Washington as seen through Whitman's eyes

By Lisa Rauschart
May 13, 2004

"This Washington is a great place," wrote Walt Whitman to his mother in June of 1866. "You see how funny the world is governed and lots of queer doings that outsiders never dream of."

Despite the fact that he lived and worked in the District for nearly 10 years, signs of Whitman's stay in Washington are few. There is Montgomery County's Walt Whitman High School, and the bust of Whitman in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, but few traces of Whitman's sojourn here remain.

"His presence in the city was deeply felt by him," says Kim Roberts, a poet and author who has done extensive research about Whitman's time in Washington. "It was not so deeply felt by the city."

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you'll find another story. In part, the story is Whitman's alone, of a poet carving out a life for himself in a new city. In part, the story is that of a nation at war.

And in part, it is the story of individuals like Kim Roberts and Martin Murray, founder of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, who have worked to uncover the connection between Whitman and the capital city.

Many of the story's threads will come together, symbolically at least, here in this city on May 23, when the Washington Chorus, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, presents "A Sea Symphony," by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The composer, a lifelong admirer of Whitman, took his symphony's text from "Leaves of Grass."

The concert takes place just eight days before the 185th anniversary of Whitman's birth, May 31.


Washington was a city that grew on Whitman, just as it has for many of those transplanted here.

"The great sights of Washington are the public buildings, the wide streets, the public grounds, the trees, the Smithsonian Institute & grounds," Whitman wrote to his mother, in Brooklyn, in July of 1863. "I go to the latter occasionally - the Institute is an old fogy concern, but the grounds are nice."

It was not the sights that drew him to the nation's capital, of course, but the need to care for a younger brother, George Washington Whitman, whom he had heard had been wounded after the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862.

The journey was not one to undertake lightly. Whitman took a ferry from his home in Brooklyn to Manhattan, then another to the railroad station at Jersey City, N.J., where he could board a train bound for Philadelphia. From there, he could get a connecting train to Washington.

Whitman arrived in Washington with no money (his pocket had been picked in Philadelphia), no place to stay, and no brother to be found in any of the city's 40 or more hospitals for military wounded.

Within days, he made his way to Fredericksburg, Va., hoping that his brother might still be attached to his regiment. Upon arriving, he went up to the large house near the battlefield that had been converted into a hospital.

"Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I noted a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c, about a load for a one horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown wooden blanket...," Whitman wrote in the New York Times of Dec. 11, 1864. (Whitman wrote frequently on the war for the Times between 1863 and 1865, and later put that work into "Specimen Days," published in 1882.)

At Fredericksburg he found his brother, safe and relatively sound, suffering only from a scratch on the cheek. For the next two weeks, he stayed with the troops, visiting with the wounded. Then, in early January of 1863, he accompanied a boatload of casualties back to Washington.


Whitman's Washington that January of 1863 would be hardly recognizable today. The city teemed with soldiers, government workers, and assorted hangers-on, all crowding into existing boarding houses and hotels. Troops were quartered in hastily constructed barracks or in improvised tent cities.

There was no sewer system; waste from the occasional indoor water closet went directly to the nearest creek or vacant lot. The Washington Canal, along what is now Constitution Avenue, was choked with garbage, dead animals, and worse. Each day brought a stream of wagons bearing more men, weapons and other supplies along the city's unpaved streets.

The wagons also brought wounded. By 1863, there were tens of thousands of them, suffering not only from the effects of gunshot and bayonet wounds, but from gangrene and diseases like smallpox and typhoid fever, which could spread contagion quicker than a surgeon could say "knife."

So many wounded had poured into the city that there were not enough hospitals to accommodate them all. Schools and churches were hastily transformed, wooden planks laid across pews to serve as beds.

Large estates, like that of banker W.W. Corcoran, a Confederate sympathizer who had fled to Europe at the outbreak of hostilities, were pressed into service as hospitals; the Corcoran estate is now the site of the Washington Hospital Center.

"A wanderer like me about Washington, pauses on some high land which commands the sweep of the city, (one never tires of the noble and simple views presented here, in the generally fine, soft, peculiar air and light,) and has his eyes stirred by these white clusters of barracks in almost every direction," Whitman wrote in the New York Times of Dec. 11, 1864. "They make a great show in the landscape, and I often use them as landmarks."


Whitman hardly meant to stay at first. But visits to area hospitals in search of "Brooklyn boys" soon stretched to include any soldier in need. He brought books and papers, affixed stamps and read letters, gave them money, and talked of home. He proclaimed himself an "independent missionary," although he bore a pass from the U.S. Christian Commission.

