Walt Whitman

Summary

Walter “Walt” Whitman (March 26, 1892) was an American poet, volunteer nurse, essayist, journalist and humanist. His work falls within the transition between transcendentalism and philosophical realism, incorporating both movements into his work. He is considered among the most influential writers in the American canon and has been called the father of free verse. His work was highly controversial in his time, particularly for his book Leaves of Grass, described as obscene for its overt references to homosexuality.

Considered the father of modern American poetry, his influence has been extensive outside the United States as well. Among the writers who have been influenced by his work are Rubén Darío, Wallace Stevens, León Felipe, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Fernando Pessoa, Pablo de Rokha, Federico García Lorca, Hart Crane, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardenal, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery, among others.

Born on Long Island, he worked as a journalist, teacher, government employee and volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. Early in his career, he also produced a novel, Franklin Evans (1842). His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, was published in 1855 at his own expense. The book was an attempt to reach out to the common citizen with an American epic. The work was revised and expanded during the rest of his life, the final edition being published in 1892. At the end of his life, and after suffering a stroke, he moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his health declined. He died at the age of 72 and his funeral became a public spectacle.

Whitman”s sexuality has been as hotly debated as his work. While he has commonly been considered homosexual or bisexual, it is not clear that Whitman had any sexual relationship with another man, so biographers continue to debate.

The poet addressed political issues throughout his life. He supported the Wilmot Clause and opposed the extension of slavery, although he was highly critical of the abolitionist movement. In 1865 he wrote the famous poem O Captain! My Captain! in tribute to Abraham Lincoln after his assassination.

First years

Walter Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, a town of Huntington (Long Island). His parents, Walter and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, held beliefs akin to the Quakers, a religious community without a defined creed that sought to revive primitive Christianity. He was the second of nine children and was immediately nicknamed “Walt” in order to distinguish him from his father.

Of his seven sons, Walter Whitman named three after American leaders Andrew Jackson, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The eldest was named Jesse and there was one more who died at six months old without being named. The couple”s sixth child was named Edward.

At the age of four, Whitman moves with his family from the West Hills to Brooklyn, moving from house to house with great precariousness, in part due to bad investments. Whitman would later recall that his childhood was a time of scarcity if not unhappiness due to the family”s economic difficulties. However, he experienced happy moments such as when, during a Brooklyn celebration of July 4 (U.S. Independence Day) in 1825, he was lifted into the air and kissed by the Marquis de Lafayette.

At the age of eleven Whitman finished his formal schooling. He then began working to bring money to his family. He clerked for two lawyers and later became an apprentice at the Long Island weekly The Patriot, edited by Samuel E. Clements.There Whitman would learn about printing and typography and also there, for the first time, he would write sentimental compositions.Clements became involved in a controversy when he and two other friends attempted to dig up the body of Elias Hicks to make a plastic mold of his head.Shortly thereafter, he would leave The Patriot, possibly as a result of this controversy.

The following year Whitman worked for another printer, Erastus Worthington, in Brooklyn. His family moved back to the West Hills in the spring, but he stayed and took a job in the store of Alden Spooner, publisher of The Long-Island Star weekly. While working at the Star, Whitman became patron of the local bookstore, joined in social debates about the city, began attending theatrical performances, and anonymously published some of his early poems in the New York Mirror. At the age of sixteen, in May 1835, he left the Star and Brooklyn as well. He moved to New York City to work as a typesetter, although years later he could not remember where. He had trouble finding employment, partly because of a serious printing fire, and partly because of a general collapse of the economy that led to the Panic of 1837. In May 1836 he was reunited with his family, who lived in Hempstead (Long Island). He taught intermittently in various schools until the spring of 1838, despite not being satisfied being a teacher. He then returned to Huntington (New York) to found his own newspaper, The Long Islander. He worked simultaneously as editor, reporter and distributor, even personally distributing the publication.

