Walt Whitman 1819–1892
American poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, journalist, and editor.
Although commonly and critically regarded as one of America's premier poets, Whitman remains in some ways a controversial figure. Leaves of Grass, his masterpiece, was revolutionary in both its style and content, praising the divinity of the self, of the common individual. The volume was directed at those Americans who, in Whitman's opinion, had been ignored by their country's literature, a literature which had typically targeted the upper echelons of society. Throughout his life and work, Whitman promoted himself as the poet of American democracy and of the common man. Yet the focus of his poetry on the sanctity and divinity of the self has been criticized as being more egotistical than spiritual, and his exploration and exaltation of sexuality and homosexuality has been both deplored and downplayed. Additionally, critics have analyzed how the Civil War changed Whitman's poetry, and have studied his ambivalent views on the subject of the treatment of Native Americans during his lifetime.
Born on Long Island and raised and educated on Long Island and in Brooklyn, Whitman was the second of nine children. Leaving school at age eleven, he worked as a law office clerk, and later, as a typesetter's apprentice. After teaching school and starting his own newspaper, he began editing various papers. He also published poems and short stories in periodicals. In 1842, Whitman published a temperance novel entitled Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate; he later dismissed the work as "damned rot." The first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855 at Whitman's own expense. Nine editions would eventually be published. During the Civil War, Whitman cared for wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1862 and later worked as a copyist in the army paymaster's office from 1863 to 1864. After the war, he worked for a short time for the Department of the Interior but was fired when it was discovered that he was the author of the allegedly obscene Leaves of Grass. Rehired as a Justice Department clerk, Whitman remained in this position until he suffered a paralytic
stroke in 1873, which left him partially disabled. He had recently published a philosophical essay, Democratic Vistas (1871) and the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass. While he lived for nearly twenty more years, Whitman produced little new work of significance, focusing instead on revising and rearranging Leaves of Grass.
Leaves of Grass, in its final version, contains poems Whitman wrote between 1855 and 1892. The major themes of the work include democracy, sexuality, death, and immortality; universality and the divine nature of the self are also concepts that thread their way through much of his work. The first edition contained twelve poems, which shocked the public with their realistic imagery and candid discussions of sexuality. The volume received little praise from critics, with Ralph Waldo Emerson being the notable exception. In later editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman created new poems, revised existing ones, added and changed titles, and thematically grouped the poems. In Drum-Taps (1865) and Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-66), Whitman recorded many of his war experiences and mourned the loss of nation and lives. Drum-Taps was later incorporated into Leaves of Grass.
While many critics concede that Whitman's concept of the self is of major significance in his work, V. K. Chari maintains that it is the "organizing principle" of Whitman's poetry. In analyzing Whitman's notion of the self, Chari maintains that to Whitman, the self was the true meaning and center of all existence, and that reality was not separate or different from the self. Chari demonstrates both the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson's writing on Whitman and identifies the similarities between Whitman's views and Hindu philosophy. Additionally, while many critics observe a duality...
(The entire section is 118,436 words.)