Walt Whitman: 10 Misconceptions
Least to Greatest


by Mitchell Santine Gould, Curator, LeavesOfGrass.Org

08.Firemen

Readers of Whitman biographies may be forgiven if they believe one of his claims: he insisted that he never showed up for dinner at the Astor Hotel in the notorious red shirt of New York’s volunteer firemen, mortifying the great Transcendentalist author Ralph Waldo Emerson. The incident became a scandal because, prior to the Civil War, the volunteer firehouses were known to be scenes of depravity. The situation likely inspired his poetry about “the midnight orgies of young men.” Down the years, as the gossip and the printed criticism multiplied, Walt became increasingly embarassed and annoyed by any echoes of the story.

Volunteer Firehouse, antebellum New York
Volunteer Firehouse, antebellum New York

Of course his enormous ego was wounded, but more importantly, what was at stake was his utterly lonely, utterly heroic defense of “manly love.” The firemen story threatened to confirm homophobic accusations and weaken the case he was making for the sanctity of love between men. So in this case, as in others you will see here, he chose to lie for the greater good.

Frank Chanfrau as Mose Humphrey
Frank Chanfrau as Mose Humphrey

Impressed by the nationwide mania for rather innocent plays inspired by New York’s legendary fireman Mose Humphrey, in Leaves of Grass, Walt made references to firemen, hoping to captialize on the trend. But he miscalculated the balance of the public’s love-hate attitude towards the firemen's notoriety . In short, Walt Whitman was not only the 19th century’s greatest truth-teller: he was also a serial peddlar of whoppers.

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