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Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) is hailed as a masterpiece of American literature. Published in nine editions between 1855 and 1892, the collection pioneered a vision of humanity based on Whitman’s radically democratic ideals and unveiled an ambitious poetic persona designed to serve as the embodiment of America. The poems of Leaves of Grass glorify America through evocations of its citizenry, landscape, and history as filtered through the “self’ of the longest and most highly regarded poem, ”Song of Myself.” Eschewing conventional verse forms and diction, Whitman wrote in an unrestrained and idiosyncratic style that reflected the iconoclasm of his personal outlook. Though deemed obscene by some when it was published, the influence of Leaves of Grass on American literature has been pronounced and lasting.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Undistinguished Beginnings
There is nothing in Whitman’s life prior to 1855 to indicate future greatness. Born on May 31, 1819, to Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor, young Walt passed his early years in undistinguished fashion. Shortly before his fourth birthday, the family moved from its home at West Hills, Long Island, to Brooklyn. Whitman’s father, a carpenter, hoped to find employment in the town, for there had been few opportunities to ply his craft on Long Island, and he had been reduced to farming and cutting firewood to earn money for his family.
Whitman received a rudimentary education during the six years he attended the public schools in Brooklyn, beginning about 1825. He obtained even more important lessons from his parents. His mother taught him the value of family ties, and Whitman remained devoted to his family throughout his life, becoming, in a real sense, its leader after the death of his father. Whitman inherited the liberal intellectual and political attitudes of a free thinker from his father.
Whitman’s formal education ended in his eleventh year, when he went to work as an office boy. He was fortunate in his first choice of employment, the lawyers James B. Clark and his son, Edward. The younger Clark took a liking to Whitman, assisting him with his handwriting and composition and treating him to a subscription in a local circulating (or lending) library, where he was introduced to a new, vast world of romance as he devoured the writings of Sir Walter Scott. Whitman was then employed in a physician’s office before landing another job that would greatly influence his life.
Walt Whitman: Newspaperman
In the summer of 1831, Whitman joined the office staff of the Long Island Patriot, a four-page weekly whose editor, Samuel E. Clements, shared the liberal political views of his father. It was here that Whitman first broke into print with “sentimental” bits of filler material. The following summer, Whitman went to work for another printer, Erastus Worthington, and in the autumn he moved on to the shop of Alden Spooner, the most successful publisher-printer in Brooklyn.
Although his family moved back to the area of West Hills in 1834, Whitman stayed on in Brooklyn. He published a few pieces in the New York Mirror, attended the Bowery Theater, continued subscribing to a circulating library, and joined a local debating society. In his sixteenth year, Whitman moved to New York City to seek work as a compositor. His move was poorly timed: a wave of Irish immigrants had contributed to the already unruly behavior in the city’s streets; anti-abolitionist and anti-Irish riots often broke out; unemployment was high; and the winter was miserably cold. Whitman could not find satisfactory employment and, in May 1836, he rejoined his family, now living in Hempstead, Long Island.
In June, Whitman began to teach school in nearby Norwich. In days when a high school diploma (or its equivalent) was the exception and not the rule, and when teacher certification was unknown, Whitman’s apparent choice of profession was not unusual. During the next phase of his life, Whitman would alternate between teaching and printing, his public vacillation in profession reflecting his private indecision about where his future lay. Whitman taught at various schools until the spring of 1838, when, with the financial support of friends, he began his own newspaper, the weekly Long Islander, in Huntington.
Whitman’s stint as an independent newspaperman lasted until May 1839, when he sold the paper and his equipment and went again to New York. He subsequently edited numerous papers for short periods, including the New York Aurora and the Brooklyn Eagle. During this time, Whitman also published poems and short stories in various periodicals. Generally undistinguished, sentimental, and educational, these early pieces are considered typical of the pious attitudes of the era. The verse, written in conventional rhyme and meter, gives no indication of the dynamic, free-flowing style Whitman later developed in Leaves of Grass. His first separately published work was an anti-alcohol novel titled Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (1842). He later called it “rot” and claimed that it was written only as hackwork.
The Radical Poet
Whitman’s sudden transformation from a conventional journalist to a radical poet remains unexplained, though commentators have suggested causes ranging from writer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1842 lecture, ”The Poet”—in which Emerson called for an American poet to capture the spirit of the burgeoning republic—to the emotional freedom resulting from Whitman’s discovery of his homosexuality. Whatever the motivation, critics note that from the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman actively promoted himself as a representative of the common people. The first edition of Leaves of Grass, published when Whitman was thirty-five years old, contains twelve untitled poems and no indication of its author, aside from the copyright notice, in which the holder is identified as ”Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,” a phrase that is echoed in one of the poems.
In a preface that has come to be regarded as one of literature’s most influential expositions of artistic aims, Whitman outlined the methods and concerns of a new mode of poetry, centered on simplicity and nature: ”[To] speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside is the flawless triumph of art.” In accordance with the preface, the poems in Leaves of Grass sharply break from the American verse tradition, employing unrhymed and unmetered lines, blending poetic and unpoetic speech, and addressing subjects that had been considered unfit for poetry, most conspicuously, the body and human sexuality. Many Americans were shocked by the first poem of Leaves of Grass, to be called ”Song of Myself” in later editions of the book. Although Ralph Waldo Emerson congratulated Whitman on Leaves of Grass in a letter stating, ”I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” biographers note that he, too, disapproved of the sexually explicit passages in Whitman’s work.
