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Walt Whitman

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Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819March 26, 1892) was an American poet and humanist born on Long Island, New York. His most famous work is the collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass.

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Walt Whitman, age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.
Contents

Life

Whitman was born in a white farmhouse near present-day South Huntington, New York, on Long Island, New York, in 1819, the second of nine children. In 1823, the Whitman family moved to Brooklyn. Whitman attended school for only six years before starting work as a printer's apprentice. He was almost entirely self-educated, reading especially the works of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare.

After a two year apprenticeship, Whitman moved to New York City and began work in various print shops. In 1835, he returned to Long Island as a country school teacher. Whitman also founded and edited a newspaper, the Long-Islander, in his hometown of Huntington in 1838 and 1839. Whitman continued teaching in Long Island until 1841, when he moved back to New York City to work as a printer and journalist. He also did some freelance writing for popular magazines and made political speeches. In 1840, he worked for Martin Van Buren's presidential campaign.

Whitman's political speeches attracted the attention of the Tammany Society, which made him the editor of several newspapers, none of which enjoyed a long circulation. For two years he edited the influential Brooklyn Eagle, but a split in the Democratic party removed Whitman from this job for his support of the Free-Soil party. He failed in his attempt to found a Free Soil newspaper and began drifting between various other jobs. Between 1841 and 1859, Walt Whitman edited one newspaper in New Orleans (the Crescent), two in New York, and four newspapers in Long Island. While in New Orleans, Whitman witnessed the slave auctions that were a regular feature of the city at that time. At this point, Whitman began writing poetry, which took precedence over other activities.

The 1840s saw the first fruits of Whitman's long labor of words, with a number of short stories published, beginning in 1841, and one year later the temperance novel, "Franklin Evans," published in New York. However, one often-reprinted short story, "The Child's Champion," dating from 1842, is now recognized to be the most important of these early works. It established the theological foundation for Whitman's lifelong theme of the profoundly redemptive power of manly love.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass was self-published at Whitman's expense in 1855, the same year Whitman's father passed away. At this point, the collection consisted of 12 long, untitled poems. Both public and critical response was muted. A year later, the second edition, including a letter of congratulations from Ralph Waldo Emerson, was published. This edition contained an additional twenty poems. Emerson had been calling for a new American poetry; in Leaves of Grass, he found it.

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Walt Whitman, 1884.

During the American Civil War, Whitman cared for wounded soldiers in and around Washington, D.C.. He often saw Abraham Lincoln in his travels around the city, and came to greatly admire the President. Whitman's poems "O Captain! My Captain!" (popularized in the 1989 movie "Dead Poets Society") and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" were influenced by his profound grief after Lincoln's assassination in 1865.

After the Civil War, Walt Whitman found a job as a clerk in the U.S. Department of the Interior. However, when James Harlan, Secretary of the Interior, discovered that Whitman was the author of the "offensive" Leaves of Grass, he fired Whitman immediately.

By the 1881 seventh edition, the collection of poetry was quite large. By this time Whitman was enjoying wider recognition and the edition sold a large number of copies, allowing Whitman to purchase a home in Camden, New Jersey.

Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and was buried in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery, in a simple tomb of his own design.

A dedication to Whitman is carved on the side of a rock face at Bon Echo Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. The inscription is the following excerpt from one of his poems.

My foothold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite;
I laugh at what you call dissolution;
And I know the amplitude of time.

Poetry and Influence

For many, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson stand as the two giants of 19th century American poetry. Whitman's poetry seems more quintessentially American; the poet exposed common America and spoke with a distinctly American voice, stemming from a distinct American consciousness. The power of Whitman's poetry seems to come from the spontaneous sharing of high emotion he presented. American poets in the 20th century (and now, the 21st) must come to terms with Whitman's voice, insofar as it essentially defined democratic America in poetic language. Whitman utilized creative repetition to produce a hypnotic quality that creates the force in his poetry, inspiring as it informs. Thus, his poetry is best read aloud to experience the full message. His poetic quality can be traced indirectly through religious or quasi-religious speech and writings such as the Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson. This is not to limit the man's influence; the beat poet Allen Ginsberg's reconciliation with Whitman is revealed in the former's poem, A Supermarket in California. The work of former United States Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, bears Whitman's unmistakable imprint as well.

Furthermore, Whitman is one of the few American writers whose influence reaches far beyond his native homeland -- he is especially influential in Latin America and the Hispanic World, where some of his more famous successors include the Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda as well as Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

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Whitman's poetry expressed the human energy of the bustling cities of New York and Brooklyn in the 19th century. His Crossing Brooklyn Ferry was written before the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.

Whitman's break with the past made his poetry a model for the French symbolists (who in turn influenced the surrealists) and "modern" poets such as Pound, Eliot, and Auden. The flavor of this power is exhibited in these lines from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry in Leaves of Grass (1855), his most famous work:

I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walked the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had received identity by my body,
That I was, I knew was of my body - and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body.

Whitman and homosexuality

Another topic intertwined with Whitman's life and poetry is that of homosexuality and homoeroticism, ranging from his admiration for 19th century ideals of male friendship to outright masturbatory descriptions of the male body ("Song Of Myself"). This is in sharp contradiction to the outrage Whitman displayed when confronted about these messages in public, praising chastity and denouncing onanism. However, the modern scholarly opinion tends to be that these poems reflected Whitman's true feelings towards his sex and that he merely tried to cover up his feelings in a homophobic culture. For example, in "Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City" he changed the sex of the beloved from male to female prior to publication. He even went so far as to invent six illegitimate children to correct his public image.

During the American Civil War, the intense comradeship (which often turned sexual) at the front lines in Virginia, which were visited by Whitman in his capacity as a nurse, fueled his ideas about the convergence of homosexuality and democracy. In "Democratic Vistas", he begins to discriminate between amative (i.e. heterosexual) and adhesive (i.e. homosexual) love, taking cues from the pseudoscience of phrenology. Adhesive love is portrayed as a possible backbone of a better form of democracy, as a "counter-balance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy and for the spiritualization thereof".

In the 1970s, the gay liberation movement made Whitman one of their poster children, citing the homosexual content and comparing him to Jean Genet for his love of young working-class men ("We Two Boys Together Clinging"). In particular the "Calamus" poems, written after a failed and very likely homosexual relationship, contain passages that were interpreted to represent the coming out of a gay man. The name of the poems alone would have sufficed to convey homosexual connotations to the ones in the know at the time, since the calamus plant is named after Calamus, a god in antique mythology whose young lover Carpus had died.

Despite evidence, for example given by fellow poets George Sylvester Viereck and Edward Carpenter, that Whitman not only had homosexual attractions but also had romantic sexual relationships with other men, this part of his personality is often omitted when his works are presented in the classroom.

Important events in Whitman's life

Further reading

See the brief essay on Whitman by Galway Kinnell in Poetry Speaks (Sourcebooks 2001), which also has on CD what claims to be a live recording of Whitman reading a few lines.

External links

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