In 1825, the poet William Cullen Bryant moved to New York City from Massachusetts, where he had been practicing law since 1816; with the help of some family friends, he had been appointed editor of a periodical called the New-York Review. He moved on to a similar post at another periodical, the United States Review and Literary Gazette, before gaining the more stable position of Assistant Editor at the New-York Evening Post, a newspaper that had been founded by Alexander Hamilton. The portrait above, by Samuel Morse, was painted in 1825.
Bryant helped to put the struggling paper on a more sound financial footing, and two years later he was both a part-owner and the paper’s editor-in-chief, a position he would hold for the next fifty years until his death on June 12, 1878. The New-York Evening Post made Bryant both rich and politically prominent in New York City. With the publication of a revised edition of his poems in 1832, both in New York and (with Washington Irving’s help) in London, Bryant became known as America’s foremost poet. His most adventurous years as a poet were behind him, however, and his later poetry is comparatively genteel and conventional.
Walt Whitman attended Bryant’s funeral and reminisced about Bryant in Specimen Days:
I had known Mr. Bryant over thirty years ago, and he had been markedly kind to me. Off and on, along that time for years as they pass’d, we met and chatted together. I thought him very sociable in his way, and a man to become attach’d to. We were both walkers, and when I work’d in Brooklyn he several times came over, middle of afternoons, and we took rambles miles long, till dark, out towards Bedford or Flatbush, in company. On these occasions he gave me clear accounts of scenes in Europe—the cities, looks, architecture, art, especially Italy—where he had travel’d a good deal.
The arc of Whitman’s career is the opposite of Bryant’s: he began as a journalist and ended up as the pre-eminent poet in the United States. Unlike Bryant, who was associated with elite publications, Whitman worked in the penny press and saw them as a force for democratization. Writing for the New York Aurora in 1842, Whitman proclaimed:
Among newspapers, the penny press is the same as common schools among seminaries of education. They carry light and knowledge in among those who most need it. They disperse the clouds of ignorance; and make the great body of the people intelligent, capable, and worthy of performing the duties of republican freemen.
The Aurora was a two-penny paper—a cut above the pennies both in price and in content—but it still catered to similar audiences. Nearly two-thirds of Whitman’s newspaper sketches can be classified as sensationalism. After being fired from the Aurora (ostensibly for laziness), Whitman worked for the Tattler, for which one of his assignments was to write the murder bulletins; his assignment at the Sun was police and coroner’s stories.
Many of Whitman’s early poems and stories were written to cater to the public’s taste for sensationalism. In 1842, he published a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, which would turn out to be his most popular work during his lifetime, selling some 20,000 copies. Fully attuned to the public’s taste for sensationalism, the novel tells the story of a young orphan named Franklin Evans, who goes to New York, where his first drink leads to a series of tragic circumstances including robbery and murder. Whitman’s publisher believed that the novel would “create a sensation, both for the ability with which it was written, as well as the interest of the subject.” Whitman himself was profoundly embarrassed by the book later in life. He would continue writing sensationalist sketches and stories throughout the 1840s.
Whitman’s immersion in the penny press and in sensationalist writing became a crucial part of the poetic imagination that would produce Leaves of Grass. Indeed, Emerson once remarked to a friend that Leaves of Grass was a “combination of the Bhagavad-Gita and the New York Herald.”