Article abstract: The first real poet of American English, Whitman created a language to express the spirit of American democracy and used that language to shape a vision of a new continent that still fires the American imagination.
Walt Whitman was born in a two-story, cedar-shingled house that his father had built about thirty miles east of New York City on Long Island. He was born in the same year as his fellow writers Herman Melville and James Russell Lowell and was also the exact contemporary of Queen Victoria of England. His father’s family, as Whitman recalled them, “appear to have been always of democratic and heretical tendencies.” Walter Whitman, Sr., had been born on the day of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and trained his sons as radical democrats, identifying with independent farmers and laborers and regarding financiers and power brokers as “the enemy.” His mother’s family were of Dutch ancestry, inclined to the freethinking tradition of the Quakers, and Whitman ascribed his creative impulses to her non-bookish sense of practical learning. He felt that her combination of the “practical and the materialistic” with the “transcendental and cloudy” might be the source of his own contradictory instincts.
The family moved from the rural regions of Long Island to Brooklyn in 1823. Already a bustling market town, Brooklyn was the third largest city in the United States by 1855 with a population of 200,000. The elder Whitman hoped to make a fortune in real estate, but he lacked the shrewdness to prosper in a speculative arena, and the Whitman family moved about once every year for the next decade. A mediocre student but an avid reader, young Walt went to work for the Long Island Patriot, a local newspaper, at the age of twelve in 1831. He became a journeyman printer, but a fire in the printing district forced him out of work, and a quarrel with his father ended the possibility of any work on the family farm. He took a series of jobs as a country schoolteacher between 1836 and 1841, but only a few of his quarter-year appointments were renewed. He established a warm relationship with many of his students, but his explosive temper and stubborn insistence on the validity of his ideas led to frequent clashes with the school authorities. Whitman moved back to New York City in 1841, but continued arguments with his father impelled him to take lodgings in a boardinghouse in lower Manhattan. Between school assignments, he had published his earliest known writing, an item entitled “Effects of Lightning,” in the August 8, 1838, issue of the Long Island Democrat. The rather rough and motley group of people he met in the boardinghouse district became the models for some of the characters in his first novel, Franklin Evans (1842), the story of a farmer’s apprentice from Long Island who comes to New York. Whitman also published about a dozen short stories—mostly in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne—between 1841 and 1845, and while the stories are derivative and very sentimental, his work during this time convinced him that he could be a writer.
While he continued to maintain close contact with his family, often acting as a third “parent” with his younger siblings, Whitman was now an independent young man making his way in the world. He stood nearly six feet tall, weighed about 180 pounds, had large hands and feet, a broad nose, full lips, and in later life, a bristling beard. He walked with a confident stride, could leap easily aboard a moving Broadway stage, and appeared at ease with the rugged, masculine presence he projected. As his close friend John Burroughs observed, however, there was also “a curious feminine undertone in him which revealed itself in the quality of his voice, the delicate texture of his skin, the gentleness of his touch and ways.” By 1848, he had worked for ten different newspapers, most prominently as the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and was an active citizen in Brooklyn political affairs, even writing lumbering patriotic verse when the occasion required it. His involvement with the Democratic Party in Brooklyn drew him into the rapidly developing debate over slavery in the 1840’s, and his stand on the explosive issue of Free Soil led to his firing in 1848 from the Daily Eagle. Through his contacts in the field of journalism, he was able to work briefly as an editor of the New Orleans Crescent while that paper was reorganized in the early part of 1848, his first trip to the South. Upon his return to New York, he rented a storefront in lower Manhattan with the plan of setting himself up as a kind of lecturer and “universal authority,” a “Professor of Things in General” like the hero of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-1834), a book he found fascinating. Apparently, there was no public demand for his wisdom.
During the late 1840’s and the early 1850’s, he continued with real estate work, renovating buildings with his family, including considerable carpentry work. He enjoyed the swirl of intellectual life in New York, counting young painters, actors, and writers among his friends. He attended numerous lectures (including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous address “The Poet”), kept up with original theories in the sciences (phrenology, hydrology), studied archaeology as an interested layman and would-be Egyptologist, debated new philosophical constructs (Fourierism), and listened enthusiastically to music of all sorts, from American folk music to the celebrated “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind. He recalled these times as “days of preparation; the gathering of the forces”; the preparation he referred to was for the creation and publication of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass (1855-1892).
Whitman claimed that he had begun “elaborating the plan of my poems . . . experimenting much, writing and abandoning much” in 1847, but his assertion that he began “definitely” writing the poems down in 1854 seems closest to the actual facts. The first “notes” that Whitman made for the poems usually consisted of flashes of illumination, revelations of the self and its relationship to the world. He had no guide for the form of these poems, regarding most of the prominent poets of his day as negative examples. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s enormously popular The Song of Hiawatha (1855) he thought had, at best, a “pleasing ripply” effect. Whitman invented a style which was appropriate for his subject, demonstrating that form is an extension of content or an expression of content, and proving the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau’s contention that American poetry is nothing but “healthy speech.”