After ten months he sold the publication to O.E. Crowell, who took over from the issue of July 12, 1839. No copies of that publication survived while it was managed by Whitman. During the summer of 1839 he found a job as a typesetter in Jamaica, Queens, on the Long Island Democrat, edited by James J. Brenton. Brenton. He left it shortly thereafter, and made a new attempt as a teacher from the winter of 1840 to the spring of 1841. During this period he published a series of editorials called Sun-Down Papers- From the Desk of a Schoolmaster from the winter of 1840 to July 1841. For these essays he constructed a definite character, a technique he would use throughout his career. In 1840, while at one of his schools, called Locust Grove School in Southold (New York), he is said to have been the victim of a mob after Pastor Ralph Smith of the Presbyterian Church accused him of committing sodomy with one of his students. The school later appeared on certain maps as the “School of Sodom.” Whitman moved to New York in May, where he initially worked in a lowly position at the New World under Park Benjamin and Rufus Wilmot Griswold. He then performed assignments for various newspapers for short periods of time. In 1842 he was editor of the Aurora and from 1846 to 1848 of the Brooklyn Eagle. He also contributed to a freelance publication of fiction and poetry during the 1840s. He lost his position at the Brooklyn Eagle in 1848, when he aligned himself with the Barnburner party, a wing of the Democratic party that was demonstrating against the newspaper”s owner Isaac Van Anden, who belonged to the conservative sector of the same party. Whitman was a delegate to the founding convention of the Free Soil Party in 1848.

Leaves of grass

Whitman claimed that after competing for ten years for “the usual prizes”-traditional awards-he decided to become a poet. Initially, he experimented with a variety of popular genres that appealed to the cultural tastes of the day. In the early 1850s, he began writing what would become Leaves of Grass, a poetic collection that he would continue to edit and revise until his death. He attempted to compose a unique American epic and used free verse with a biblically based cadence. About the end of June 1855, he surprised his brothers with the already printed first version. George, one of them, said, “I did not expect it to be worth reading.”

He himself paid for the publication of his first edition, which he produced at a local printing house during his time off from his commercial work. A total of 795 copies were printed. The edition was anonymous, yet on the title page was a portrait of him by Samuel Hollyer. In the body of the text he called himself “Walt Whitman, American, one of the tough, a cosmos, untidy, carnal and sensual, not sentimental, not above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest.” The book received strong support from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a flattering five-page letter to Whitman and spoke about the book excellently to his friends.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass was widely distributed and aroused significant interest, thanks in part to Emerson”s support, but it was also occasionally criticized for the obscene slant of the nature of its poetry. Geologist John Peter Lesley wrote to Emerson, calling the book “profane and obscene trash” and the author “a pretentious gil.” On July 11, 1855, a few days after Leaves of Grass was published, Whitman”s father died at the age of 65. In the months following the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, critical responses began to focus on the “offensiveness” of the sexual themes rather than the poetry itself. Although the second edition was ready and in print, the publisher was reluctant to distribute it. In the end this edition went on sale with twenty additional poems. It was revised and republished in 1860, then in 1867, and a remarkable number of times during Whitman”s lifetime. Several famous writers admired his work enough to visit him. Among them were Bronson Alcott and the theorist Henry David Thoreau.

During the early publications of Leaves of Grass, Whitman ran into financial difficulties and was forced to work again as a journalist, specifically as an editor at Brooklyn”s Daily Times, beginning in May 1857. He reviewed the contents of the writings, contributed literary criticism, and wrote editorials. He left the job in 1859, it being unclear whether he was fired or decided to leave. Whitman, who normally kept a detailed list of his activities in diaries and annotations, left very little information about himself in the late 1850s.

