Kim Roberts on WALT WHITMAN (Page 3 of 4)


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Whitman held three jobs while in Washington, all three as a clerk. He worked first for the Paymaster General's Office, for Major Lyman S. Hapgood. Charles Eldridge, who also worked there, arranged the position. The job involved mostly making long-hand copies of government records. Whitman's office, on the top floor of a building at the corner of 15th and F Streets NW (also now the site of the Washington Hotel), provided a panoramic view of the Potomac River. He loved being on the fifth floor, and wrote to his sister Mattie: "there is a splendid view, away down south, of the Potomac river, and across to the Georgetown side, and the ground and houses of Washington spread out beneath my high point of view."

His hours were only part-time, and Whitman wrote letters to friends in Brooklyn soliciting donations to supplement his pay, to go toward the purchase of small gifts for wounded soldiers. Whitman regularly distributed food, tobacco, books, and letter writing supplies. He also took orders for special items that soldiers requested.

His second government job, beginning in January 1865, was for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was then located in the basement level at the northeast corner of the US Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery). There he witnessed Cheyenne, Navajo, and Apache chiefs dressed in full ceremonial regalia, who came to see the Indian Commissioner about the terms of annuities, supplies, and treaty lands in the West. He wrote a short essay on the experience, which includes a plea for a greater appreciation of the role of the lowly clerk. "In this office," he reported, "most of the business (as an instance of how important one clerk sometimes is,) would probably have to come to a stand-still, or at any rate would be seriously embarassed, without the presence of Charles E. Mix, the Chief Clerk, who has long been in the Bureau, knows all its parts and antecedents, (has often been Acting Commissioner,) has the executive management of the Bureau and its employees, & is beloved & respected by all of them."

Within the year, Whitman was fired from this job, part of a larger purge by James Harlan, the former Senator of Iowa, who was appointed Secretary of the Interior one month before Lincoln's assasination. Harlan eagerly sought out all employees who had not proved sufficient loyalty to the Union, were inefficient workers, and "all such persons, as disregard in their conduct, habits and associations the rules of decorum & propriety prescribed by a Christian Civilization." This included all women employees "on the ground that their presence there might be injurious to...the 'morals' of the men."

In Whitman's case, Harlan actually searched his desk and seized a manuscript of Leaves of Grass as evidence of immorality. When his immediate superior complained, Harlan is said to have replied, "I will not have the author of that book in this Department. No, if the President of the United States should order his reinstatement, I would resign sooner than I would put him back."

A new commission was found for Whitman immediately--in less than 24 hours he was transferred to the Attorney General's office, back at the same building with the great view, at 15th and F Streets NW. Among other duties, this office was "the place where the big southerners now come up to get pardoned--all the rich men & big officers of the reb army have to get special pardons, before they can buy or sell, or do any thing that will stand law." Whitman declared himself content in a new job he considered "well suited to a lazy, elderly, literary gentleman." (This was in August of 1865 and Whitman was, at this time, 46 years old--hardly "elderly.")

In 1870, the Department of Justice was created by merging the offices of the Attorney General and the Solicitor of the Treasury. Whitman was in the earliest class of employees of the newly-formed Department. Beginning the following year, Whitman's office was in the Freedman's Savings Bank Building (now the site of the Treasury Annex), where the Justice employees were consolidated. By January 1872, his employers having outgrown that building, Whitman was transferred to an office in the Treasury Building proper, in the Solicitor's Office.

William O'Connor published a 46-page pamphlet after Whitman's summary firing by Harlan from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, arguing that Whitman's hospital service proved his "probity, patriotism and spotless personal character"; moreover, more than "the entire mass of the rest of the poets now living," Whitman deserved his government's respect and support on literary grounds as well. O'Connor called his pamphlet The Good Gray Poet, and it became the basis for a new Whitman mythology, as reprints and articles on the pamphlet were published in newspapers throughout the US and abroad.

As Justin Kaplan writes in Walt Whitman: A Life: "Whitman had absorbed a great deal of abuse and ridicule ever since 1855, but so far from being neglected, as he often charged, he had in fact become renowned for the obscurity in which he supposedly languished." Edmund Clarence Stedman, a New York writer, once wrote in a magazine article: " American poet, save Longfellow, has attracted so much notice as he in England, France, Germany, and I know not what other lands. Here and abroad there has been more printed concerning him than concerning any other, living or dead, Poe only excepted...Curiously enough, three-fourths of the articles upon Mr. Whitman assert that he is totally neglected by the press." Kaplan calls this a "skillfully managed publicity of martyrdom and neglect." The beginning of Whitman's real notoriety is due to that firing from his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

All these jobs were secondary to Whitman's hospital work. Even after such work had ended, DC must have resonated with his accomplishments in the hospitals, and perhaps that is the strongest reason of all to explain why he continued to live here. Armory Square Hospital, where he went most often, was located at 6th St. and Independence Ave., across the street from what is now the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Ward K of Amory Square Hospital in 1865 (Library of Congress)

Other hospitals that we know Whitman visited include Stanton Barracks Hospital (at New Jersey and I Streets), Douglas Hospital (on the north side of I Street near 6th Street, in the toney mansion of Stephen A. Douglas, Senator of Illinois), Ascension Hospital (H Street, between 9th and 10th), Lincoln Barracks and Emory General Hospitals (located east of the Capitol between Congressional Cemetery and what was then the Almshouse--what is now 19th St. SW between B and G Streets), Providence Hospital (at 2nd and D Streets in what is now SE Washington, run by the black-robed Sisters of Charity), Campbell Hospital (which was converted after the war to a hospital for African-Americans and renamed Freedman's Hospital, located at Florida Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets), Columbian College Hospital (on the crest of Meridian Hill, where the statue of Joan of Arc now stands in Malcolm X Park), Reynolds Barracks Hospital (on the south lawn of the White House), and Harewood Hospital, the last Civil War hospital in the city to close (in April 1866), located on William Corcoran's farm on what was then the 7th Street Pike (now Georgia Ave. NW). Other temporary hospitals were set up in public buildings and churches--the latter accomplished by laying boards across the tops of pews to create an elevated surface for the beds.

At Carver Hospital, on Florida Ave. between 13th and 14th Streets NW in June of 1864, Whitman brought in ten gallons of ice cream and distributed it through the 15 wards. He wrote, "...many of the men had to be fed, several of them I saw cannot probably live, yet they quite enjoyed it, I gave everybody some--quite a number [of the] western country boys had never tasted ice cream before."

Jerome Loving, in Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, reports that there were over 40 hospitals operating while Whitman lived here. He states, "...He went to the hospitals twice a day, six or seven days a week, usually in the afternoon from noon to four during the work week, after his part-time duties at the Paymaster's Office, and then again for another three or four hours in the evening. Frequently, he sat up all night with a particularly distressing case or slept in an adjacent room near the wardmaster's office. With the exception of the Judiciary-Square Hospital--the oldest of the military hospitals, where Whitman deplored the excessive military ceremony--he was welcomed everywhere and generally admired for his work."


NEXT>>> Whitman's continuing influence...