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date: 19 November 2019

Whitman, Waltfree

(31 May 1819–26 March 1892)
  • Jerome Loving

Walt Whitman

Photograph by Frank Pearsall, c. 1870.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-89948).

Whitman, Walt (31 May 1819–26 March 1892), poet, was born at West Hills in the town of Huntington, Long Island, the son of Walter Whitman, a carpenter and farmer, and Louisa Van Velsor. His ancestry was English and Dutch, mixed with Quaker stock. The second of eight surviving children, Whitman grew up in Huntington and Brooklyn, where his family moved when the poet was four years old and where his father was an unsuccessful house builder. Whitman received only an elementary school education and at the age of eleven was apprenticed first to a lawyer as a clerk and then to a printer from whom he learned that trade and was introduced to journalism. Between ages sixteen and twenty-one, he returned to the country hamlets of Long Island and taught school.

In 1841 he moved to New York City, working initially as a printer but ultimately as a journalist. His first important post was as editor of the New York Aurora in 1842. Throughout the 1840s he worked for more than a dozen New York City newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he was editor between 1846 and 1848. He also wrote and published many short stories and poems, conventional in concept and revealing little of what was to come in his literary career. Many of his short stories appeared in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, which also published such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. His longer prose included two temperance tracts, though one exists today only in fragments (and indeed may have never been completed). The other, Franklin Evans; or the Inebriate (1842), was a 60,000-word novel that was serialized in the fashionable New World and is said to have sold more than 20,000 copies. Whitman finished out the decade by working for the New Orleans Crescent in 1848; becoming founding editor of the Brooklyn Freeman, a “free soil” antislavery organ, in 1849; and writing for the Daily Advertiser in 1850.

Whitman may have had to quit the Crescent because of his moderate antislavery views. His position at the Eagle was abruptly terminated in part because of his disagreement with the newspaper’s owners over the wisdom of the Wilmot Proviso, which stated that all territories had to be admitted into the Union as free soil states. The fact that he started a free soil paper in 1849 reinforces the conclusion that Whitman left his New Orleans post partly for political reasons. Generally, Whitman’s position on slavery was that it was an evil, but so long as the Constitution made it legal, he believed that fugitive slave laws should be obeyed. He stated his views on slavery in a quasi-political treatise called The Eighteenth Presidency! written between 1854 and 1856; although it was put into proof sheets, it was never published in Whitman’s lifetime. In his optimism for the power of American democracy, he hoped that the American people would voluntarily give up slavery rather than lose it through civil war.

Whitman is best known for Leaves of Grass (1855), a book of poems that went through six official editions and several more issues during his lifetime. He is considered America’s Dante or its Homer because these poems present an epic of American life at mid–nineteenth century; they also set the standard for modern American poetry by introducing “free verse.” Instead of poetry in the conventional meter of an artificial rhythm (e.g., iambic pentameter), Whitman’s rhythm reflects the speech patterns and verbal pace of Americans and American life. The closest parallel in English literature is the “sprung rhythm” of Gerard Manley Hopkins. This comparison to the British poet, who was also a Jesuit priest, ends, however, with their similarity in experimental metrics.

Whitman’s central theme is that the body is as good as the soul and that all of its parts and sexual acts are worthy of poetic celebration. His poems, especially the one ultimately titled “Song of Myself,” focused the poetic eye for the first time on the common people as they pursued their daily occupations and dreams. Inspired by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (“I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” the poet is alleged to have declared, “Emerson brought me to a boil”), many of the poems in Leaves of Grass extend Emerson’s proclamation in Nature (1836) that nature is the emblem of the soul and, hence, God. Rather than an emblem in the Kantian sense, nature in Whitman’s estimate is the equal of the soul, and as a result all that comes under its rubric is a fit subject for poetry. Whitman was controversial throughout his lifetime because of Leaves of Grass, which was said by the critic E. P. Whipple to have every leaf except the fig leaf.

When Emerson first read Leaves of Grass in the summer of 1855, he wrote Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.” That foreground is still largely a mystery to scholars, but what is known about Whitman in the decade preceding the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass is based largely on what the poet wrote about himself in diaries, newspaper articles, and autobiographical essays. It is not known, however, exactly when Whitman changed from a poet of conventional verse forms into the author of the strikingly original Leaves of Grass. One influence was the opera, especially Italian opera, which Whitman attended regularly in the 1840s and 1850s; it showed him the value of the human voice unfettered by rhyme and meter. Another influence was the King James Bible; its rhythms also suggested the need for more freedom in poetry. Because an important part of his literary message owes a debt to Emerson, scholars have pointed out that the young Whitman first heard Emerson deliver an early version of “The Poet” (1844) in 1842 in New York City. Whitman also speaks of having read Emerson’s “Spiritual Laws” in 1848. Other sources suggest 1852 as the year Whitman began writing Leaves of Grass in earnest, but his own testimony suggests that he wrote most of the 1855 volume in 1854 and 1855. Whitman’s activities during this period are poorly documented. Basically all that is known is that the poet operated a printing office and a bookstore in Brooklyn and speculated on the construction of houses there.

