Walter Whitman, before Leaves of Grass

This week, we feature a guest post from Special Collections staff member George Riser:

When Walt Whitman released his ‘idiomatic book of my land’ in 1855, he was thirty-six years old. Leaves of Grass, then twelve untitled poems in free style verse, was fully the work of an author who financed the printing, assisted in the typesetting, designed the extravagant cover, and acted as publisher and salesman. Though praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson in a private letter–“I greet you at the beginning of a great career”–the poems initially bewildered or shocked most early readers, not only in their lack of conventional rhyme and meter, but also in their use “of language and subject matter so coarse and crude as to be not fit for a mixed audience” (Charles Eliot Norton, Putnam’s Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Science, and Arts, 6 September 1855).  Not all of the critics were so kind. Rufus Griswold in his review in Criterion in November 1855 wrote, “as to the volume itself…it is impossible to imagine how any man’s fancy could have conceived such a mass of stupid filth unless he were possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love” (Oddly, one of our Library’s copies of the first printings is a presentation to Rufus Griswold). Charles A. Dana, writing in the July issue of The New York Daily Tribune, notes “the poems certainly original in their external form, have been shaped on no pre-existent model out of the author’s own brain. Indeed, his independence often becomes coarse and defiant. His language is too frequently reckless and indecent.”

Can a work of art as original as Leaves of Grass spring out of “no pre-existent model,” simply from “the author’s own brain?” Our library holds twenty-five items that pre-date the first printing of Leaves of Grass in 1855. A look at this publication history can give, in many cases, insight into the genesis of the wild, innovative poems that formed the then revolutionary book of poems.

Whitman’s first published piece, “Death in the School-Room” appeared in The Democratic Review in August 1841. Written when Whitman was 21, the story drew on his experience as an itinerant teacher and was an indictment of what he called “the old-fashioned school-masters with their reliance on discipline and corporal punishment.”

Front cover of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, (December 1841), which featured Whitman’s story “Bervance: or, Father and Son.” (PS3222 .B47 1841, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

An early poem, “Death of the Nature-Lover,” appearing in Brother Jonathan in March 1843, and attributed to Walter Whitman, uses a strict meter and rhyme, though it employs Whitmanesque themes:

Not in a gorgeous hall of pride

Where tears fall thick, and loved ones sigh,

Wished he, when the dark hour approached

To drop his veil of flesh and die.

The title page from Brother Jonathan, (New York, N.Y.: March 11, 1843) featuring Whitman’s poem, “Death of the Nature-Lover.” (PS3222 .D45 1843, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Whitman worked for many of the serial publications that printed his early work, usually as compositor, pressman, or editor, including a stint with John Neal, publisher of Brother Jonathan. Neal, a popular novelist of the time, wrote in his 1823 novel, Randolph, “I do, in my heart, believe we shall live to see poetry done away with–the poetry of form I mean–of rhyme, measure, and cadence.…poetry will disencumber itself of rhyme and measure and talk in prose–with a sort of rhythm, I admit,” lines that Whitman seemingly took to heart.

Whitman’s “Death of the Nature-Lover” as it appeared in Brother Jonathan, above. (Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson contributed to many of the same publications as Whitman, and called upon American writers to “strike an original relation with the universe.’”Whitman took heed, writing, ‘”I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Whitman also worked for and contributed to The Broadway Journal at the time it was owned and edited by Edgar Allan Poe. The 29 November 1845 issue features a piece by Whitman, “Art-singing and Heart-singing,” that gives credit to a popular, though low, American singing style. In the November 20 issue of the same year, Poe responding to criticisms of a recent poetry reading, takes issue with a number of critics (to one: “we advise her to get drunk, too, and as soon as possible—for when sober she is a disgrace to her sex—on account of being so awfully stupid”), and ends with “a note to correspondents – ‘Many thanks to W.W.’”  Whitman may have learned a lesson in withstanding critical condemnation from Poe, who spent his editorial career inviting invective.