The Civil War

As the American Civil War began, Whitman published his poem Sound, Sound, Drums! as a patriotic call for the North. Whitman”s brother George joined the Unionist army and began sending him letters about events on the front lines. On December 16, 1862, a list of soldiers killed and wounded published in The New York Tribune included the name “Lieutenant G.W. Whitmore,” which Whitman mistakenly took for his brother George. Whitmore,” which Whitman mistakenly took to be his brother George. He headed south immediately to find him and had his wallet stolen en route. “Walking all day and all night, unable to ride, trying to get information, trying to get access to important people,” he later wrote. Deeply moved by the sight of wounded soldiers and the necroses of their amputated limbs, he left for Washington in December 1862 with the intention of never returning to New York.

In Washington, D.C., his friend Charley Edridge helped him get a few hours” work in an army office, leaving Whitman time to volunteer as a nurse in military hospitals. He would write about this experience in The Great Army of Disease, published in a New York newspaper in 1863 and, twelve years later, in a book entitled Memoirs of the War. He later contacted Emerson for help in obtaining a government position. Another friend, John Trowbridge, delivered a letter of recommendation from Emerson to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, hoping that he would secure Whitman a position in his department. Chase, however, declined to hire the author of a book as ill-reputed as Leaves of Grass.

The year 1864 was a difficult one for the Whitman family. On September 30, 1863, Whitman”s brother George was captured by Virginia Confederates, and another brother, Andrew, died of tuberculosis caused by alcoholism in December. That month, Whitman sent his brother Jesse to the Kings County mental hospital.

His luck changed when he finally got a well-paying job as a lowly clerk in the Interior Department”s Bureau of Indian Affairs thanks to the fact that his friend and poet William Douglas O”Connor, author of Daguerreotypes and editor of the Saturday Evening Post, had written to William Tod Otto, assistant secretary of the Interior, on Whitman”s behalf. He began his new job in January 1865 at a salary of $1200. A month later, his brother George was released from capture and got a furlough because of his failing health. In early May, Whitman received a promotion and published Drumrolls.

On June 30, he was fired from his job because of the new Secretary of the Interior, formerly Iowa Senator James Harlan. Although Harlan fired several employees who were “rarely at his desk,” he may have fired Whitman on moral grounds after finding an edition of Leaves of Grass dated 1860. O”Connor protested until Hubley Ashton transferred Whitman to a national prosecutor”s office in July. Even so, O”Connor, still upset, vindicated Whitman by publishing a biased and exaggerated historical study, The Good Gray Poet, in January 1866. This pamphlet, which sold for 50 cents and defended Whitman as a complete patriot, established the poet”s notable nickname and increased his fame, which was also helped by the publication of O Captain, My Captain, a relatively conventional poem in memory of Abraham Lincoln. It was the only one to be collected in anthologies during Whitman”s lifetime.

One of his duties in the Attorney General”s Office was to interview former Confederate soldiers for the presidential rolls. “There are impressive characters among them,” he would later write, “and you know I have a weakness for anything out of the ordinary.” In August 1866, he took a month”s break for the purpose of preparing a new edition of Leaves of Grass, which would not be published until 1867 since he had trouble securing a publisher. He intended it to be the last version of the book. In February 1868 Walt Whitman”s poems were published in England by William Rosseti, with minor changes that the poet would later approve, albeit reluctantly. The edition became popular in England, especially because of the endorsements of the highly reputed Anne Gilchirst.

A new, expanded edition of Leaves of Grass came out in 1871, the same year that Whitman”s death from a railroad accident was falsely reported.As his international fame grew, he remained in his post with the attorney general.He spent much of 1872 caring for his mother who was struggling with arthritis now nearing eighty.He also traveled and was invited to Dartmouth College to give that year”s commencement address.

Last years

After suffering a stroke at the dawn of 1873, Whitman was encouraged to move from Washington to New Jersey with his brother George and his mother, who was already very ill and died that same year during the month of May. Both events were difficult for Whitman and left him depressed. He stayed with his siblings until he was able to get a house of his own. However, before achieving this, he spent a brilliant period at his brother”s residence in Candem, where his other brother Edward, an invalid since birth, also lived. It was a highly productive time, publishing three more versions of Leaves of Grass, among other works. It was also then that he received visits from Oscar Wilde and the painter Thomas Eakins.

