Monday, June 01, 2015

That what's-his-name? who fired Walt Whitman

Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac on Sunday carried the reminder that May 31 was Walt Whitman's birthday --- his 196th, to be precise. So happy birthday, Mr. Whitman!

Of course Mr. Keillor is a Minnesotan, and as such couldn't help himself --- he had to bring up James Harlan (left), an Iowa political luminary of his day remembered now outside the state, principally, because he fired the esteemed poet back in 1865 --- because of his scandalous writing and supposed "free love" (not to mention gay) lifestyle.

Harlan, who had lived in both Iowa City and Mount Pleasant --- where he served as president of Iowa Wesleyan College 1853-55 --- was an attorney who represented his adopted home state in the U.S. Senate both before and after the Civil War. 

He also was a friend of the Lincolns and his daughter, Mary, married the Great Emancipator's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, during 1868.

In 1865 and 1866, however, Harlan was named secretary of the Department of the Interior, serving under President Andrew Johnson. As such, he set out to clean house, firing such employees of the department who had uttered disloyal statements during the Civil War, who were not known to be loyal to the Union, who were inefficient and all "who disregard in their conduct, habits, and associations, the rules of decorum and propriety proscribed by a christian civilization."

Whilst snooping in employee desks, apparently in search of just cause, Harlan happened upon an annotated and underlined copy of Leaves of Grass in the work space of a department clerk --- Walt Whitman. Whitman edited, published and republished his magnum opus throughout his life, and most likely engaged in editing during breaks at the office, too.

Well, Harlan was scandalized and Whitman received a notice of dismissal on June 30, 1865. Leaves of Grass, Harlan declared, was "full of indecent passages" and Whitman himself, a "very bad man" and a "free lover." If was, of course, Whitman's homoerotic imagery that got the old guy's goat.

"I will not have the author of that book in this department," Harlan reportedly said at the time. "If the president of the United States should order his reinstatement, I would resign sooner than I would put him back."

Whitman had his defenders, who found him another position --- and skewered the the august gentleman from Iowa publicly in various ways, including William Douglas O'Connor, who published a widely distributed pamphlet in Whitman's defense, entitled "The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication."

Whitman completed his final edition of Leaves of Grass in 1891 and died the following year in Camden, New Jersey, health broken but widely acclaimed.

Harlan survived, honored but increasingly obscure, until 1899 --- when he died at home in Mount Pleasant.

As the years passed, Harlan became increasingly noted most often for firing one of the 19th Century's towering literary figures. Whitman's reputation as a literary giant grew.

In 1899, a statue of Harlan had been commissioned as one of two from Iowa authorized for display in the U.S. Capitol (pioneer governor Samuel Kirkwood was the other). In 2014, Harlan's statue was sent packing to Iowa Wesleyan for display, replaced in the Capitol by an image of Norman Borlaug. 

And once again, Walt had the last laugh.

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