The opening lines of Whitman’s essay, “Art-Singing and Heart-Singing,” printed in The Broadway Journal, (November 29, 1845). This issue was edited by Edgar Allen Poe. (PS3222 .A7 1845, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo  by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Poe thanks correspondents for their assistance in his “Editorial Miscellany,’ for The Broadway Journal issue, (November 22, 1845), including ‘W.W.,’ purportedly Walt Whitman. (PS3222 .A7 1845, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)


Poe and Whitman were linked more than once in professional publications. In this image, we see editor Thomas Dunn English thank collaborators, including Edgar A. Poe and Walter Whitman, in the opening pages of the March 1845 issue of The Aristidean. (A 1846 .A75, Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

In 1942, Whitman published his only full length novel, Franklin Evans or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times in Park Benjamin’s paper, The New World. Franklin Evans was a novel of temperance that was an embarrassment to Whitman in his old age, but reflected an early concern for alcoholism, which may have affected his father and his brother-in-law. It is also a theme that appears in later editions of Leaves of Grass, though lacking the sensationalist style popular at that time.

The front cover of The New World (New York, N.Y.: 1842) featuring the first printing of Walt Whitman’s Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times. (PS3222 .F7 1842, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

These are but a few examples of Whitman’s early writings that can give insight into the origins of the remarkable book of poems, Leaves of Grass.

In closing, we include a passage from that volume’s first edition, and one last contemporary commentary:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest…

–Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman is a printer by trade, whose punctuation is as loose as his morality, and who no more minds his ems than his p’s and q’s.

–Anonymous from The Washington Daily National Intelligencer, (18 February 1856)


The Taxman: What a Founder, a Poet, and a Fascist Have in Common

Tax records are probably the last thing you would think that Special Collections libraries possess. However, along with our many books, photographs, letters, drawings, and more, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library has financial records, such as tax materials, in its many collections documenting the life and work of people and their businesses.  These records document how citizens pay the government for services and benefits, and as such reveal much about those citizens’ work, but they also serve a secondary use: for instance, a tax form close at hand might become the surface for a draft of a literary work.  This post shows both utilities of these most ubiquitous records through their use by the famous–and infamous.

Imagining Thomas Jefferson’s Debt and Wealth Through Sheriff Ledgers

In colonial Albemarle County, Virginia, as in some other Virginia counties, the sheriff collected taxes.  Thomas Jefferson, as a major plantation and slave owner, was, of course, not exempt from these taxes.

Image of Thomas Jefferson, engraved by T. Johnson from the painting by Gilbert Stuart. (MSS 5845. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

During the American Revolutionary War, Nicholas Hamner was the Sheriff of Albemarle County.  As a duty of his office, he kept a ledger of all of the citizens who owed and paid taxes in the county.  We hold one of those ledgers, dated from 1782-1783, the last two years of the Revolutionary War.  Shown here is the tax assessment for Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson was taxed on his land and moveable property, including his slaves and cattle.  He also had to pay a parish levy, which covers ministers’ salaries, church upkeep, and aid to the poor and orphans:

Nicholas Hamner’s Sheriff’s Ledger for the assessment of taxes in Albemarle County, Va. for the year 1782, opened to the page spread numbered 49. The last entry on the spread is Thomas Jefferson. On the verso (left) is the list of debts/taxes he has to pay, while on the recto (right) is the list of tax credits/payments he has made. (MSS 3455. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Detail of Jefferson’s debt or taxes owed for the year 1782.  The taxes were all assessed in British Pounds. Here you can see that Jefferson has to pay a land tax, a poll tax for two white males, a property tax on 129 slaves, 23 horses and six wheels.  He also has to pay parish levies, which defrays the cost of ministers, upkeep of the churches, and aid to the poor and orphans.  Further research might explain how or why he was assessed for the named people on the list, such as Mary Moore. (MSS 3455. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Detail of Jefferson’s credits or payment of his taxes for  1782.  On September 18, 1782, 12 days after the death of his wife Martha, Jefferson paid part of his taxes by cash.  He also paid by way of George Nicolson and W. Nicolson; a tax historian might be able to explain this detail.  Jefferson has a zero balance by April of the following year 1783.

Seeing the Evolution of Walt Whitman’s Poetry Through His Chosen Surface: Tax Forms

Poet Walt Whitman lived, worked as a journalist, and wrote poetry in New York during the 1840s and 1850s.  It is here that he composed his poems for the third edition of Leaves of Grass.  He wrote his poems on scraps of paper. Some of the paper were melon-colored, while others were plain, and still more were actual tax forms from the city of Williamsburgh (Brooklyn).  Whitman worked in a print shop as well as at the Brooklyn Times, so it is likely the paper was produced as part of a job printing at one of his places of employment.  The Special Collections Library holds a number of handwritten poetry drafts on these particular tax forms, as part of the massive fragmentary draft for the third edition of Leaves of Grass, one of the cornerstones of the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.  Fredson Bowers, bibliographer and professor of English at the University of Virginia from 1938 to 1975, used all manner of physical evidence available to him in these artifacts to reconstruct the manuscript’s likely original order.