Legend has it that Whitman published the first edition of his book on 4 July 1855, as if to declare his independence from the literary conventions of his day, but the available evidence suggests that he issued the book on 5 July, having set much of the type for the text himself. The book, a thin quarto of ninety pages, was elaborately decorated in green with flowers and foliage, following (as historians later discovered) a trend in books of that period. It contained twelve untitled poems under the Leaves of Grass umbrella title, which alludes to the leaves of a book and the grass, which as part of nature was both democratic (“growing among black folks as among white”) and divine (“a uniform hieroglyphic,” or emblem, as all nature is in the transcendentalist belief of God). The longest and most important poem in the volume was “Song of Myself.” Later divided into fifty-two sections, it opens with a celebration of the poet as representative of all humankind: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” As these lines suggest, Whitman was breaking not only poetic conventions but grammatical ones as well (with the use of an adjective for an adverb in the third line). He believed that poetry was no longer to be found only in palaces and universities but in the workplaces of America and in the vernacular of its common people. As he wrote in his 1855 preface, “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetic nature,” and “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” The key word in “Song of Myself” and the whole of the first edition is freedom—“nature without check with original energy.” As emblems of God, all nature is good and will do good as long as it has the freedom to do so. Later Whitman was to modify this doctrine, but throughout his life he subscribed generally to this transcendentalist doctrine. The other great poems of the first edition are (as Whitman eventually titled them) “The Sleepers,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” and “There Was a Child Went Forth.”

Whitman followed up this first edition the next year with an expanded one containing thirty-two poems, including the original twelve of 1855. Like the first, it was privately published, but it also had—like the first—the secret backing of the phrenological firm of Fowler and Wells. Whitman believed in phrenology to the extent that the movement encouraged good personal hygiene and physical exercise, because he saw a healthy body as the signature of a healthy soul. The second edition is viewed as something of a curiosity in the Whitman canon, not only for the awkward titles given to each poem, but for the fact that he adorned the spine of the volume with a phrase from Emerson’s private letter to him (“I greet you at the beginning of a great career. R. W. Emerson”), making the New England bard ipso facto the endorser of a book of poems he had read only partially. Whitman also included an open letter to the “Master,” thanking Emerson for his inspiration, and this set off a scandal of sorts among New England literati who could not accept the possibility that Emerson might endorse a poet whose poetry seemed like prose and whose themes were hardly material for the standard of the “evening lamp” or reading material for the family circle. The most important poem in the edition, however, remains among the poet’s most admired: “Sun-Down Poem,” later called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which transcends time and space to give readers over the decades the sense that the poet is looking over their shoulders as they read.

Neither the 1855 nor the 1856 edition sold very well. Whitman realized the need for promoting a book, but his unauthorized quotations from the Emerson letter backfired. For the first edition, he even wrote three anonymous reviews of his book. These were the tricks of a journalist, a profession to which Whitman returned after publishing his second edition. He continued writing poems until 1857, when he became the editor of the Brooklyn Times, the last regular position he was to hold on a newspaper, and kept this position until 1859, when he was dismissed for an editorial he wrote calling for more sexual freedom for women. Whitman was the first American poet to call for the equality of men and women, though he valued mothers most of all and expected women to fulfill their maternal obligations. Even more important to him was sexuality, which he thought was hidden away from polite society as if it were sinful instead of the source of “nimbler babes,” as he wrote in “Song of Myself.” Something of a eugenicist, he later complained about the corsets that forced women’s bodies into hourglass shapes, sometimes cracking ribs and often endangering their fecundity.

