Walt Whitman (born Walter Whitman) (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist whose unrhymed, unmetered verse marked a radical departure in poetics and framed the American experience in terms that would greatly influence subsequent literature. Before Whitman, poetry written in America was largely English poetry written on a colonial shore. Whitman's arrival was like the sounding of a liberty bell. Literary critic Harold Bloom has stated that "no Western poet, in the past century and half, not even Browning, or Leopardi or Baudelaire, overshadows Walt Whitman [or Emily Dickinson]."
Whitman's poetry advanced a new aesthetic that boldly fused the poet's persona with America's populist democracy. Leaves of Grass (1855), his most important work, was published within a remarkable five-year period that saw the appearance of other great American classics such as The Scarlet Letter, Walden, and Moby-Dick. The volume of poetry was greeted with incomprehension for its exuberant celebration of the self and shocking sensual imagery, with the notable exception of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote to the then-unknown author, "I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well.”
Observing the fractures that drew America toward civil war, Whitman imagined that these divisions could be sublimated through the power of poetic imagination. While his vision of a reconciled American identity fell short, his identification with the poor and marginal won the praise of some of the leading reformers of the day. The former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth, upon hearing Whitman’s poetry, declared, “It was God who wrote it, he chose the man—to give his message.”
Even more controversial than Whitman's radical democratic, self-celebrating verse was the poet's sexually explicit imagery. A hundred years ahead of his time, Whitman believed that sex and procreation were not only legitimate but necessary subjects for poetic exploration. Far from championing licentiousness, Whitman believed that prurient interest in as well as embarrassed silence about sex were obstacles to the political and social equality of women. His naturalistic, reverential presentation of sexuality was intended, if not always read, as a third way.
Whitman’s pioneering employment of free verse and conscious dependence on populist American motifs have secured his place as America’s most representative poet. His reputation as an apostle of sensuality is largely undeserved, while his glorification of the self, echoed in the writings of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, would come to typify the "rugged individualist" American prototype that questioned authority and pursued self interest in private and public matters.
Whitman was born into a family of nine children on Long Island. His father and mother, Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor, were simple people who worked as farmers and had no formal education. The Whitman line, however, could be traced back to some of the earliest settlers of the American colonies, and no doubt Whitman's family instilled in him a love of his country that would reverberate later in his ringing verse. Walter Whitman, Sr. was known for his activism in political circles, and it is known that he exposed the young Walt to a number of American political thinkers, including Frances Wright and the Quaker Elias Hicks.
Whitman's family had once owned a great deal of fertile land, but had been reduced to such poverty that by the time Whitman was born his father had taken up carpentry. Shortly after Whitman's birth, the family moved to Brooklyn, where Walt Sr. was a spectacular failure in the house-building business.
Whitman went to public school until he was 12 years of age, at which point he took up working and learned the trade of a printer. He worked as a printer, schoolteacher and, eventually, as a journalist. His first taste of journalism came at the age of 19, when he was editor-in-chief of The Long Islander, a newspaper that he ran himself and which went out of business within a year of its founding. Whitman was persistent, however, and within a few years he became editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a fairly prominent paper in its time. He was fired five years later, in 1848, due to his vocal (and at the time unpopular) support of abolitionism.
Undeterred by his loss of his job, Whitman immediately set out for New Orleans to visit his brother Jeff. While there, he became an editor for the New Orleans Crescent, only to return to Brooklyn within a few months to take a job as editor of The Brooklyn Times. Although Whitman's journey to New Orleans would seem to be just a footnote in his biography, something important must have transpired there, because it is only there, at the relatively late age of 28, that Whitman began to take up writing poetry in earnest.
After returning to Brooklyn by way of the Great Lakes, Whitman continued his work as a simple journalist, spending five years working various odd jobs. In addition to his work for the The Brooklyn Times he took a job for the arts-oriented periodical, the Democratic Review, which would expose him to the literary culture that he would later redefine. Whitman himself cited his assignment to cover a series of lectures given by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a turning point in his thinking.
Although Whitman was largely uneducated he was not, by any means, ignorant of the arts; by his own account he spent a great deal of time visiting opera houses and theaters, and reading in libraries. He was particularly enamored with the poetry of Shakespeare. While Whitman busied himself with the arts, by age 36 he had published only a small number of poems and stories in various newspapers, none of which had any artistic merit. All of that, however, was soon to change.
