Culture  /  Retrieval

When Walt Whitman’s Poems Were Rejected for Being Too Timely

"1861" is just so 1861.
Matthew Brady/National Archives and Records Administration

On October 10th, 1861, the editors of The Atlantic Monthly sent an impersonal rejection letter to Walt Whitman. It read:

"Dear Sir:—We beg to inclose to your address, in two envelopes, the three poems with which you have favored us, but which we could not possibly use before their interest,—which is of the present,—would have passed. Thanking you for your attention,
We are, Very truly yours,

Such a response must have been particularly galling for Whitman as his “Bardic Symbols” had been published in the Atlantic only the year before. That is, he was a known entity who at least deserved a personal sign-off. But according to the curators of the Whitman Archive, the formal response was a result of a changing of the guard—James Russell Lowell had been the editor when Whitman was first published in the journal in 1860, but in the intervening year, publisher James T. Fields had taken over “as a cost-saving measure.” Whitman had sent Lowell his poems, and Lowell had forwarded them on to Fields with a message that he was enclosing “three [poems] from Walt Whitman. ‘1861’ he says is $20. the others $8. each.” Fields was not interested in any of them.

In 2018, of course, we’re still talking about the “timeliness” of art, though it’s a qualifier that has become a little uncomfortable lately. After all, there’s something problematic about asking our art to be of the “moment” (or declaring, after the fact, that it is), or demanding that it fit into one of two boxes: being about politics or an escape from it. Art is and should be more complicated than that—but “timely” is still often used as high praise, and some works are still being denigrated for not living up to it. What with magazine lead times, it’s not shocking that Whitman’s poem was pushed aside.