On May 15, 1855, just before his thirty-sixth birthday, Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass and brought the copyright notice to the printing office of Thomas and Joseph Rome. He had been working steadily there throughout that spring, continuing to write and revise while he helped to set type and read the proofs. He not only wrote but also designed, produced, published, and eventually promoted the book which, as Justin Kaplan says, “for nearly forty years [he] made the center of his life, the instrument of health and survival itself.” There were 795 copies of the first edition, and two hundred were bound in cloth at a unit cost to Whitman of thirty-two cents, while the remaining copies were given a cheaper binding. The manuscript remained in the Rome brothers’ print shop until it was burned accidently in 1858 “to kindle the fire” as Whitman remarked laconically. On the frontispiece, there was a portrait, uncaptioned, of a bearded man, hand on his hip, hat rakishly askew. Ten pages of prose were followed by eighty-three of poetry, and on page 29, the anonymous author revealed himself:
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly, fleshy and sensual . . . eating and drinking
No sentimentalist . . . no stander above men and women or
apart from them . . . no more modest than immodest.
Whitman was a tireless champion of his own work, but of all of his acts of self-promotion, his most successful and in some senses his most audacious was his gift of Leaves of Grass to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher-poet king of American letters. Emerson replied from Concord, Massachusetts, on July 21, 1855, in a five-page tribute, in which he expressed his enthusiasm for the poetry and saluted the poet “at the beginning of a great career.” Many other reviews were less generous, some extremely negative (“a mass of stupid filth”), but praise from people such as Henry David Thoreau, Charles Eliot Norton, and others was sufficient encouragement for the poet. Whitman was already preparing the second edition in 1855 and 1856, composing the first draft of his great poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (then known as “Sundown Poem”) during this time. He continued to supply friendly journals with information about and anonymous reviews of his work, and supplemented his income by writing and selling articles to various newspapers. At Christmas, 1859, he published “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” then titled “A Child’s Reminiscence,” which was one of the new poems included in the 1860 edition.
Perhaps because of Emerson’s compliments, a Boston publisher, Thayer and Eldridge, offered to produce the second edition of Leaves of Grass, and although Emerson cautioned Whitman about some of the sexually suggestive poetry (arguing that unimpeded sales of the book depended on public acceptance), Whitman felt that the book would have to stand as it was. “I have not lived to regret my Emerson no,” he stated. He did discard the prose preface, retitled some of the poems, revised several and added 124 new ones, producing a thick volume of 456 pages, bound in orange cloth and stamped with symbolic devices. Now, he thought that Leaves of Grass was being “really published” for the first time. This time, the frontispiece was a portrait by a friend which presented Whitman wearing a coat, wide collar, expansive tie, and a grave, intent expression. The book’s reception was important to Whitman, but events of a larger magnitude captured his attention.
In February, 1861, Whitman saw Abraham Lincoln, already a protoheroic image for him of the New Man of the West, when the president traveled up Broadway to stay at the Astor. In April of that year, 250,000 people filled the streets to welcome Major Robert Anderson, a soldier at Fort Sumter. The nation was moving toward the War Between the States, and Whitman’s admiration for Lincoln and his cause, plus his brother George’s rather impetuous enlistment, tempted the poet himself momentarily to consider military service. But at forty-two, he recognized that he had neither the qualifications nor the disposition to be a soldier. Instead, his instinct for involvement in the great anguish of the Union, and his instinct to offer comfort to young men suffering, led him to New York hospitals, where he worked as a nurse (eighty percent of the nurses were male). When his brother was wounded, he traveled to Virginia and shared mess and tent with George for a week. He was trying to earn a living by publishing occasional articles at this time, but when he returned to Washington, he wrote to Emerson that he had ended his “New York stagnation,” and he began to try to find a government job. He spent the war years tending the wounded and casually seeking a political appointment, and in 1864, after a lifetime of exceptional health, he suffered a collapse as a result of stress, hypertension, and depression. He was never quite as vigorous again. He succeeded in obtaining a job as a government clerk in 1865, but after Lincoln’s death, the new administration swept his friends out and he lost his job.
In October, 1865, Whitman published Drum Taps, including the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” his most successful poem during his lifetime, and the superb “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the one poem not included in an anthology celebrating Lincoln a few years later. He was rehired by the government to work in the attorney general’s office in 1866 and saw his good friend William O’Connor offer strong support for his work in a sixty-page pamphlet, The Good Gray Poet (1866), and in a very positive review in The New York Times. His work was beginning to develop a favorable reputation in Europe that surpassed the public estimate of his accomplishments in the United States. As a kind of rejoinder to his old intellectual antagonist Carlyle, he published Democratic Vistas in 1871, agreeing with Carlyle’s pessimistic view of the “present” but envisioning a positive future for his country. As a kind of poetic counterpart to Democratic Vistas, he also completed Passage to India (1871), in which he described materialistic concerns giving way to spiritual enlightenment.