In 1884, when his brother and daughter-in-law were forced to move for their business, he bought his own house at 328 Mickle Street, and began dealing with Mary Oakes Davis, a widowed neighbor of a naval captain. She moved in with Whitman in February 1885 to serve as housekeeper as payment for the rent. She arrived at the house along with a cat, a dog, two turtles, a canary, and other pets. During this period Whitman produced several more editions of Leaves of Grass (1876, 1881, and 1889.)

As the end of the year 1891 approached, he prepared a final edition commonly called From the Deathbed. He wrote: “Leaves of Grass at last complete, after thirty-three years of mutilations, in all the times and humors of my life, in poor and full weather, in all parts of the earth, in peace and in war, young and old.” Preparing for his death he had a granite mausoleum erected in the shape of a house for about four thousand dollars and visited it several times during its construction. In his last week of life he was too weak to handle a knife or fork and wrote: “I suffer all the time. I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony – monotony – monotony in pain.”

Whitman died in March 1892. An autopsy revealed that his lungs had diminished to one-eighth their normal breathing capacity, as a result of pulmonary bronchitis, and that an egg-sized abscess in his chest had blocked one of his ribs. The cause of death was officially “pleurisy of the left side, contusion of the right limb, general tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis.” A public viewing of her body was arranged at her home in Camdem. More than a thousand people visited it in three hours and according to chronicles of the event the oak coffin was practically impossible to see because of the flowers and garlands that were offered to him. Four days after his death he was buried in his grave located in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. A second public ceremony was then held with friends giving speeches, live music and drinks. A friend of Whitman”s, the orator Robert Ingersoll, was in charge of the mortuary address. Later the remains of Whitman”s parents and siblings and their families were moved to the mausoleum.

Whitman”s work breaks the canons of poetic form and is generally close to prose.He used images and symbols unusual in poetry such as rotting leaves, twigs of straw, and debris.He also wrote openly about death and sexuality, including prostitution.He is often labeled as the father of free verse, even though he did not invent it.

Poetic theory

Whitman wrote in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, “The test of a poet is that his country absorbs him sentimentally in the same way that he absorbed his country.” he believed there was a vital, symbiotic relationship between the poet and society. He believed that there was a vital, symbiotic relationship between the poet and society.This connection is especially emphasized in Song of Myself through the use of a powerful first person narrative.As an example of the epic American, he deviated from the common use of the great hero figure and instead assumed the identity of the common people.Leaves of Grass also responds to the great impact that recent urbanization had had on the masses in the United States.

Alcohol

Whitman was a spokesman for the Temperance Movement and in his youth rarely drank alcohol. He once boasted that he had not tasted “hard liquor” until he was in his thirties and occasionally argued for prohibition.One of his early works of fiction, the novel Franklin Evans-first published in November 1842-advocates temperance.Whitman wrote it at the height of the Washington movement”s popularity despite the fact that the movement itself was riddled with contradictions, as was his character Franklin Evans.Years later he claimed to be ashamed of the book and called it “damned rotten. “He wrote of it, saying it was a “damned rotten” book. Years later he claimed to be ashamed of the book and called it “damned rotten.” He dismissed it by saying he wrote it in three days of solitude – for money – while under the influence of alcohol. Despite that, in other essays he also recommends temperance, including The Madman and a short story titled Reuben”s Last Wish. Later in life he was liberal with alcohol, enjoying local wines and champagne.