His description of an experience of June 25, 1863, appeared in the New York Times of Dec. 11, 1864 and later found its way into "Specimen Days":

"As I sit writing this paragraph (sundown, Thurday, June 25,) I see a train of about thirty huge four-horse wagons, used as ambulances, filled with wounded, passing up Fourteenth-street, on their way, probably, to Columbian, Carver, and Mount Pleasant Hospitals. This is the way the men come in now, seldom in small numbers, but almost always in these long, sad processions. Through the past Winter, while our army lay opposite Fredericksburgh, the like strings of ambulances were of frequent occurrence along Seventh-street, passing slowly up from the steamboat wharf, from Aquia Creek. "


His first address was at 394 L St. N, near Vermont Avenue, "the 4th door above 14th St.," as he described it in a letter. It was the same house that his friend William O'Connor lived in with his wife and 5-year old daughter; Whitman rented a room on the second floor for $7 a month.

But Whitman, like many of the characters portrayed in his poetry, was a working man. The little luxuries he brought to the patients were paid for out of his own pocket. He needed a job.

Through the good offices of one of his friends, he obtained a temporary post at the paymaster general's office. Over the next 10 years, he would hold a succession of jobs, moving from the paymaster general's office to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and finally to the Department of Justice. He also would live at a succession of boarding houses around the city.

"I am getting better and better acquainted with office hunting wisdom and Washington peculiarities generally," he wrote.

The situation was tense; many in town were Southern sympathizers, and Unionists squirmed under the very real fear that the city would be open to attack from both within and without. A line of forts and batteries ringed the city, while troops drilled along its unpaved avenues.

Through it all, Whitman floated amid the fray. Politically, he was unconnected. And he did not discriminate among the wounded, treating them all, Northerner and Southerner alike.

"I think what people associate with Whitman is a certain democratic enthusiasm for people from all walks of life," says Ms. Roberts, whose work on Whitman in Washington can be found at http://washingtonart.com/beltway/whitman.html.

"He was always interested in people and could empathize with anybody, men and women, slaves and slaveowners, and people from a wide range of classes."


Somewhere beneath the Air and Space Museum are the remains of the Armory Square Hospital, the place Whitman visited most. As the hospital nearest the steamboat landing at the end of 7th Street, and quite close to the tracks of the Washington and Alexandria Railroad, which ran along Maryland Avenue, Armory Square received more than its share of severely wounded men.

"It contains by far the worst cases, most repulsive wounds, has the most suffering and the most need of consolation," he wrote to his mother in March 1863.

Not everyone warmed to Whitman. Some he made frankly uncomfortable, and many contemporary scholars suggest that Whitman's sexuality was at or near the heart of it. Certainly, Whitman had close friendships with a number of men, and the effusive language of the day easily suggests to 21st-century eyes that these friendships were intimate indeed. Whitman himself acknowledged a special bond between men, which he called "adhesive" love, to be distinguished from "amative" or heterosexual love. The language of his letters to both men and women suggests a degree of intimacy with members of both sexes.

Mr. Murray, in "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals" - an article in the Fall/Winter 1996-1997 issue of Washington History, the magazine of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., reprinted at www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/murraywounded - tells the story of Amanda Akin, the daughter of a prominent New York family who was working at Armory Square Hospital. She complained about Whitman's daily visits.

"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."

Her "fever boy" was Erastus Haskell, a fifer from the 141st New York Infantry band who was struggling with typhoid. Whitman feared the worst, yet the doctors were sanguine that he would recover.

Unfortunately, Whitman was right: Young Erastus died on Aug. 2, 1863, and it was up to Whitman to share the news with his parents.


Through his entire stay here, Whitman continued to write, submitting articles about his war experiences and tinkering with his magnum opus, "Leaves of Grass," already published in separate editions in 1855, 1856 and 1860.

In fact, it was "Leaves of Grass" that caused him to be dismissed from his Bureau of Indian Affairs job, after a superior lifted his working copy from his desk and took issue with words.

A day later, he was hired by the Justice Department.

In the end, Whitman left Washington not because he wanted to, but because he had to. He was felled by a stroke in 1873 and was taken to Camden, N.J., into a brother's care.

It was the same brother he had come to Washington to find back in 1862.



