April is National Poetry Month, and today we’re looking at one of the most famous American poets of all time: Walt Whitman.
In addition to his bushy beard, Walt Whitman is probably best known as the American poet who wrote Leaves of Grass. But you may not have known he was also a federal worker. It wasn’t uncommon in the 19th century for literary figures to be appointed to civil service positions.
Whitman, a native of New York, came to Washington, DC, in late 1862 to look for his brother George, who was serving in the U.S. Civil War. To support himself, Whitman worked part-time in the Army paymaster’s unit while he volunteered to help wounded and sick soldiers.
He eventually was able to secure a position at the Department of the Interior, although he was fired from it in 1865, allegedly because the new Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, was not a fan of Leaves of Grass. Harlan later denied that was the reason. Whitman soon found work as a clerk for the Attorney General at the Department of Justice and later in Solicitor’s Office Department of Treasury.
While he was in the nation’s capital, Whitman was photographed by famous photographer Mathew Brady on multiple occasions. Whitman’s beard, which he touted the benefits of having, went on to inspire future facial hair lovers for generations to come.
Whitman left Washington in 1873 after suffering a stroke and moved to Camden, New Jersey, to live with his brother. Over a year later, Whitman was terminated from his position in the Solicitor’s Office. He attempted to regain federal employment in 1875 but was unsuccessful. He spent the rest of his life writing and spending time with friends and family. Whitman died in Camden on March 26, 1892.
Whitman’s personnel file from the Treasury Department has been digitized and is available in our Online Catalog. In it, you’ll find a letter of recommendation from another famous poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Catalog also has other digitized files related to Whitman’s time working for the federal government.
Learn more about records related to Walt Whitman at the National Archives in the 2011 Prologue article, “Whitman, Walt, Clerk.”