Religion

Whitman was highly influenced by deism. He denied that any one faith was more important than another and embraced all religions equally. In Song of Myself he made a catalog of the great religions and indicated that he respected and accepted all of them, a sentiment he would later emphasize in his poem With Antecedents, stating, “Adopted every theory, every myth, every god and demi-god. I see that the old myths, bibles and genealogies are true, without exception.” In 1874, he was invited to write a poem about the spiritualist movement, to which he responded “it seems to me that it is more or less all a poor, cheap, plain humbug.” Whitman was a religious skeptic: although he accepted all the churches, he believed in none. God, for Whitman, was immanent and transcendent. For him the human soul is immortal and is in a state of constant and progressive development.

Sexuality

Whitman is generally considered homosexual or bisexual. These views generate controversy and are based on his poetry, which portrays love and sexuality in a worldly, individualistic sense common in American culture prior to the medicalization of sexuality in the late nineteenth century. Although Leaves of Grass was often labeled pornographic and obscene, only one critic remarked on the author”s sexual activity. In an 1855 essay, Rufus Wilmot Griswold suggested that Whitman was guilty of “that horrid sin which ought not to be mentioned among Christians.” Whitman had intense friendships with many boys and men throughout his life. Some biographers have stated that she may not have ever had sexual relations with men, while letters, parts of her diaries, and other sources are claimed as proof of the sexual nature of some of her relationships.

According to biographer Reynolds, Peter Doyle would be the strongest candidate for the love of Whitman”s life. Doyle was an omnibus driver whom he met in 1866 and they were inseparable for many years. Interviewed in 1895, Doyle said, “We became friends immediately, I would put my hand on his knee, we understood each other. At the end of the trip he didn”t get off; in fact he made his way back with me.” In his notes, Whitman disguised Doyle”s initials by using the code “16.4.”

A direct second-hand testimony comes from the illustrious Oscar Wilde. The Irish writer – famous for his love affair with Alfred Douglas, documented in his letter entitled De Profundis – met Whitman in the United States in 1882 and wrote to gay rights activist George Cecil Ives that there was no doubt about the great American poet”s sexual orientation. “I still keep Walt Whitman”s kiss upon my lips” he boasted. The only explicit descriptions of Whitman”s sexual orientation are second-hand, so it would be adventurous to make a final statement of his preferences. In 1924, Edward Carpenter, then an elderly man, described to Gavin Arthur-who in turn documented it in his diary accurately-an erotic encounter he had in his youth with Whitman. At the end of his life, when Whitman was questioned categorically about the possibility that his series of poems entitled Calamus was homosexual, he wisely chose not to answer.

Another possible Whitman lover was Bill Duckett. From at least 1880, Duckett and his grandmother, Lydia Watson, sublet their property at 334 Mickle Street. Given the proximity between the houses, it is obvious that Whitman knew Duckett as a neighbor. Their relationship was close, and the young man used Whitman”s money when Whitman had it. Whitman described their friendship as “lumpy.” Although some biographers describe Duckett as a lodger, others identify him as a lover. Their photograph together has the common features of husband and wife portraits, and is part of a collection of photographs of the poet with his young friends.

In 1876 she met the 18-year-old Harry Stafford, with whom she had another relationship. Whitman stayed at her family”s home located on Timber Creek and gave young Stafford a ring, which was later returned after years of stormy relationship. Stafford wrote to Whitman about that ring, saying, “You know when you put it on me there was only one thing capable of keeping me away, and that was death.”

There is also some evidence of his sexual relations with women. He was friends with a New York actress named Ellen Grey in the spring of 1862, but it is not known precisely whether it was also something of a sexual nature. When he moved to Camden he still kept an old photo of Grey and referred to her as “an old darling of mine.” During the end of his life Whitman often told stories of his previous girlfriends and sweethearts and denied the New York Herald”s claim that he had “never had a love affair.” As his biographer, Jerome Loving, wrote, “the discussion of Whitman”s sexuality will continue, no matter what evidence emerges on the subject.”