Documents from the late 1850s and certain poems in the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860) suggest that Whitman underwent an emotional crisis in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Today, more than a few critics suspect that Whitman was a homosexual, though there is no documentary evidence to support this claim. The idea is based mainly on inference from reading the “Calamus” poems, which were among the many new poems in the third edition, which contained 146 poems, including the thirty-two of the second edition that were revised, some extensively. In “Calamus” Whitman allegedly tells the “secret of [his] nights and days” seeking lovers. This volume also introduced the “Infans d’Adam” poems (afterward called “Children of Adam”), which celebrated heterosexual love, or sex often outside of matrimony; but “Calamus” focused on the “need for comrades.” Whitman was probably celebrating the romantic concept of male friendship. Yet there is a strong emotional element in these sonnet-like poems suggesting the possibility of something more. Furthermore, the calamus root, a large aromatic root, has a phallic shape. When asked directly whether these poems celebrated homosexuality, however, Whitman vehemently denied it and claimed to have sired six illegimate children. Curiously, it was the “Children of Adam” poems that caused so much controversy in Whitman’s lifetime and kept him from membership in the literary establishment of the day (though one wonders whether Whitman would have wanted membership), not the “Calamus” poems, which focused perhaps on the love that had yet to “speak its name” in the nineteenth century. Whitman never married.

The third edition of Leaves of Grass was the first to have a publisher other than the poet himself, the Boston firm of Thayer and Eldridge whose catalog contained mainly antislavery tracts. The edition is Whitman’s most famous after the first and contains some of his greatest poems, including (using final titles) “Starting from Paumanok” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The first of these is a more literal rendering of the spiritual autobiography in “Song of Myself” (paumanok is the American Indian term for “fish-shaped,” referring to Long Island). The second was originally titled “A Child’s Reminiscence” in the volume (it had yet another title in an 1859 magazine publication) because it is a meditation on lost innocence as it is realized at midlife (“A man, yet by these tears a little boy again”). The poet comes to realize that the freedom celebrated in his first edition and in “Song of Myself” is not altogether consistent with a way of coping with life’s essential imperfection and that the duty of the poet is thus to sing of Love and Death, the common denominators of such imperfection. In a real sense, this poem about a man in crisis at midlife also suggests the crisis of poetry, that is, the power of its romantic illusions to overcome completely the fear of death.

Whitman had written his best poetry by 1860 and would never—with one exception—reach that poetic height again. Soon after the publication of the third edition, the Civil War broke out and essentially deprived the volume of a reasonable sale. Whitman’s books would not sell well until the banning of his sixth edition in 1882 (discussed below), and in the case of the third edition of Leaves of Grass, the publisher also went bankrupt. The first two years of the war are fairly blank in the Whitman biography, but he surfaces again in the fall of 1862. His younger brother, George Washington Whitman, an officer in the Fifty-first Regiment of New York Volunteers, was reported in the New York papers to have been seriously wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Whitman was dispatched to Washington, D.C., by anxious family members in Brooklyn to search for his brother in the more than forty wartime hospitals. Failing to find George there, he went to the battle site to find his brother only slightly wounded. He remained in camp with his brother’s regiment for more than a week and then returned to the nation’s capital, escorting a group of seriously wounded and dying soldiers. Once at his destination, he felt he could not return to civilian life in New York. He remained in Washington throughout the war and beyond, worked at various government jobs, and devoted himself to cheering up sick and wounded soldiers in the hospitals. This unselfish service earned him the titles of “wound dresser” and “the Good Gray Poet,” but no government pension (which Whitman later said he would have refused anyway).

In January 1865 Whitman was appointed a clerk in the Indian Affairs Department in Washington. By spring, not long after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, he was fired from his government post on the orders of Secretary of the Interior James Harlan. The charge was that Whitman was the author of a “dirty book,” Leaves of Grass. Actually, Whitman’s dismissal was part of an efficiency campaign, but Harlan, formerly a professor of mental and moral science in Iowa, also objected strongly to Whitman’s emphasis on the body in his poetry. Whitman was hired the next day, through the influence of his friend and fellow government worker William Douglas O’Connor, as a clerk in the attorney general’s office, but this did not deter the fiery O’Connor (also a writer of short fiction and one antislavery novel) from penning his polemical 46-page pamphlet titled The Good Gray Poet (1866). Not only did O’Connor denounce Harlan as “Cato the Censor” and argue for the freedom of American letters, he also created the legend of Whitman as somewhat larger than life—an image embellished at the turn of the century by the poet’s disciples, who viewed him as more of a prophet than a great poet. O’Connor later reinforced this impression in his short story, “The Carpenter” (1868), which features Whitman as a nineteenth-century Christ figure.

