Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Reconstructing Whitman's Desk at the Brooklyn Daily Times

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Reconstructing Whitman's Desk at the Brooklyn Daily Times

Article excerpt

WHEN THE EDITOR of the Brooklyn Daily Times from 1885 to 1905 inherited what was known as "Walt Whitman's desk," his curiosity regarding the relic was piqued.1 Dissatisfied with the accounts of "survivors of an earlier day" who "knew about Whitman and his habits, and where the desk used to stand," Alexander Black took the story to its source in 1891.2 His letter of inquiry to Whitman was returned on May 12, along with Black's photo of the desk (see Figure 1).

Couldn't remember distinctly enough to authenticate the desk . . . but I know I had a good time in the Times-& heartily send my best respects & love to the boys one & all now there-I send my last photo: Tack it up if you like on the wall you all most congregate.3

A year later, Whitman was dead, and the desk-perhaps the only physical sign of his Times editorship-had fallen to pieces.

Whitman's editorship at the Times has become a standard part of his chronology since the publication of Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz's I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times (1932).4 Holloway's twenty-seven-page "Introduction" sets forth Whitman's tenure from May 1 1857 to June 1859, his longest stay at any newspaper by several months; estimations of his editorial contributions outnumber those written for any other periodical.5 I Sit and Look Out remains the single book-length study of Whitman's work on the Times and the only easily accessible source of his editorials.6 And it has remained a source text for scholars recognizing Whitman's Times editorship, from Gay Wilson Allen to Dennis Renner.7

Yet Holloway and Schwarz's study has considerable flaws, leading some Whitman scholars to express doubts regarding the validity of their claims and even to request that the Times editorship be removed from Whitman's standard chronology.8 Holloway admits to his limited source materials9 -his account of the newspaper's history comes almost entirely from the Times' own sixtieth anniversary issue-and only 125 of what might be over 900 editorials are presented by subject rather than by date. As Jerome Loving has shown, Holloway and Schwarz made "inaccurate transcriptions" as well as "silent omissions" in their choices of editorials, tempering the political conservatism that does not seem to jibe with Whitman's radical literary experiments of the time.10 I Sit and Look Out was reprinted in 1966, but not updated since its first publication. In the 1960s, Herbert Bergman began assembling all of Whitman's journalism, including all of his editorials for the Times, for a comprehensive edition. His work remains unfinished, though Douglas Noverr and Jason Stacy are currently sifting through Bergman's notes for what will be the third volume of Whitman's journalism.11

This essay updates and expands Holloway's argument for Whitman's editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Times, and reexamines Holloway's proposed time span of Whitman's employment. Despite the lack of signed articles, staff boxes or Whitman's direct indication that he had edited the Times, compelling evidence exists for Whitman's tenure as at least a de facto editor. A "Calamus" manuscript with a Times editorial draft on its verso provides proof in Whitman's hand, and several convincing self-references reside in Times editorials. Though some of the articles seem out of character for Whitman-which might be explained by the domineering presence and editorial contributions of the paper's proprietor-others echo Whitman's writings published elsewhere. Furthermore, Whitman may have been on staff months earlier than Holloway's widely accepted start date of May 1, 1857. Like scholars before and after him, Holloway misunderstood the "period of compilation" and publication dates of the Brooklyn directories, though he relied upon them to calculate Whitman's tenure at the Times.

From as early as circa April 1856 to June 1859, Whitman's days were shaped by his work for the Brooklyn Daily Times. …

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