Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Previously Undocumented Art Criticism by Walt Whitman

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Previously Undocumented Art Criticism by Walt Whitman

Article excerpt

Whitman's "Letters from a traveLLing BacheLor," written for the New York Sunday Dispatch (October 14, 1849, through January 6, 1850) are well known, as is his practice of contributing news about Brooklyn and Brooklyn artists to the Dispatch as well as to other newspapers like the Evening Post.1 But his extended description of a painting by Jesse Talbot, Encampment of the Caravan, in the Evening Post ("Encampment of the Caravan," April 29, 1851; p. 1), and his critique of the National Academy of Design annual exhibition in the Dispatch of the following year ("An Hour at the Academy of Design," April 25, 1852; p. 2), as well as the response the latter generated, have not been cited or described. These articles point to an additional source for Whitman's interest in Egypt and the Orient, and to his eventual disenchantment with institutions for "elevating" popular taste in art.

The Sunday Dispatch (1845-1861) was an inexpensive (3 cents until 1854, then 4 cents) weekly edited by Amor J. Williamson and William Burns (with a third partner, Watson, as co-proprietor), who had also partnered to edit the Weekly Universe (1847-1852). The Universe described itself as "A Cosmopolitan Hebdomadal, only $1 a year, Devoted to Literature, Science, Arts, History, Biography, Anecdotes, Amusements, Adventures; and Intelligence, Metropolitan, National and Cosmopolitan." Its Whitmanesque motto was "No Pent-Up Continent Contracts our Powers; But the Whole Boundless Universe is Ours." When Burns died on June 23, 1850, Williamson continued editing both papers, though he eventually dropped the Universe.2 Anson Herrick, founder of the Atlas, the grandfather of the Sunday papers, in his history of the Sunday press, noted that Burns had worked for him, as had Whitman (briefly, at the Aurora), Louis Tasistro (the Dispatch praised Tasistro, and Whitman would later solicit money for him), and several of the editors of the Sunday Mercury.3 Herrick, a Democrat with freesoil sympathies, disapproved of the turn Amor J. Williamson's politics had taken-Williamson was an active W hig by 1852.

In the opening issue of the Dispatch, the editors, after pointing out that each of them was over six feet tall, introduced their editorial policy. Whereas party (partisan) editors look at political documents as party artists look at a picture, "in different lights," with amusingly absurd results, the Dispatch argued that there is a true light in which to survey pictures and political messages-the light of nationality and progressive democracy.4 They reproduce in that same month an excerpt from author Cornelius Mathews' speech on Young America, in which he describes Young Americans as the first race (generation) of republicans in birth, origin, education, and experience, making each man in some sense the Republic himself. By 1848, they announce that "we are radical in the extremest degree," working for something better than this "vaunted civilization."5 The Dispatch supported free public baths and land reform, published Bryant poems, admired Kossuth and Garibaldi, was sympathetic to the filibusters like William Walker, got involved in a libel case with James Gordon Bennett of the Herald, hated Fernando Wood, and was critical of laws restricting business on Sundays.6

In regards to art, by 1849 the Dispatch was increasingly dismissive of the American Art-Union-an organization to promote the arts headed for many years by William Cullen Br yant but mostly governed by Whig merchants-as an institution of privilege. The editors pointed out, for example, that the Art-Union's annual lottery of paintings was permitted by the legislature, while small lottery offices catering to the poor were raided by the police. Furthermore, they argued that a clique of artists-cliques being consonant with undeserved privilege-controlled the men who ran the Art-Union, and so biased its patronage. Other anecdotes imply that the Art-Union gallery was a place for romantic trysts. Similarly, the Dispatch vigorously attacked the American Institute, which annually exhibited the mechanical arts and had a similar structure-it was run by Whig manufacturing interests rather than by the mechanics it was supposedly benefitting. …

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