Although Whitman himself never publicly encouraged this kind of hero worship, his poetry and activities during the war as a psychological “nurse” to soldiers tended to support this picture. Many critics have pointed to the similarity of parts of “Song of Myself” with the Sermon on the Mount; moreover, the picture in that poem of the narrator washing the feet of the fugitive slave is similar to Christ’s washing the feet of the apostles, and “To a Common Prostitute” recalls the encounter between Christ and Mary Magdalen. Yet an even more direct rendering of the Christ parallel is to be found in his wartime poems, Drum-Taps (1865), written throughout the war. The earlier ones, such as “First O Songs for a Prelude” and “Beat! Beat! Drums!” suggest the excitement felt by those on both sides of the conflict who believed the war would be won within months instead of years. As the war and the killing progressed and the nation felt the burden of its terrible losses, Drum-Taps took on a poignancy unparalleled in any other Civil War poems, including Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces (1865). Because Whitman had visited two battle sites immediately after their ceasefires (Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg) and had lived with the soldiers and witnessed the consequences of battle for several years, he was in a unique position to poeticize what he had seen. In “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” the poet imagines himself speeding into battle, but the story line quickly gives way to the pathos of losing a “dear comrade.” In “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” that young soldier reveals “the face of the Christ himself, / Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.”

Drum-Taps represents yet another shift in Whitman’s poetry. In the first two editions, the focus was on the self and its transcendent powers; in the third edition—with such seashore poems as “Out of the Cradle” and “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”—the poet exchanged the representative ego for a recognition that life has its human limits that the poet must also celebrate, somehow exorcising the bad from the good. In his third phase, he shifts the attention from the self of the first editions to the Christ figure in others. This is brought to its richest fruition in Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” What is remarkable about the poem is its revitalization of Whitman’s original powers as a poet.

Drum-Taps, of course, stands among the nation’s finest poems; yet in Whitman’s canon the volume must take second place to the poems of the first three editions because the war poems lack the originality, intimacy, and spontaneity of such poems as “Song of Myself,” “The Sleepers,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the “Calamus” poems, and “Out of the Cradle.” “Lilacs,” however, recaptured these qualities by celebrating the plurality of the personal; out of the multifaceted figure of the slain president had come the rebirth of Lincoln enshrined as a symbol of America’s greatness. This was but one of four poems Whitman wrote in honor of Lincoln; another, “O Captain! My Captain,” was Whitman’s only poem that was popular during his lifetime. When Lincoln was assassinated, Whitman withdrew Drum-Taps and added the Lincoln poems and fourteen others under the title Sequel to Drum-Taps.

With the war over, Whitman began to think of posterity, and to this end he persuaded the future naturalist John Burroughs to write Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867). He also began to rearrange his life’s poetry in future editions, beginning with the 1867 or fourth and carrying through with the 1871 and 1881 editions, the last of which Whitman named as his definitive arrangement. He revised extensively and continued to write minor poems. The major additions to his canon during the last decades of his life are probably only “Proud Music of the Storm” and “Passage to India,” which signal the final shift in the poet’s theme—celebrating the spirit more than the flesh, or nature as a means of transcendence. The theme of “Proud Music of the Storm” is that poetry should discover a “new rhythmus” by “bridging the way from Life to Death.” Earlier, Whitman had made poems out of the earth, so to speak; at this time of his life he sensed the overwhelming spirituality of the body he once held up as equal to the soul. The poet hears in sounds of sea and prairie storms “the hidden orchestras” that blend “with Nature’s rhythmus all the tongues of nations.” The ultimate unity of humankind suggests a return to its source in the mind of God. Not only do storms suggest this destiny, but technological facts do as well. In “Passage to India,” the Suez Canal, the transcontinental railroad, and the transatlantic cable suggest a “passage to more than India!”

In 1873 Whitman suffered the first of a series of paralytic strokes. He moved to Camden, New Jersey, to live with his brother George and eventually lost his government job. In 1874 he published “Prayer of Columbus” in Harper’s Magazine. Critics have seen Whitman’s self-portrait in the description of Columbus at the end of his days as “A batter’d, wreck’d old man.” He was afraid his poetry was being forgotten, and ever ready to promote himself and Leaves of Grass, in 1876 he planted an anonymous story in the West-Jersey Press that eventually touched off an Anglo-American debate, with the British accusing the Americans of ignoring their greatest poet. The exchange strengthened Whitman’s reputation in England, where the poet and critic William Michael Rossetti had already published an expurgated edition of Leaves of Grass in 1868. Whitman’s book was back in the national headlines in 1882 when the sixth American edition of Leaves of Grass was essentially “banned in Boston” (the first book to win that dubious honor). The Boston district attorney deemed much of the edition (containing such poems as “To a Common Prostitute” and “A Woman Waits for Me”) pornographic and demanded excisions, which Whitman refused. There was even an attempt during the public debate, by vice hunter Anthony Comstock, to make it illegal to send Whitman’s book through the U.S. mails. Whitman withdrew the book from his Boston publisher, only the second in the life of Leaves of Grass, and had the volume republished in Philadelphia, where, with sales fueled by the scandals, he reaped significant royalties for the first time.

