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Reviewed by Rob Spence

Kenneth Price is the co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive, and one of the leading experts on the poet, having published widely on his work. This unusual volume is not so much a biography, but more a hybrid of genres: yes, there is much biographical detail here, but the focus on a decade of Whitman’s life in Washington from 1863-1873 takes the reader into a tumultuous time in American history, and examines the role of Whitman’s writing in the context of that period, marked of course by the Civil War, still raging when he arrived, and the post-war Reconstruction.

In December 1862, Washington, DC was the capital of a nation at war, and Washington was on the front line. Whitman went to the city upon news that his brother had been wounded in battle. Thus began a decade of work and creative development during which Whitman, although a non-combatant, was very much involved in the lives of the soldiers. He visited the wounded, helped them to write home, and worked as a clerk for the Army, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Attorney General’s office.

This under-reported period of Whitman’s life is here given a thorough examination, supported by reference to newly available correspondence, journalism, and nearly 3,000 documents that the author identified in the National Archives as being written by Whitman. This remarkable trove enables the author to offer a detailed portrait of Whitman’s life at this crucial phase, and offer insight as to the development of his ideas and philosophy. As Kenneth Price says, while some of the material concerns routine administrative affairs, “others treat civil rights, war crimes, treason, western expansion, the rise of white vigilantism, and a host of international incidents,” and thus provide for the first time a comprehensive outline of the genesis of many aspects of his work.

Washington at this time was a city in transformation, quadrupling in size, with the influx of fugitive slaves from neighbouring states contributing to a rapid increase in its racial and ethnic diversity. Whitman, always an ambitious man, came to the federal capital with the aim of establishing himself as a man of letters with a national reputation. Price presents a new facet of Whitman, far-removed from the common image of him as a kind of proto-hippy. There’s a delicious irony in the fact that Whitman, who had previously written disparagingly of clerks and secretaries as drudges with no inner life, spends this decade as a clerk himself in government offices. 

The book, which is handsomely produced, includes many reproductions of documents and materials found by Price, and will undoubtedly change most people’s idea of Whitman. Price organises the book around central concepts in Whitman’s work, and the great value of this is to show how Whitman’s time in Washington contributed to the development of his ideas and how his writings changed as a result.

This is an academic book, and so comes replete with the usual paraphernalia of footnotes and bibliography. But it is also very accessible, and worth the attention of anyone interested in the development of Whitman’s poetry and philosophy. Price deftly intersperses his literary-critical analysis with useful historical context, aided by the very wide range of documentary evidence that he has assembled. This is an important study, which emphasises the significance of what Price calls “the scribal documents” and adds a vital new dimension to Whitman studies.

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Rob Spence’s home on the net is robspence.org.uk. You can also find him on Twitter @spencro.

Kenneth Price, Whitman in Washington (Oxford University Press, 2021). 978-08840930, 191pp., hardback.

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