Where Whitman slept; tributes

Finding traces of Walt Whitman in Washington isn't easy, since many of the sites associated with him have been altered considerably.

Still, that may not matter to Whitman aficionados: "I found going to the places, in a strange way, a very powerful experience," says Washington poet and author Kim Roberts, who has researched Whitman's time here. "It may look like it's erased, but it doesn't feel as if it has been erased."

Here, thanks to Ms. Roberts, is a listing of places associated with the poet. (Remember that streets were renumbered after 1870. Before then, addresses were numbered as buildings were erected.)

Boarding houses

    1. 394 L St. N (near Vermont Avenue and 14th Street NW, on the north side of L Street NW, now the headquarters of the American Medical Association, with its entrance 1101 Vermont Ave. NW). Whitman moved in here in 1863. It was his first home in Washington.

    2. 456 6th St. W (between E and D streets, NW, on the east side of the street, now the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, with an entrance at 415 6th St. NW). Whitman moved to this house in October 1863.

    3. 502 Pennsylvania Ave. (on the north side of the street, now the U.S. Capitol grounds, across from the Reflecting Pool). The poet moved here in May 1864, giving up his room when he went home to Brooklyn in June 1864 for an extended vacation that lasted through January 1865.

    4. 468 M St. N (between 12th and 13th streets NW, on the north side of the street, now the Claridge Towers Apartments). Whitman's first home on his return to Washington.

    5. 364 13th St. W (between K and L streets NW on the east side of the street, now a multi-story office building with an entrance at 1220 L St. NW). Whitman moved here in February 1866.

    6. 472 M St. S (between 12th and 13th streets NW, on the north side of the street, now the Claridge Towers Apartments). Whitman moved into this house, just two doors down from his earlier digs at 468 M St. N, in 1867. This was his most durable Washington address; he gave up the cramped attic apartment here only in July 1870, when he returned to New York for three months to supervise the typesetting of three books - "Democratic Vistas," the fifth edition of "Leaves of Grass," and "Passage to India." By this time (indeed, by Jan. 1, 1870) the street address had been changed to 1205 M St. NW.

    7. 535 15th St. NW (between Pennsylvania Avenue and F Street NW, on the east side of the street, now the Hotel Washington, with its entrance at 515 15th St. NW).Whitman's home addresses during 1871 and 1872 can't be verified, but by 1873 he was at this, his final home address in Washington, an underheated attic room across the street from his last place of employment, in the Treasury building.

Offices and hospitals

    8. 15th and F streets NW (on the top floor of a building at the corner, now also the site of the Hotel Washington). Whitman worked here first for the paymaster general beginning in 1863, making long-hand copies of government records. From 1865 to 1870 he worked in this same building, in the office of the attorney general.

    9. Bureau of Indian Affairs (then located in the basement level at the northeast corner of the U.S. Patent Office, now the National Portrait Gallery.) Beginning in January 1865 Whitman worked as a clerk for the bureau. He was fired within the year when the new secretary of the Interior found a manuscript copy of "Leaves of Grass" in his desk and branded it evidence of immorality. In less than 24 hours he had another job, in the office of the attorney general, and was sent back to 15th and F streets (in the same building as in No. 8).

    10. Freedmen's Savings Bank building (Pennsylvania Avenue and Madison Place NW, now the Treasury Annex). Whitman was moved to this building in 1871, when the new Department of Justice (created by the merger of the offices of the attorney general and the solicitor of the treasury) was consolidated here.

    11. Treasury Building. By January 1872, Whitman was transferred to an office here, where he worked in the solicitor's office. It was in this building, while working late on the night of Jan. 23, 1873, that he suffered the paralyzing stroke that later in the year would force him to leave Washington.

    12. Armory Square Hospital (6th Street and Independence Avenue, near what is now the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum). This is the hospital for war wounded that Whitman visited most often.

Present-day tributes

    13. "Ocean Piece" by Jorge Martins (Archives-Navy Memorial Metro station, WMATA, green and yellow lines). A viana green marble wall sculpture with excerpts from poems by Walt Whitman and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

    14. Freedom Plaza walkway (Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets NW). An engraved quote from Whitman's correspondence.

    15. Whitman-Walker Clinic (1407 S St. NW and four other locations in the Washington area). Named for Walt Whitman and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, both of whom served in Washington hospitals during the Civil War.

    16. Untitled public art commission by Siah Armajani (Terminal B, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport). A work of steel, cast bronze, and copper balustrade, with excerpt from a poem by Walt Whitman.