After the war Whitman also turned to prose. Democratic Vistas (1871), initially a response to Thomas Carlyle’s attack on democracy in the essay “Shooting Niagara: And After?” ultimately expressed the fear that America was becoming too materialistic and less spiritual; the theme reflected in part the scandals of the Ulysses S. Grant administration. Specimen Days and Collect (1882) contains autobiographical essays, reminiscences of the war, and a lifetime of miscellany. Besides new books and essays, he also published three supplements to Leaves of Grass. His reputation grew during his last years from uncouth poet to national curiosity, drawing in many admirers, including not a few eccentrics. Women wrote the aged and partially paralyzed poet, offering to have his child. The Canadian psychiatrist and theosophist Richard Maurice Bucke became the poet’s first official biographer, publishing Walt Whitman (heavily revised by its subject) in 1883. Socialists such as Horace Traubel became his devoted disciples. The Englishwoman Anne Gilchrist uprooted her home and family and moved to Philadelphia to be near Whitman, whom she wanted to marry. When his brother moved away from Camden in 1884, Whitman purchased (with the profits from the Boston edition of his book) a small row house in the same working-class neighborhood in which he had lived since 1873. During his life in Camden, he received many visitors from both sides of the Atlantic, among them Oscar Wilde, Lord Houghton, Edmund Gosse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the painter Thomas Eakins. A Whitman fellowship was formed near the end of the poet’s life, holding an annual birthday banquet even when the poet was too sick to attend. When he died in Camden, the fellowship published various editions of his work until it finally caught the attention of more objective critics and admirers, leading to Whitman’s reputation, a century after his death, as one of the greatest American poets and the central one in terms of influence on twentieth-century American poetry.

Bibliography

The bulk of Whitman’s manuscripts and personal papers are in the Library of Congress and the special collections of the libraries of Duke University and Yale University. Richard Maurice Bucke et al., eds., The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman (1902), has been superseded by the series edited by Gay W. Allen and Sculley Bradley, The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (1963–1984), comprised of Edwin H. Miller, ed., The Correspondence (6 vols., 1963–1977); Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Early Poems and the Fiction (1963); Floyd Stovall, ed., Prose Works 1892 (2 vols., 1963–1964); Harold W. Blodgett and Bradley, eds., Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition (1965); William White, ed., Daybooks and Notebooks (3 vols., 1978); Arthur Golden et al., A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems (3 vols., 1980); and Edward F. Grier, ed., Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts (6 vols., 1984). Neither a comprehensive bibliography nor a volume on the poet’s journalism is available; however, his career as a journalist is discussed in White, “Walt Whitman’s Journalism: A Bibliography,” Walt Whitman Review 14 (Sept. 1968): 67–141. For a general bibliography see Scott Giantvalley, ed., Walt Whitman, 1838–1939: A Reference Guide (1981); Donald D. Kummings, ed., Walt Whitman, 1940–1975: A Reference Guide; and the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. The only concordance of Whitman’s writings not keyed to The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman is Edwin H. Eby, ed., A Concordance of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Selected Prose Writings (5 pts., 1955).

Also see (listed chronologically) Cleveland Rodgers and John Black, eds., The Gathering of the Forces (2 vols., 1920); Emory Holloway, ed., Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman (2 vols., 1921); Clifton J. Furness, ed., Walt Whitman’s Workshop (1928); Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz, eds., I Sit and Look Out (1932); Charles I. Glicksberg, ed., Walt Whitman and the Civil War (1933); Holloway and Ralph Adimari, eds., New York Dissected (1936); Clarence Gohdes and Rollo G. Silver, eds., Faint Clews & Indirections (1949); Joseph J. Rubin and Charles H. Brown, eds., Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora (1950); Jerome Loving, ed., Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (1975); Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie (1977); Loving, Walt Whitman’s Champion (1978); and Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price, eds., Dear Brother Walt (1984).

More than twenty biographies of Whitman have been published, beginning with Bucke, Walt Whitman (1883), through Philip Callow, From Noon to Starry Night (1992). The most comprehensive to date is Gay W. Allen, The Solitary Singer (1955); also see Roger Asselineau, The Evolution of Walt Whitman (2 vols., 1960, 1962), and Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (1980). Obituaries are in the New York Herald, the New York Sun, and the New York Times, all 27 Mar. 1892.