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Life and Works

 

Taken in the 1840s, when Whitman

was around 25 years of age

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is arguably the most important American poet of the 19th century. Like Emily Dickinson, Whitman understood the romantic ideas proposed by Ralph Waldo Emerson more thoroughly and creatively than almost any other American of the time. And on the basis of that profound inheritance, they both culminate the romantic lineage in American poetry in the 19th century and anticipate many of the most significant developments of that poetry in the 20th century. Unlike her, however, Whitman’s reading of Emerson’s reading of the implications of organic form (especially as put forth in “The Poet”), led him to the revolutionary step of adopting a bold and expansive – and vibrantly flexible – free-verse based on the rhythms of American speech in virtually all of his mature productions.

Whitman’s great masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, was also the result of his deepened sense of organic form. That is, the whole book grew through progressive stages from its first edition in 1855, containing 12 untitled poems, until the final “deathbed edition” of 1891-92, which extended to 438 pages (see Bibliography for a summary of these editions). Whitman thought of himself as a microcosm, a representative figure – and spokesman – for the time and place in which he lived. His appropriation of romantic concepts of the relation between the human mind and nature therefore lead him to conceive of the poet as a channel through which nature acquires consciousness by expressing itself in human language. In this sense, Leaves of Grass can be thought of as the quintessential expression of America, in all of its vastness, variety and complexity, in the second half of the 19th century.

Whitman was born into a Quaker family on Long Island in 1819. His father moved the family to Brooklyn in 1823 in order to work there as a carpenter. At the age of eleven, Walt left school and started working to help support the family. Within a year he was employed in the printing office of a newspaper, to which he contributed short sentimental pieces. Three years later the Whitmans moved back to Long Island, leaving the 15-year-old Walt on his own. An avid reader of the novels of Scott, he frequently took the ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan to visit the theater there and attend debating societies. At the age of 16, he was working as a journeyman printer in Manhattan. However, as a result of two disastrous fires in 1835, the printing industry was severely curtailed in New York, and he returned to Long Island at 17 to live with his parents.

Over the next five years, he worked intermittently (and apparently quite ineffectively) as a schoolteacher, started a newspaper of his own (in 1838) and was briefly employed by another local paper in Long Island. By the beginning of 1840, he was writing a series called “Sun-Down Papers from the Desk of a School-Master” for the Long Island Democrat and producing rather unoriginal, uninspired poems.

In early 1840 he returned to Manhattan to continue working in journalism and to participate in the politics of the Democratic Party. He published stories in the Democratic Review and soon became editor of a daily newspaper, the Aurora. Unfortunately, he seems to have enjoyed so much the great panorama of experiences on offer in the city that he was fired from this job on the grounds of laziness. Far from inactive, however, he wrote at this time a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate, for a special edition of the New World, which was published in late 1842.

He continued over the following years to work in various journalistic jobs and to involve himself in politics. In 1847 he became the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, for which he wrote most of the literary reviews. This practice made him familiar with the work of many of the most important writers of the day. However, he was fired from the Eagle in 1848 because of his support for the free-soil movement, which opposed the inclusion of any additional slave states in the expanding Union.

Whitman in c. 1850

 

The years leading up to 1855 were crucial for his development as a poet. During this period he continued his involvement in the Free-Soil movement, cultivated, by means of his newsman’s passes, his passionate interest in the opera, became something of an amateur expert in Egyptology, educated himself in comparative religion and even worked, for a brief period of time, as a house-builder. Once again living with his family, which had returned to Brooklyn, he was able by 1854 to give up work completely and spend his time reading and writing. Thus, in the summer of 1855, he arranged for the printing of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which was ready within a day or two of the 4th of July.

This was the only edition of the book to include his 10-page “Preface”, an optimistic manifesto, obviously influenced strongly by Emerson’s “The Poet”, of the great future awaiting American poetry. In a highly idiosyncratic prose style, it gives a description of the bardic, quasi-religious role of the representative American poet (that is, Whitman himself) and a defense of the completely unexpected poems that followed, such as Song of Myself, “The Sleepers” and “I Sing the Body Electric” (all as yet untitled), in which he employed the everyday language of the people, identified with the outcasts of society and exalted the purity of the human body.

In 1854, called “the Christ likeness”.

