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A Recent Discovery Reveals a Less Poetic Side of Walt Whitman

Apr 15, 2011

Biographers have previously noted acclaimed poet Walt Whitman's time as a low-level bureaucrat for the U.S. Government. Thanks to a new discovery of documents in the National Archives, we now have physical artifacts from this more mundane sphere of Whitman's work as a writer.

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By Sarah Wright

Walt Whitman ca 1860-1865

Whitman as Federal Clerk

It's easy to think about well-known artists in their final famous, realized state, but realistically, everyone has to pay their dues. Many artists and writers held normal day jobs that sometimes influenced their work - think Hemingway and military service. Though it isn't always the case that the individuals who have created some of human culture's most important works drew from their day jobs, it is true that many successful people toil in relative obscurity before they become successful.

This is true of Walt Whitman, a writer and poet famous for Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems that has become an American classic. These poems are so culturally important that one, Pioneers! O Pioneers!, served as the inspiration for Willa Cather's novel O Pioneers!, and was even featured in a Levi's Jeans commercial in 2009.

Leaves of Grass was first published in 1865. At the time of the book's publication, Whitman was working as a clerk in the U.S. Attorney General's office. He had been working as a low-level bureaucrat for a couple of years before 1865, having first moved to Washington in 1863. According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dr. Kenneth M. Price, a professor and researcher at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, has made an important discovery from this period in Whitman's life. While working in the National Archives in D.C., Dr. Price uncovered a trove of documents handwritten by Whitman in his capacity as a Federal Clerk.

walt whitman federal clerk documents

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What the Documents Show

According to Dr. Price, biographers have previously glossed over Whitman's service as a federal clerk. Price says that most scholars who detail this part of the poet's life 'suggest he took things casually, sauntered into work when he wanted to, put in a few hours, and left when he felt like it.' The newly uncovered documents suggest otherwise. According to Price, they show a level of care, attention and dedication that suggest he wasn't as blasé about the work as some might have previously thought.

One tangible factor in this new characterization of Whitman as a dedicated public servant is the fact that his handwriting is so even and neat in his government writings. As a poet, his notes are less organized and his writing far less careful. Whether or not this means that Whitman really enjoyed his work as a federal clerk is probably irrelevant, at least in the sense that it likely won't change anything about how we enjoy and interpret his poems.

But one takeaway from the notion that Whitman was dedicated to, or at least good at, his day job, is that it's normal to have to do something to pay the bills while you're building your artistic oeuvre. It's even OK to enjoy your day job. Let's face it - it's unlikely that any of us are going to hit the Elizabeth Gilbert/Jonathan Franzen jackpot anytime soon. Most of us have to work to support ourselves, and even some of history's most beloved artists have paid their dues before earning success.

So if you're an aspiring writer working away at some seemingly meaningless day job, keep your chin up. You never know what might happen. Someday, that spreadsheet you're making could end up being an important artifact from the life of an artist.

Artists work in a variety of ways. Some, like Walt Whitman, do their work while holding a day job. Others, like painter Chuck Close, have to work around serious disabilities.

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