This post is written by Gary Johnson, Reference Librarian in the Newspaper and Current Periodicals Room in the Library of Congress Serials and Government Publications Division.
April is national poetry month, and though we don’t see much poetry in today’s newspapers, in the past it was a common feature. In fact, many poets garnered fame and sometimes some funds from having their poems published in newspapers. The Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers database offers a trove of poetry treasures waiting to be discovered.
Literary works were a significant portion of the content of the National Era, an abolitionist publication. The Poetical Works of Alice and Phoebe Cary (Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1882), notes that “Alice published verses in various minor periodicals without any pecuniary return therefor, the first money that she earned by her pen being ten dollars sent by Dr. Bailey of the National Era, as a gratuity, after she had contributed regularly to the paper for months.” John Greenleaf Whittier, a well-known American poet, was an associate editor to the paper’s editor, Gamaliel Bailey, Jr.
The National Era published an index to its contents in the last issue of December of each year, and “poetry” was a listed category. In the index for 1850, readers will find entries for several poems by Alice and Phoebe Cary (misspelled Carey), John Greenleaf Whittier (using the initials “JGW”) and many others. Scanning this list might suggest the names of poets for additional searches in Chronicling America.
In addition to publishing poetry, newspapers can also be a good source for information about the lives and careers of poets. Literary figures regularly tour to promote their work and newspapers often report on these events. Chronicling America provides topics pages that include links to articles on a particular topic. Start by exploring pages related to:
- the life of Walt Whitman,
- the 1906 visit of Maxim Gorky to the United States, and
- World War I poetry.
Use the “Suggested Search Strategies” portion of a topics page to find strategies for finding more items within the digitized newspaper pages in the database.
- Browse the end of year poetry index to identify familiar names or titles. (In addition to the index for 1850, there are indexes for 1851, 1852, and additional years can be found using the “Issues for” dropdown menu on the Browse Issues page for the National Era.)
- Select a name from an end of year poetry index and search in Chronicling America or other resources to learn more about the person.
- Search Chronicling America for a poet from the 19th or early 20th century and construct a timeline of articles reporting on his or her travels.
- Read articles surrounding a poem to better understand the historical context of the poet’s work.
- A post in the Library blog From The Catbird Seat about Edgar Alan Poe describes the early publication of “The Raven” in New York’s The Evening Mirror newspaper on January 29, 1845.
- Newspapers have also been useful in conducting research about the history of poetry. Recently, a new Walt Whitman poem was discovered in the Library of Congress print format newspaper collection.
What poetry treasures did you discover in Chronicling America?