The public, however, was not prepared for such an innovative explosion of humor, philosophy, religion, sexuality, politics and acute psychological observation. Whitman sent out complimentary copies to a large number of important literary figures. The only one who bothered to reply was Emerson, who said, clearly recognizing in Leaves of Grass many of the qualities he had called for in “The Poet” (but probably also not having read the book completely), “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. […] I greet you at the beginning of a great career”. Whitman immediately began to prepare an expanded second edition, published in 1856, which included the first version of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (originally entitled “Sun-Down Poem”) and quoted Emerson’s letter, without his permission, on the spine.

But that was not all. He transformed the material in the 1855 preface into a poem, “By Blue Ontario’s Shore”. He also printed the complete text of Emerson’s letter to him at the end of the book and followed it with his own “Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson”, thus taking unwarranted liberties with Emerson’s kindness and implying a relationship between then that did not in fact exist. But, in spite of Whitman’s brash presumptuousness and the boastful exaggerations of the popularity (and the sales) of the first edition, the “Letter” is also an effective statement of Whitman’s aims as a poet and basics ideas concerning poetry at this early stage of his mature career.

The next edition of the book was published in 1860, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. Its most significant new material included “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (originally entitled “A Child’s Remembrance”) and two sequences that explored emotional and sexual bonds: one, Children of Adam (then called Enfans d’Adam), dealt with love between women and men; the other, Calamus, dealt with homoerotic themes – what Whitman described as “manly friendship” or “manly love”. It now seems apparent that in these poems Whitman was beginning to grapple with the complex emotions aroused by a growing recognition of his own homosexual urges and yearnings. Interestingly, in a long talk they had before the book was published, Emerson advised him not to include the Children of Adam sequence on the grounds of moral propriety. (He raised no objections to the Calamus poems, apparently because overt emotional and physical expressions of affection between members of the same sex were much more permissible in the Victorian age.) Taking a page from the Master’s own book, however, Whitman relied on himself and ignored the advice.

Taken in Boston, 1860

In late 1862 Whitman’s brother, George, was wounded in battle. Whitman travelled to Virginia, and then Washington to try to locate him (the wound turned out to be insignificant) and thus experienced the reality of the war and discovered the horrendous conditions of the military hospitals of the time. In a move that reveals his deep compassion (as well as his affection for young men), Whitman found himself a job at the Paymaster’s Office in order to stay on in Washington and devote his time to visiting and comforting the wounded soldiers in the hospitals there.

In Washington, 1863

Those personal experiences, as well as the deep national trauma of the war, also led him during this time to write a sequence of war poems, which he titled Drum Taps. These, along with Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), constitute the most important poetic legacy of the Civil War in American letters. Whitman’s deeply-felt, masterful elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, was written soon after Lincoln was assassinated and published as a sequel to Drum Taps, in 1865. Six years later, Whitman incorporated it into the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass.

In 1871, Whitman published both Democratic Vistas, a collection of prose pieces contemplating the present and future of American democracy, and the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass.

He suffered a paralytic stroke in 1873 and was forced to move to Camden, New Jersey, to live with his brother George and his family. He soon lost his government job and, with it, almost all means of financial support – except for the occasional publication in newspapers or journals, many of which refused to publish him because of his “scandalous” reputation.

During the remaining years of his life, dogged by ill health and loneliness, Whitman’s polemical reputation continued to grow. A selection of his poems had been published in London in 1868, gaining him a large number of English readers. And while many of his contemporary American writers still shunned his work as “immoral”, many famous British authors – including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Algernon Swinburne and John Addington Symonds – both admired and praised his work. And yet, the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass, to be undertaken by the Boston printers James Osgood & Co., was aborted when the district attorney of Boston threatened to prosecute the firm on charges of obscenity. It was eventually published in 1882 in Philadelphia. In that same year, a collection of his reminiscences of the Civil War and other prose pieces was published as Specimen Days and Collect.

Photograph taken by George C. Cox in 1887

Over a period of 37 years, Whitman published nine separate editions of Leaves of Grass. The final “deathbed edition”, the one familiar to readers today, was published in 1892, the same year as Whitman’s death. This was a re-issue of the edition of 1882 which included Sands at Seventy, from November Boughs (also published in 1882) and Good-bye, My Fancy. Whitman’s monumental accomplishment strongly influenced the direction of American Modernist poets, especially Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, as well as Allen Ginsberg and other poets of the Beat generation.

 

Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)