June 30, 2010

The Good Gray Poet is fired

Secretary of the Interior James Harlan, a former professor of mental and moral science from Iowa, supposedly found a copy of Leaves of Grass (the 1860 edition) on the desk of one of his employees in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Horrified by what he deemed obscene, the employee was fired on June 30, 1865. The employee was, in fact, the author of the book of poetry — Walt Whitman.

29 years later, Harlan denied there was a connection. His dismissal of Whitman was, he said, "on the ground that his services were not needed. And no other reason was ever assigned by my authority." He was new to the job at the time and, he noted, he had inherited "a considerable number of useless incumbents who were seldom at their respective desks."

Whitman, like many other American authors, took a government post as a sure-bet for financial security. His job paid an impressive $1,200 a year and, as he described it, was fairly simple: "All I have hitherto employed myself about has been making copies of reports & Bids, &c for the office to send up to the Congressional Committee on Indian Affairs." At the time, Whitman was also volunteering as a nurse in the Washington, D.C. area amidst the Civil War.

Ultimately, Harlan may have been right about Whitman's work ethic. The work was "easy enough," he wrote, "I take things very easy." He admitted that, though he was supposed to work from 9 to 4, "I don't come at 9, and only stay till 4 when I want." 

William Douglas O'Connor, a daguerreotypist and poet who helped Whitman secure his government job, was especially infuriated by Whitman's dismissal. He complained enough that Whitman was soon granted a job with the Attorney General. Partly to spite Harlan, O'Connor (now known as one of Whitman's strongest boosters) published a highly-exaggerated and flowering biography of Whitman — one which earned him a permanent nickname as The Good Gray Poet.

*Much of the information for this post comes from Jerome Loving's very readable biography Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.