Engraving of Walt Whitman from the frontispiece of the third edition, first issue of Leaves of Grass (PS 3201. 1860 copy 4, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Whitman drafted his poems on all different scraps of paper, including the backs of tax forms from the City of Williamsburgh [Brooklyn, NY].  During the 1850s, Whitman worked at a printing shop and the Brooklyn Times newspaper, where it is likely that they did many job printings, including these tax forms.  This featured manuscript copy of a poem, written on the back of the tax form, would later become part of the third edition of Leaves of Grass. (MSS 3829, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Detail of tax form on which Whitman wrote some of his poems for the third edition of Leaves of Grass. (MSS 3829, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Reading Hitler’s Rise Through His Falling Taxes

Oron Hale was an historian, University of Virginia professor, U.S. Army Major with the Intelligence Division of the War Department during World War II, and Commissioner for Bavaria with the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany. During his government service in Germany, he witnessed first-hand the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in Europe; after the war he took part in a special mission of the U.S. War Department’s Historical (Shuster) Commission in Germany, interrogating the surviving defeated leaders of the Third Reich, including Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Keitel, Karl Dönitz, and Joachim von Ribbentrop among others.

The Oron Hale Papers at the Special Collections Library include his personal and office correspondence, manuscripts of his published writings, records relating to his academic activities and government service in Germany, and declassified intelligence reports.  One unexpected, and fascinating component of the collection is the set of contemporary photostats of Adolf Hitler’s tax returns from 1925 through 1935, which were among the documents seized by the Allies during the war.

Photograph of Oron J. Hale, ca. 1942.  At the time of this photograph, Hale was a U.S. Major, serving with the Intelligence Division of the War Department General Staff in Washington. (MSS 12800-a. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Hitler’s taxes show his metamorphosis from struggling writer to powerful–and financially well-off–dictator in a relatively short amount of time.

First page of Hitler’s completed 1925 tax forms. Here you can see his signature and the statement of his profession as writer (Schriftsteller) from Munich (München). He owns no real estate property. (MSS 12800-a. Photograph by Petrina Jackson.)

On page 3 of Hitler’s 1925 tax form, Hitler’s property tax declaration is limited to one writing desk and two bookshelves with books. The combined cost of those items was 1000 Reichsmark. (MSS 12800-a. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Signed, final page of Hitler’s 1925 tax forms. (MSS 12800-a. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Here are some other points of interest in his tax files found in notes, translated by Hale, from Hitler’s tax files:

In 1925, Hitler buys a motor-car II A 6699 in February 1925 for 20.000 Reichsmark (RM), but must explain to the tax office where he got the money for this purchase. He responds that he borrows it from a bank.  In this year he also asks for an extension to pay his taxes by installments.

In 1933, the Minister of Finance makes a decision that Hitler is not to pay any income tax on his fees as Reichskanzler (chancellor of the empire).

In 1934, The Reichsminister of Finance decides that Hitler may deduct 50% of his income as propaganda costs.

The final translated note is from Dr. Lizius (senior finance government official and manager of finances for Munich-West), and it reads:  “On Febr. 25, 1935 President Mirre called me by telephone and said, that Staatssekretär Reinhardt had informed the Führer of the apprehension concerning his exemption from taxation as Head of the State and that the Führer dealt the opinion of Herr Mirre and Reinhardt.  The order, that the Führer should be tax-free, thereby would be final.  Upon that I withdrew all records of the Führer from the ordinary business performance and put them under lock.”

These documents–and those of Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman–are a very particular kind of historical evidence, and our collections are replete with other fascinating examples. Who knew tax records weren’t just mundane frustrations we are happy to file away as quickly as possible each year? And who knows what stories our own tax forms might tell someday?


I would like to extend a special thanks to Chad Wellmon, assistant professor of Germanic languages and literatures for helping me by translating into English the German tax documents.

I would also like to give a special thanks to my colleagues Heather Riser, Special Collections’ head of reference and research services, and Donna Stapley, Assistant to the Special Collections director, for their research help with interpreting the 1782 Sheriff’s ledger.