Walt Whitman (1819-1892), American poet, whose work boldly asserts the worth of the individual and the oneness of all humanity. Whitman’s defiant break with traditional poetic concerns and style exerted a major influence on American thought and literature.
Born near Huntington, New York, Whitman was the second of a family of nine children. His father was a carpenter. The poet had a particularly close relationship with his mother. When Whitman was four years old, his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he attended public school for six years before being apprenticed to a printer. Two years later he went to New York City to work in printing shops. He returned to Long Island in 1835 and taught in country schools. In 1838 and 1839 Whitman edited a newspaper, the Long-Islander, in Huntington. When he became bored with the job, he went back to New York City to work as a printer and journalist. There he enjoyed the theater, the opera, and—always an omnivorous reader—the libraries. Whitman wrote poems and stories for popular magazines and made political speeches, for which Tammany Hall Democrats rewarded him with the editorship of various short-lived newspapers (see Tammany Society). For two years Whitman edited the influential Brooklyn Eagle, but he lost his position for supporting the Free-Soil party. After a brief sojourn in New Orleans, Louisiana, he returned to Brooklyn, where he tried to start a Free-Soil newspaper. After several years spent at various jobs, including building houses, Whitman began writing a new kind of poetry and thereafter neglected business.
|II||LEAVES OF GRASS|
In 1855 Whitman issued the first of many editions of Leaves of Grass, a volume of poetry in a new kind of versification, far different from his sentimental rhymed verse of the 1840s. Because he immodestly praised the human body and glorified the senses, Whitman was forced to publish the book at his own expense, setting some of the type himself. His name did not appear on the title page, but the engraved frontispiece portrait shows him posed, arms akimbo, in shirt sleeves, hat cocked at a rakish angle. In a long preface he announced a new democratic literature, “commensurate with a people,” simple and unconquerable, written by a new kind of poet who was affectionate, brawny, and heroic and who would lead by the force of his magnetic personality.
Whitman spent the rest of his life striving to become that poet. The 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass contained 12 untitled poems, written in long cadenced lines that resemble the unrhymed verse of the King James Version of the Bible. The longest and generally considered the best, later entitled “Song of Myself,” was a vision of a symbolic “I” enraptured by the senses, vicariously embracing all people and places from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. No other poem in the first edition has the power of this poem, although “The Sleepers,” another visionary flight, symbolizing life, death, and rebirth, comes nearest.
Stimulated by a letter of congratulations from the eminent New England essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman hastily put together another edition of Leaves of Grass (1856), with revisions and additions; he would continue to revise the collection throughout his life. The most significant 1856 poem is “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in which the poet vicariously joins his readers and all past and future ferry passengers. In the third edition (1860), Whitman began to give his poetry a more allegorical structure (see Allegory). In “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” a mockingbird (the voice of nature) teaches a little boy (the future poet) the meaning of death. Italian opera, of which Whitman was extremely fond, strongly influenced the music of this poem. Two new clusters of poems, “Children of Adam” and “Calamus,” deal with sexual love and male friendship.
Drum-Taps (1865, later added to the 1867 edition of Leaves) reflects Whitman’s deepening awareness of the significance of the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the hope for reconciliation between North and South. Sequel to Drum-Taps (1866) contains “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the great elegy for President Abraham Lincoln, and one of Whitman’s most popular works, “O Captain! My Captain!””Passage to India” (1871) used modern communications and transportation as symbols for its transcendent vision of the union of East and West and of the soul with God.
Finally, in 1881, Whitman arranged his poems to his satisfaction, but he continued to add new poems to the various editions of Leaves of Grass until the final version was produced in 1892. A posthumous cluster, “Old Age Echoes,” appeared in 1897. All of his poems were included in the definitive “Reader’s Edition” of Leaves of Grass (1965), edited by Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley.
|IV||CIVIL WAR AND LATER LIFE|
During the Civil War Whitman ministered to wounded soldiers in Union army hospitals in Washington, D.C. He remained there, working as a government clerk, until 1873, when he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He then went to live with his brother George in Camden, New Jersey, until 1884, when he bought his own house. He lived there, writing and revising Leaves of Grass, despite failing health, until his death. In his later years Whitman also wrote some prose of lasting value. The essays in Democratic Vistas (1871) are now considered a classic discussion of the theory of democracy and its possibilities. The collection Specimen Days and Collect (1882) contains his earliest recollections, descriptions of the war years and of the assassination of Lincoln, and nature notes written in old age.
Today, Whitman’s poetry has been translated into every major language. It is widely recognized as a formative influence on the work of such American writers as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. Allen Ginsberg in particular was inspired by Whitman’s bold treatment of sexuality. Many modern scholars have sought to assess Whitman’s life and literary career. Works such as the 5-volume edition of his correspondence (1961-1969) and the 16-volume definitive edition of his Collected Writings (1963-1980) provide a balanced view of his achievements.