Shakespeare Authorship

Whitman adhered to the view on the false authorship of Shakespeare”s plays, refusing to believe in the traditional attribution of these writings to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. Whitman comments in his November Branches (1888) on Shakespeare”s historical plays:

Conceiving the great heat and pulse of European feudalism, personified without parallel in the medieval aristocracy, in its high spirit of ruthlessness and in its gigantic caste, with its peculiar air and arrogance (not merely affectation), only some of the “wolfish counts” so abundant in the works in their own right, or some born by descent with knowledge, seem able to be the true author of such works, works in certain respects greater than any other recorded in literary history.

Slavery

Whitman opposed the extension of slavery in the United States and supported the Wilmot Clause, which sought to abolish slavery in newly conquered territories. He initially opposed abolitionism, believing that the movement did more harm than good. In 1846 he wrote that the abolitionists had retarded the advancement of their cause by their “radicalism and bureaucratic style.” His major concern was that these methods detracted from the democratic process, as was the refusal of the Southern states to put their interests above those of the nation as a whole. In 1856, in his unpublished The Eighteenth Presidency, supporting the Southern men, he wrote “Either abolish slavery or it will abolish you.” However, he supported the widely held view that African Americans should not vote.

Whitman was called the first poet of American democracy, a title referring to his ability to write about the unique character of this nation. A British friend, Mary Smith Whitall Costelloe, wrote: “You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass…. He faithfully expressed ””up-to-date”” civilization, as he would say, and no scholar of the history of philosophy could miss it.” Modernist poet Ezra Pound said of Whitman-not without some fervor-“Poetry of America…. He is America.” Andrew Carnegie labeled him “America”s greatest poet so far.” Whitman considered himself a “Messiah” of poetry. One of his admirers, William Sloane Kennedy, speculated that “people will celebrate the anniversary of Whitman”s birth as they now celebrate the birth of the Redeemer, of Christ.”

Literary critic Harold Bloom – author of The Western Canon, among other scholarly works – wrote in the introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Leaves of Grass: “If you are an American, then Walter Whitman is your imaginary father and mother, even if, like me, you never composed a line of verse. A small group of literary works can be named as candidates for the “Holy Scriptures” of the United States. They might include Herman Melville”s Moby Dick, Mark Twain”s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson”s two series of essays entitled The Conduct of Life. None of them, not even Emerson”s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.”

Whitman”s vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the beat movement and its leaders such as Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac and also by the anti-war poets Adrienne Rich and Gary Snyder. Lawrence Ferlinghetti counted himself among Whitman”s “rebel sons,” and the title of his 1961 collection Leaving San Francisco is a deliberate reference to Whitman”s famous poem Leaving Paumanok.

He was named in the book Paper Towns along with his book Leaves of Grass. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges greatly admired Whitman and more than once said that he was greatly influenced by his literature, if not obsessed by it. From his published work we know of two essays belonging to his book Discusión. The essays in question are Note on Walter Whitman and The Other Whitman. In the prologue to his book El oro de los tigres, Borges nevertheless qualifies: “For a true poet, every moment of life, every fact, should be poetic, since it is profoundly so. As far as I know, no one to this day has reached that high vigil. Browning and Blake have come closer than anyone else; Whitman proposed it, but his deliberate enumerations do not always go beyond insensitive catalogs”.Borges would later write a poem dedicated to Whitman”s memory, entitled Camden, 1892 (in reference to the year and place of the American poet”s death):

Sunday and its tedium. The morning and on the interview page that vain publication of allegorical verses of a happy colleague. The old man is prostrate and white in his decent poor man”s room. He idly looks at his face in the tired mirror.He thinks, no longer in awe, that this face is him. The distracted hand touches the cloudy beard and the plundered mouth.The end is not far off. His voice declares: I”m almost not, but my verses beat.

In the Preface of his poem Altazor, the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro alludes to Whitman with the lines: “He who has seen everything, who knows all the secrets of the world.

Sources

  1. Walt Whitman
  2. Walt Whitman