molinoff, Katherine. "Walt Whitman at Smithtown." Long Island Forum 4 (August 1941): 179-84.

——. Monographs on Unpublished Whitman Materials.  Brooklyn: Comet Press, 1941-1942:

         No. 1. An Unpublished Whitman Manuscript; The Record Book of the Smithtown Debating Society, 1837-1838; no. 3. Whitman's Teaching at Smithtown, 1837-1838.

         No. 4.  Walt Whitman at Southold.  Brookville, NY: C.W. Post College, 1966.

Naylor, Natalie A. "Walter Whitman at School: Education and Teaching in the Nineteenth Century." New York History 86 (Winter 2005): 7-27.

Van Doren, Mark, ed. The Portable Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Press, 1969.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Modern Library, 1993. (There are many editions.)

——. Specimen Days & Collect, 1882-1883. Reprint; New York: Dover, 1995.

——. Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

——. Walt Whitman's New York: From Manhattan to Montauk, edited by Henry M. Christman. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1989.


The Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center is located at 246 Old Walt Whitman Road (sw of the Walt Whitman Mall on Route 110), in Huntington Station, NY. Open Wed.-Fri.1-4 pm, Sat.-Sun., 11-4 pm (extended hours in summer); (631) 427-5240.


Selected Bibliography on the History of Education

Burton, Warren. The District School as It Was by One Who Went to It, 1833. Reprinted.

Cremin, Lawrence A. American Education: The National Experience, 1783-1876. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. 

——. The American Common School: An Historic Conception. New York: Teachers College Press, 1951. (Cremin has written many other books on the history of American education.)

Greene, Maxine. The Public School and the Private Vision: A Search for America in Education and Literature. New York: Random House, 1965.

Guilliford, Andrew. America's Country Schools, 1983. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Preservation Press, 1991.

Johnson, Clifton. Old-Time Schools and School-books, 1904. Reprint; New York: Dover, 1963.

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 Long Island Schooling." Nassau County Historical Society Journal 43 (1988): 1-13.

Rocheleau, Paul. The One-Room Schoolhouse: A Tribute to a Beloved National Icon. New York: Universe/Rizzoli, 2003.


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