A Sea Symphony    

Today a rude brief recitative,
Of ships sailing the seas, each with its special flag or ship-signal,
Of unnamed heroes in the ships - of waves spreading as far as the eye can reach,
Of dashing spray, and the winds piping and blowing,...

No wonder the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, quintessentially a product of Shakespeare's "precious stone set in a silver sea," was stirred by the poetry of Walt Whitman. Whitman's fascination with the sea became a recurring motif in his work - as it is here, in this snatch from "A Song for All Seas, All Ships," from "Leaves of Grass." The poems must have become irresistible for Vaughan Williams as the composer contemplated "A Sea Symphony."

The two come together again, live, on May 23, as the Washington Chorus performs the Vaughan Williams work at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Vaughan Williams was just one of several composers to set Whitman's texts to music. Even earlier than their American counterparts, British critics had enthusiastically endorsed Whitman's work; his later years in the District were marked by a steady stream of British visitors.

"His poetry is among the most settable for composers," says Robert Shafer, music director of the Washington Chorus. "The way he picks such musical words - he's a natural lyricist."

And for the most musical of poets, the idea of partnering his words with music would have come naturally and even expectedly. Whitman once remarked that "but for the opera, I would not have written 'Leaves of Grass.' "

Vaughan Williams was introduced to Whitman's poetry while still a student at Cambridge. For "A Sea Symphony," which he wrote while he was in his 30s, between 1903 and 1909, he drew out lines from various poems written by Whitman over a 16-year span.

"The poetry is just so marvelous," says Mr. Shafer. "You can feel the tension of man against the sea."

First performed in 1910, "A Sea Symphony" is an ambitious undertaking, with full orchestra, baritone and soprano soloists, and a combined chorus of 300 voices. The music may be British, filled with Vaughan Williams' typical romantic expressionism, but the words, says Mr. Shafer, are universal.

A panel discussion with Washington poet and Whitman researcher Kim Roberts and two Vaughan Williams scholars precedes the concert, at 1:30 p.m.

WHAT: The Washington Chorus: "A Sea Symphony" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with texts from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Robert Shafer, conductor; Maire O'Brien, soprano; Gordon Hawkins, baritone; the Children's Chorus of Washington with music director Joan Gregoryk. Walton's "Coronation Te Deum" opens the program.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

WHEN: 3 p.m. May 23

TICKETS: $17-$46 at 202/342-6221, Instant Charge at 202/467-4600 or the Kennedy Center box office

INFORMATION: 202/342-6221, www.thewashington chorus.org


WHAT: Pre-concert panel discussion, featuring Kim Roberts, Washington poet and Whitman researcher, and Julian Onderdonk, professor of music history at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and moderated by University of Connecticut Professor of Music History Alain Frogley.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Roof Terrace atrium

WHEN: 1:30-2:30 p.m. May 23


INFORMATION: 202/342-6221



Still haven't had your fill of Walt Whitman? Here are a few more books and other resources


Civil War to Civil Rights: Downtown Heritage Trail, A Self-Guided Tour Book, can be ordered from Cultural Tourism DC at www.dcheritagetours.org/civwartosivr.html. It is also available at some neighborhood bookstores. $7.

Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, by Daniel Mark Epstein. New York: Ballatine Books, 2004. $24.95.

Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier's Home, by Matthew Pinsker. Oxford University Press, 2003. $30.

Mr. Lincoln's City: An Illustrated Guide to the Civil War Sites of Washington, D.C., by Richard M. Lee. EMP Publications, 1984. $9.95.

Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, by David S. Reynolds. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. $20.

Online resources

The Classroom Electric: Dickinson, Whitman and American Culture offers contemporary scholarship on Whitman and his time. See http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/fdw.

"Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman's Civil War Hospitals," by Whitman researcher Martin Murray, founder of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, was first published in Washington History, the magazine of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. It has been reprinted at www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/murraywounded/. Some back issues of Washington History magazine are also available at the City Museum, K St. between 7th and 9th streets NW, two blocks north of the Gallery Place Metro stop on the red line and two blocks south of the Mount Vernon Square/7th St/Convention stop on the green line.

The Walt Whitman Archive has biographical information, access to Whitman's poetry, criticism, audio, photographs and teaching materials. See www.whitmanarchive.org

"Whitman in Washington," by Washington poet and Whitman researcher Kim Roberts, can be found at http://washingtonart.com/beltway/whitman.html.


Copyright, The Washington Times, 2004.