Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was the most important poet of the 1800s. He broke American poetry free from the limits of past traditions and used it to give America a new voice and identity. In The Western Canon (1994), Harold Bloom said that "no Western poet in the past century and a half...overshadows Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson."
Whitman was born on Long Island, New York, the second of 8 children. His father was a carpenter. Whitman respected his father but was closer to his mother, and over the years helped her deal with the family crises: his brother Jesse became mentally unstable and violent and eventually had to be institutionalized after he attacked their mother; his youngest brother, Edward, was born mentally and physically handicapped and required increasing care as he grew older; his sister Hannah married an abusive husband; his brother Andrew became an alcoholic and married a prostitute.
Whitman's parents were semi-literate, but they sent him to school in the newly established Brooklyn public schools. He had only 5 or 6 years of formal schooling, but it was enough to whet his appetite for learning, and from that time on he read insatiably. He left school early to become a printer's apprentice. By the age of 12, he was already contributing stories to the Long Island Patriot and the New York Mirror. By age 14, he lived on his own, writing and editing for several New York periodicals. He might have become a printer and a journalist, but two major fires wiped out the business and printing districts of New York City, so he returned to Long Island in 1836. Only 17, he was ready to start on a new career. He became a teacher. He didn't much like it, and he was an unconventional teacher. He never stayed in one school very long, and eventually he moved back to Brooklyn to work as a journalist. During this time, he spent three months working on a paper in New Orleans. He was charmed by the city's exotic sights and customs, but also saw a slave market for the first time, and was horrified by the dehumanizing process.
Whitman, while supporting himself with journalism and editing jobs, had also been writing poetry, but by the early 1850s, he realized he wanted to write a different kind poetry, one that would capture the boundless possibilities, energy, and democratic ideals of the time. The first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in July 1855. He set the type for it himself, and published it at his own expense. This first edition appeared on July 4, 1855--a literary Independence Day. Whitman was 36 years old.
Critical reception of the volume was mixed. Some, such as Emerson, loved it: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," he wrote to Whitman. Others were not so appreciative. John Greenleaf Whittier saw it as "loose, lurid, and impious," and threw his copy in the fire.
Whitman's joy at the publication of his book was tempered by the death of his father a week later. Increasingly, the burdens of the family fell to Whitman, but he managed to write anyway. Periodically for the next 30 years, Whitman issued new editions of Leaves of Grass, adding new poems each time. In 1856, in fact, he issued a second edition with 20 new poems, including "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and added to this volume a number of reviews, some of which he'd written himself.
During the late 1850s, he may have had a relationship with Fred Vaughn, an Irish stage driver. Whitman's relationships have been a matter of debate; he was homosexual, but his attachments to many people were deep. There are rumors of relationships with many men, and with some women as well, many of which cannot be substantiated. But we do know that he threw himself into all of his relationships, sexual or not, as wholeheartedly as he did everything else in his life. Some of the poems in Leaves of Grass are explicitly homoerotic. Oddly enough, those passages were not the ones that his critics objected to; it was the explicitness of the heterosexual passages that bothered them.
When the Civil War began, Whitman began visiting hospitals in New York to help comfort and assist the wounded who were brought there. Then, when he discovered his brother had been wounded at Fredericksburg, he went to Virginia to look for him and help care for him. His first sight, upon arriving at the field hospital, was a heap of amputated limbs--hands, feet, legs, arms. His brother's injuries turned out to be minor, so Whitman helped take care of him and stayed on to take care of the thousands who had been injured, both Union and Confederate. Over 18,000 men died in the battle, and Whitman helped bury the dead, as well.
He derived deep satisfaction from nursing the injured: he wrote their letters for them, brought them small gifts, listened to them, held them when they were in pain, changed bandages, even assisted in surgeries. As the weeks went by, he decided to stay, and to support himself, took a clerkship in the Department of the Interior. Later, when a new chief arrived, he wanted to "clean up" the office, and was horrified to learn that the author of the "indecent" Leaves of Grass was working for him. He immediately fired Whitman and tried to have him barred from any government job, but Whitman's influential friends interceded, and he was given a job in the Attorney General's office--a better job, which he liked more.
He worked in Washington until 1873, when, at age 54, he had a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. At the same time, he learned that his mother was dying. Unable to move his right arm and leg properly, he nevertheless made his way to New York, but arrived three days after her death. He moved in with his brother George, in Camden, New Jersey. In 1881, a new edition of Leaves of Grass was issued, and in 1882, a prose work, Specimen Days and Collect. In 1884, his brother decided to retire and move to a farm outside of town. Whitman didn't want to leave Camden, so he bought a small house on Mickle Street. It was a two-story house, badly in need of repair, and lacking a furnace, but he loved it. He spent the rest of his life there, cared for by his friends. He died March 26, 1892, of tuberculosis.
Leaves of Grass and "Song of Myself"
The central metaphor in Leaves of Grass is, of course, grass. Here's how to begin: imagine a lawn. It looks green, and it looks like a unified whole. Now look closer, and what you'll see is individual blades of grass--"leaves" of grass. Each one is unique, an individual with its own life, valuable in itself. There are hundreds of thousands of these, and indivdually, they don't seem like much. But each is necessary to create the whole. Without each individual blade of grass, there would be no lawn. So a lawn is (sorry for oversimplifying, Walt!) like a democracy: made up of unique individuals, each of which is first and foremost a life unto itself, yet each of which is vitally necessary to the whole.
Now expand that vision to the world, indeed, to the universe: we are part of a larger unity; each of us tiny leaves of grass is part of a larger whole. The bad and the good, the withered and the flowering, the damaged and the whole: we are each equally necessary and equally valuable.
Whitman wanted to write a poem that would reflect Emerson's idea that America was the poem, and that America itself was only a part of the poem of life and regeneration and procreation. He wanted to create a poem which would reflect the expansive nature of America, with all of its variety and potential. Each man encompasses all men; each person contains eternity. Whitman was influenced by the Transcendentalists, but also believed in the value of immediate experience, in what he could see and feel. The transcendent and the physical cannot be separated, and are both real. Each human is the expression of the divine, filled with the life force. Life is both mystical and realistic; each man's experiences are both subjective and universal.
Grass is life, which, like all nature, humans included, is endlessly procreative, endlessly renewing itself. "Song of Myself" is Whitman's song, and by extension, the song of all of us. Thus, it should be sung (like all poetry, Whitman believed) in ordinary language. Simple was best: eliminate orthodox rhyme and meter. The poems were written to be spoken, and although they have no regular meter, they have a definite rhythm.
Whitman's poems were controversial in his time, and were banned in several places, mainly because of their frank sexuality. A number of people (Emerson among them) tried to persuade him to remove some of the more explicit passages, but he refused: the body is part of the whole of human experience. One can't separate the body from the mind or the spirit.
Whitman never made much money from his poetry, but his work had a greater influence on future generations than any other American poet's. Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsburg and many others achknowledge a debt to Whitman. "He offered himself--and has ultimately been accepted--as the nation's Homer, Vergil and Milton, singing the song of the nation as a song of a particular self" (Ruland and Bradbury 167).
For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1
2. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
3. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism.
4. Petri Liukkonen, "Walt(er) Whitman."Books and Writers. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/wwhitman.htm
5. Kenneth Price and Ed Folsom, "About Walt Whitman." The Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive http://www.whitmanarchive.org/biography/walt_whitman/index.html
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