In the subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman included new poems, revised and combined existing ones, added and altered titles, and shifted poems into thematic groupings. He once referred to the different editions of Leaves of Grass as ”a succession of growths like the rings of trees.” In such poems as ”Scented Herbage of My Breast” and ”City of Orgies,” Whitman articulated his dream of democracy founded on the existence of close bonds between men. ”As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” another important poem that was added to Leaves of Grass in 1860, is filled with anxiety about writing, death, and the ”self,” and as is characteristic of Whitman, the ”self” becomes a metaphor for humanity as a whole. Often cited as one of his most moving poems, ”As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” has been read as a process of confronting fears and striving to transform them into hope.
During the American Civil War, Whitman tended wounded soldiers in army hospitals in Washington, D.C., while working as a copyist in the army paymaster’s office. He described some of his wartime experiences in the collections Drum-Taps (1865) and Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-1866). The latter contains his eulogy for Abraham Lincoln, ”When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which Whitman later incorporated into the ”Memories of President Lincoln” section of Leaves of Grass. The poem is an attempt to come to terms with the loss of the president on a collective level. Though another work occasioned by Lincoln’s death, ”O Captain! My Captain!,” is Whitman’s best-known poem, it is also the one he most regretted writing, as he felt it was too formally rigid and distant in emotion.
Following the war, he worked for the Department of the Interior until the secretary, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass and dismissed him on grounds of immorality. He was immediately rehired as a clerk at the Justice Department and remained in this position until he suffered a paralytic stroke in 1873, two years after publishing his philosophical essay Democratic Vistas (1871) and the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass. Although he lived nearly twenty more years and published four more editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman produced little significant new work following his stroke. Primarily, he reworked and rearranged previous editions of Leaves of Grass and collected his early writings. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, in Camden, New Jersey.
Works in Literary Context
The philosophical, cultural, and literary movement of transcendentalism posited that a spiritual reality exists beyond the observable world. This spiritual reality can be experienced through intuition. The movement emerged during the mid-nineteenth century as a protest against scholastic intellectualism. The first important work of transcendentalist thought is generally considered to be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature (1836), which views nature as a divine entity. Following the publication of Emerson’s essay, the transcendentalism movement began to spread through New England and spawned significant works by the writers Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. While Whitman was not officially linked with the transcendentalism movement, he was influenced by it, and several of his poems, including ”Song of Myself’ and ”Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” can be read as latter-day examples of transcendentalism. Whitman is often considered to be responsible for merging transcendentalism with realism.
Unlike those who espoused transcendentalism, followers of realism strived to depict the world objectively, unsentimentally, and unromantically. The movement began during the mid-nineteenth century and was distinguished by a refusal to indulge in overly dramatic literary climaxes and exaggerated celebrations of heroism. Both the good and the bad aspects of everyday life are portrayed in realist works, and its down-to-earth sensibility was championed by writers Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, and Philip Larkin. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was considered to be a work that helped paved the way for the transition from transcendentalism to realism.
Works in Critical Context
Leaves of Grass
Despite initial negative critical judgments of its frank approach to sex, Leaves of Grass has come to be recognized as a remarkable accomplishment. The poet, Galway Kinnell, has written about Whitman’s ”transformation, in the world of letters, from freak to master,” theorizing that, except for a few perceptive minds— Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the nineteenth century, Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay in the first half of the twentieth century—mainstream critics were generally too shocked or puzzled by Leaves of Grass to give it a fair and thoughtful reading. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, Whitman’s poetry had gained wide acceptance, due in part to more open societal attitudes towards sex. It has been the task of critics to sort out the large quantity of myths generated by Whitman’s detractors, his disciples, and the poet himself. In particular, critics have sought to explain the significance of sexual imagery in his poetry. Textual analyses continue to reveal complexities in Whitman’s work, and such investigations contribute to an evolving appreciation of his powers as a poet. Perhaps The New York Times best summed up the work in a 2005 article stating, ”Whitman’s poem is one of those literary mazes, with passages brilliant and tedious, through which it is possible to follow dozens if not hundreds of ideas.”
Hardly as celebrated as Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s prose collection Democratic Vistas, and Other Papers was still well regarded by critics. In a review published in 1888 in The Academy, Walter Lewin writes that the title piece ”is quite the best thing Whitman has produced in prose” after stating that ”there is plenty of excellent matter in the present volume.” However, Lewin does not view the book as flawless: ”Whitman’s essays do not mark him out as a master of style in prose. . . . But what they may lack in style is more than compensated by the abundance of thought they contain.” Meanwhile, a supportive review in The Sunder-land Times concludes,
Walt Whitman hails with joy the oceanic, variegated, intense practical energy, the clamorous demand for facts, even the business material isms of the current age… .The mark of progress is the growing mastership of the general inferior self by the superior self, in the individual, the nation, the race. And this is what he thinks, and we concur with him in thinking, America is destined to do, is doing, and will accomplish.
- Bucke, Richard Maurice. Walt Whitman. Philadelphia, Penn.: McKay, 1883.
- Burroughs, John. Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person. New York: American News, 1867.
- Clark, William. Walt Whitman. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1892.
- Krieg, Joann P. A Whitman Chronology. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1998.
- O’Connor, William Douglas. The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication. New York: Bunce & Huntington, 1866.
- Perry, Bliss. Walt Whitman. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1906.
- Reef, Catherine. Walt Whitman. NewYork: Clarion, 1995.
- Frank, Michael. ”Whitman’s Multitudes, for Better and Worse.” The New York Times (November 18, 2005).
- Lewin, Walter. ”Review of Democratic Vistas, and Other Papers.” The Academy, 33 (June 30,1888): 441-42.
- Review of Democratic Vistas. The Sunderland Times(May 21, 1872).
- Virginia Commonwealth University. Whitman and Transcendentalism. Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/ roots/legacy/whitman/index.html.
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