With the permission of Dan Molinoff, for his mother, the late Long Island historian Katherine Molinoff, we make available here the pamphlet Walt Whitman at Southold. Previously extant only in hard to find print format, this is its first full availability online.

Ten days ago, we published “A Reading of Walt Whitman, a poem by the noted poet and Whitman scholar William Heyen. The poem, which imagines a scene of Whitman sexually abusing a child or adolescent, is inspired by Molinoff’s pamphlet. The pamphlet has been referenced and discussed in a handful of critical studies on Whitman, but has for the most part (there are a couple notable exceptions) been passed over in the literature, no doubt because of its deeply uncomfortable subject.

Molinoff’s study of Whitman’s period as a teacher in Southold, when he was 22 years old (with interviews of descendants conducted beginning in the 1940s), shows that there is intriguing and extensive oral history, passed down through the generations of the area, that Whitman was denounced from the pulpit and then tarred and feathered by a mob, for possibly sodomizing one or more of his students. Indeed, shortly after the events in question, the town school was given the semi-official name “The Sodom School,” by which it was widely known as late as the 1950s.

Though the argument Molinoff presents is intriguing and unsettling, it should be noted that provable facts about the incident are now probably lost to the mists of history. Other extant evidence, in fact, suggests that local Whigs might have attacked Whitman because of a strong anti-slavery editorial the young poet wrote for a local newspaper around the same time as the purported sexual crimes. It is possible that the sexual-abuse accusations were exaggerated, or even fabricated, to justify exiling an outsider whose abolitionist views were contrary to prevailing opinion in the area.

In any case, the neglected Molinoff pamphlet certainly deserves fuller consideration and further discussion as we approach the 200th anniversary of the birth of America’s most influential and beloved poet. Along with William Heyen’s disturbing poem, the information in the pamphlet gives us a more complex portrait of Whitman by acknowledging the accusations and including them with what is already known. Not necessarily either true or untrue, the information widens and deepens without settling. Not to call the poet’s greatness into question, but to point us toward the need for unceasing reflection about the man, his times, and his deeply elusive, contradictory American spirit.

—Dispatches