In 1855, Whitman would "at thirty-six years of age in perfect health" begin his great poetic project. He published his first volume of poems, Leaves of Grass, containing some of his most memorable works, including I Sing The Body Electric and Song of Myself. Unable to find a publisher, Whitman sold a house and printed the first edition of Leaves of Grass at his own expense. No publisher's name or author's name appeared on the first edition in 1855. But the cover had a portrait of Walt Whitman, “broad shouldered, rouge fleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr,” that has become synonymous with the man.
The book received little attention, with the exception of a few outraged, uncomprehending reviews, and some glowing anonymous reviews published in a number of New York-area newspapers that were later discovered to have been written by Whitman himself. Emerson, however, saw the promise of genius in Walt's thin little book, and wrote to him personally saying that it was "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom" that America had yet produced. Whitman leapt on this opportunity, and immediately put out a second version of the book with Emerson's words of praise emblazoned on the spine. The book was once again a financial failure and Whitman went into a period of bankruptcy and unemployment for a number of years.
In 1861, with the outbreak of the American Civil War, Whitman traveled to Washington, D.C. to work as a volunteer nurse for wounded soldiers. Whitman would later obtain a high-paying position in the Department of Interior, only to be fired because the Secretary of the Interior read Leaves of Grass and thought it obscene. Whitman remained in Washington, working as a volunteer in the hospitals. He was deeply moved by his experiences there, later devoting a large portion of his autobiography, Specimen Days, to his time spent tending the wounded, and his reflections on the war. The tragedy and suffering Whitman saw around him, and his feeble efforts to give the wounded some of his own "cheer and magnetism" provided the material for some of Whitman's most piercing and haunted war poems, collected in a volume he published entitled Drum Taps. Surprisingly, this volume had some moderate commercial success. Whitman soon put out a Sequel to Drum Taps in 1865, which contained among other poems his great elegy to the death of Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman revered as "Democracy's great martyr chief" entitled When Lilacs Last In The Door-Yard Bloomed.
As the years passed Whitman began, at last, to develop a following, although, ironically, it was not in America. In the late 1860s and early 1870s a number of critical studies of Whitman began to be published in England. Even more notably, an abridged version of Leaves of Grass, which met with high acclaim, was published in 1868 by the English literary critic William Michael Rossetti, brother of nineteenth-century poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Whitman received a great deal of encouragement from English writers, and a number of them even began taking the voyage over the Atlantic to visit him, just as a number of Americans earlier in the century had traveled to England to meet with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Whitman's health began to fail in the 1870s. In 1872 he suffered a stroke; in 1873 his mother passed away. Whitman referred to his mother's death as "the great cloud" of his life, from which he never fully recovered. A final edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1888, and, thanks to the publicizing efforts of his friends and admirers, the book was well-received and sold well enough that Whitman could afford to live, at last, independently, on the land he had sung about all of his life. Whitman lived in a small cottage in Camden, New Jersey, continuing to host talks and meet with writers, including a visit from British playwright [Oscar Wilde]] in January 1882. Beginning in 1888, Whitman was visited and interviewed over the final four years of his life by a young writer, Horace Traubel who would become Whitman's biographer. During these years Whitman rarely wrote anything himself, until his death, at a proud old age, in 1893.
Whitman is one of the most unmistakable voices in all of English literature. His poetry was written in free verse, which is to say with no particular adherence to either rhyme or meter. In effect, there are few conventional rules to Whitman's poetry, and in his own time there were some who on this ground did not consider Whitman's work to be poetry at all. Whitman's lines are wild, uncontrollable, and long. As poet and critic Randall Jarrell once wrote, Walt Whitman was the "only being in the history of this planet" that could write lines like his. Although unmetered, Whitman's poems pulse with a rhythmic, song-like energy (Whitman himself would later divide some of his longer poems into sub-sections he called "chants") that was entirely new. Nothing like it has been written before or since, as the following lines illustrate:
This passage reveals the characteristic traits of Whitman's great poetry: his use of rhythm not through repetition of syllabic stresses, as in the metered poetry of the tradition, but in the repetition of words, thoughts, ideas; his use of endlessly rolling lines and long lists that convey a cascade of experiences, like those of a man traveling down the bustling and never-before-imagined streets of an industrial city like Brooklyn; his sensuous and at times overtly erotic imagery.