Whitman suffered a stroke in January, 1873. His mother died in May of that year, a severe blow, and he was discharged from his government job in July. Another stroke occurred in February, 1875, but it did not keep Whitman from his enthusiastic plans for a centennial edition of Leaves of Grass, as well as readings and essays commemorating the event. His recollections of his wartime experiences were published in Specimen Days and Collect in 1882 and 1883, which also contained his thoughts on the natural world. In 1884, Whitman bought a house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, and slept under his own roof for the first time in his life. He lived there for eight years, remaining true to the emblem on his writing table, “Make the Works,” through that time. In January, 1892, only two months before his death, he had prepared an announcement for what has become known as the “Death-Bed” edition of Leaves of Grass, and in his last years, he became, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, “lonely old courage teacher” to his friends and admirers.
According to Justin Kaplan, Leaves of Grass contained “the most brilliant and original poetry yet written in the New World, at once the fulfillment of American literary romanticism and the beginnings of American literary modernism.” As much as he contributed to American literature, however, Whitman’s contributions to American cultural life were equally great. At a time when the arts in the United States were still held in a kind of patronizing thrall by European antecedents, Whitman claimed equality for American experience and demonstrated the dominion of singularly American creation. He liberated poetry from its narrow British inclination toward narrative and ode and closed the gap between poetry and its audience.
Similarly, he resisted the tyranny of fashion by his insistence on the beauty of ordinary citizens of the republic and gave Americans a sense of the finest aspects of their own character through his definitive admiration for the open, easy, accepting nature of American life and social commerce. He celebrated the individual, saw the strength of the singular amid the surging crowds of America’s cities, and at the same time, caught the spirit of America’s pride in its growing industrial and technological might.
He was reared a quasi-Quaker and followed no standard doctrine or specified religion, but his poetry is based on the best precepts of Christianity—a sympathy whose scope is universal and inclusive, stemming from a predisposition to love and understand. Nevertheless, he was also a kind of pagan, a lover of many gods, ecumenical and free of prejudice and bigotry in his writings, a feature all the more impressive for his personal struggle to overcome some of the more ingrained cultural assumptions of his day.
When the bridge near Camden was named for him, objections from self-designated “Christians” and “Patriots” that Whitman’s books were not properly moral echoed the criticism of his own time. His unabashed expressions of erotic ardor, especially the images of love emphasizing handsome young men, confounded the noxious Puritan strain still virulent in American life, but his sense of love, like his sense of religion, was not limited by any sectarian preference. Rather, his emphasis on social liberty, individual freedom, and artistic integrity, culminating in his archetypal image of the American nation always on the entrance of an open road, stands as a reminder of American strength as a country. As Guy Davenport says, Whitman has been woven into Americans’ myth of themselves as their “greatest invention in literature” and as their “lyric voice.” As his life and time fade into the glories of a heroic past, his poetry remains as an emblem of his country’s beautiful innocence at the dawn of its creation.
Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. New York: New York University Press, 1967. A good critical biography, the first one to connect the poet’s life to his work. Comprehensive, if not exceptionally penetrating, it provides a sound overview of Whitman’s life and his range as a poet.
Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn “Daily Eagle.” Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1970. A thorough account of Whitman’s work as a journalist, connecting his newspaper work to the social and political conditions of New York City and the country at large.
Davenport, Guy. “Whitman.” In The Geography of the Imagination, edited by Guy Davenport. Berkeley, Calif.: North Point Press, 1981. An exceptionally imaginative and unusually empathetic essay which captures the sensibility of the poet and sets it amid the cultural context of Whitman’s times.
Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. An excellent biography, combining solid historic research with perceptive, revealing commentary, this is undoubtedly the definitive biography in the twentieth century. A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipient, crucial for an understanding of Whitman’s life and art.
Miller, James E., Jr., ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: Origin, Growth, Meaning. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1964. Detailed, competently academic interpretation of Song of Myself, demonstrating Whitman’s interest in the development of the mystical tradition.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard and Co., 1906.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1908.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 3. New York: M. Kennerly, 1914.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 4. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 5. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964. An account in five volumes (each published separately by a different company) by a close friend and companion of the poet’s last years.
Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Edited by Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York University Press, 1961-1977. All the letters Whitman wrote that are available, plus solid scholarship which sets the context and explains the situation of their writing.
Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Thoroughly researched and quite knowledgeable coverage of the period in Whitman’s life between his employment with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the first publication of Leaves of Grass. An incisive tracing of the genesis of the poem.