Whitman’s Poe

Whitman’s Poe: A Study of Literary Networks in Bohemian New York is a book about the writers and artists in antebellum New York who embraced the posthumous legacy of Edgar Allan Poe and championed the floundering career of Walt Whitman. In the years leading up to the Civil War, this bohemian literary community was not only the first to transplant la vie bohème of Paris’s Latin Quarter to the streets of Manhattan, but it also led Whitman on a decades-long engagement with Poe’s life and work that has since been lost from literary history. Whitman’s Poe recovers the moment when Whitman became intimately involved with writers and artists who considered Poe a bohemian avant la lettre for his commitment to art against the demands of the marketplace. Members of this same group made Whitman the focus of bohemian New York before conflicts over the legacy of Poe and the value of free verse led to a backlash against Whitman by erstwhile bohemians who went on to become some of the principal tastemakers in U.S. culture during the second half of the nineteenth century.

As a result of these experiences, Whitman alternately came to see himself in Poe, to define himself against Poe, and to feel a kinship with Poe as a fellow traveler through coteries and publishing venues similar to those that Poe had chronicled in “The Literati of New York.” Scholars and biographers tend to treat Poe as a footnote to Whitman’s life story, taking the few points of connection between the two writers—such as Whitman’s allusion to “The Raven” in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” or his visit to the Baltimore Poe Memorial in 1875—as curious exceptions to a larger narrative that places Poe’s dark prosody and Whitman’s exuberant free verse at opposite ends of the literary landscape. Whitman’s Poe reconstructs the historical background behind these and other points of connection and finds at every turn the involvement of the New York bohemians, both during the antebellum period and in a series of incidents stretching well into the 1880s. The primary contribution of Whitman’s Poe is to recover a meaningful connection between two major U.S. writers who are otherwise portrayed as aesthetic polar opposites, and to argue that this connection is the result of multiple, networked relationships rather than the literary genealogy of one writer influencing another.

A second contribution of Whitman’s Poe is to analyze the gatekeeping function of literary networks within the media landscape of antebellum New York. Social networks played a pivotal role during the market revolution of the nineteenth century, with its uneven transition from economic exchanges rooted in personal relationships to those dictated by market demand. Both Whitman and Poe experienced the literary network as a social form that blurred the line between the personal and the professional, while granting such relationships increased power to provide access to an expanding print public sphere. Writers, publishers, journalists, and others found their place in these networks through private conversations, letters, and manuscripts (as well as small-batch print texts) that were circulated in semi-public spaces such as bars and salons, which in turn paved the way for the publication and promotion of mass-market texts. As a printer-turned-poet who believed that the technology of print gave him direct and democratic access to readers who would handle his books with the same immediacy as touching his body, Whitman came to realize that the intimate speaker of his poetry had to contend with gatekeepers in beer halls and parlor rooms—what Poe had called “the impudent cliques which beset our literature”—before finding an audience. Whitman’s Poe argues that bohemian New York not only brought Whitman into meaningful contact with Poe, but it also forced a poet who had previously thought almost exclusively in terms of mass publication to navigate an intricately layered media landscape that belied the promise of democratic print.

Following closely on how the bohemians profited from publishing opportunities made possible by networked relationships, the final contribution of Whitman’s Poe is to reframe the romance of literary bohemianism (with its esprit de corps of a community of writers driven by their art despite the pressures of the popular market) as the business of bohemianism. Whitman’s Poe explores how these writers earned income from non-literary or quasi-literary pursuits, employed strategies for marketing a bohemian brand, and funded their pursuits through the exploitation of women and African American slaves. The primary financial backers of bohemian New York derived their fortunes from slave plantations in South Carolina, and the unpaid labor of women—as well as the expectation that women would exchange sexual favors for access to the print public sphere—subsidized the bohemian enterprise. The traces of these financial arrangements appear in literary texts by both Whitman and Poe. Ultimately, Whitman’s Poe is as much about the workings of the nineteenth-century literary marketplace as it is about the friendships, rivalries, allegiances, and betrayals that characterize a thriving arts community.

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