In both his form and content, we can see Whitman as he always claimed to be: the first, true, untamed democratic poet. A vast, multi-faceted poet for all people, Whitman was a poet who could write proudly "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself" and move on; a poet who sincerely believed in the power of poetry, and its ability to reach out to all people of all backgrounds.
Whitman, like many poets, wrote verse of irregular quality. For every grand banner of American poetry (such as “I Sing the Body Electric”), there are dozens of artless poems that were never published. Walt Whitman might have been the only poet who could write such bizarre opening lines as, "I have been a habitan of Vienna" or "Passage, O soul, to India! Eclaircise the myths Asiatic—the primitive fables!" Even Emerson, a great trumpet of American liberty and self-reliance, would eventually be disquieted by Whitman's buck wildness.
Despite this, Whitman showed a capacity, in his later years, for more subdued and controlled poetry that exhibit a masterful degree of restraint. The greatest of Whitman's poems in this vein can be found in his volumes of tragic poetry, written in memoriam of the American Civil War, entitled Drum Taps. In particular, Whitman composed a spare and remarkably haunting elegy during this period, entitled simply "O Captain! My Captain!" written in memory of Abraham Lincoln. The Drum Taps poems, and "O Captain! My Captain!" in particular are often cited by defenders of Whitman as the highest examples of his mature verse.
Whitman's has been credited, or blamed, to the present day for his sexually explicit poetic program and has been widely misread as a voice of libertinism and "free love." Whitman was a keen observer of everyday life in antebellum America and believed in the power of poetry, specifically his poetry, to advance social reform. He was appalled by the increasing commercialization of sex, where the number of brothels in New York tripled between 1820 and 1865. Whitman loathed pornography and licentiousness, but believed that the repressed puritanical environment of Victorian America, where piano legs were modestly covered and undergarments were called "inexpressibles," bred its salacious opposite. Looking to nature and finding the divine order apparent in the symmetry of the sexual union, Whitman sought to rescue the naturalness and vitality of sexual union from both licentiousness and repression. He came to believe that "sex is the root of it all: sex—the coming together of men and women: sex: sex":
Whitman's own sexuality has been the subject of much study, with modern opinion broadly opining that the never-married Whitman was probably homosexual. Biographer David Reynolds argues that no hard facts have surfaced to confirm this, and that overt expressions of affections between persons of the same sex were unremarkable in Whitman's time. When asked point blank by the British writer John Addington Syminds, Whitman hotly denied the "damnable" "morbid inferences." Far from advocating homosexual relations, heterosexuality was "an essential part of his poetic program," Reynolds argues. Further, Whitman revered women, motherhood, and marriage, and nearly deified the womb as an incubator of life. Painfully aware of the political, social, and sexual repression women experienced, he believed that "only when sex is properly treated,talked, avowed, accepted will woman be equal with the man, and pass where the man passes,, and meet his words with her words, and his rights with her rights." "I think the best women are always the best of all," he told his friend Horace Traubel: "the flower, the justification of the race—the summit, crown."
It is for Whitman's intoxicating and at times excessive energy of spirit that he has been both revered and reviled by poets throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whitman not only defines the beginning of American poetry, but he has also become a point of fracture, dividing American poets and writers. There are those, like William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, John Berryman, and, surprisingly, Henry James, who find Whitman's poetry to be like a reinvigorating lightning rod—a source of constant shock and wonder. And then there are those, like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, who ultimately found Whitman's unbridled joy to be distasteful and lacking the masterful control necessary of any great art.
This argument over Whitman's place will go on. His legacy is massive and his ideas so thoroughly real, yet also so ambiguous. It is a testament to his own vivacity as a poet that endless arguments over him continue more than one hundred and fifty years later. What is certain is that Whitman was an instigator. He revolutionized not only the form of poetry but also the force of it and gave it a new, American flavor. He created poetry that is not only beautiful but declarative; poetry made from the "stuff of the masses"; from the sounds of the city and the hearts of everyday men. Whitman once wrote that before he met Emerson he was "simmering, simmering, simmering," and so too is his effect.
An extensive collection of Walt Whitman's manuscripts is maintained in the Library of Congress largely thanks to the efforts of Russian immigrant Charles Feinberg. Feinberg preserved Whitman's manuscripts and promoted his poetry so intensely through a period when Whitman's fame largely declined, that University of Paris-Sorbonne professor Steven Asselineau claimed, "for nearly half a century Feinberg was in a way Whitman's representative on earth."
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