Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of American poet Walt Whitman. Although Whitman is now considered one of the most influential poets in American history, his work was controversial during his lifetime, particularly his collection Leaves of Grass, which some critics described as “obscene” because of its overt sexuality.
Walter Whitman, Jr. was born in Huntington, New York in 1819. He was the second of nine children. Both of his parents were Quakers with little education. Whitman’s father was a carpenter, and he was nicknamed “Walt” to distinguish him from his father, Walter Whitman, Sr. At the age of four, he moved to Brooklyn with his family, and they struggled economically.
Whitman generally described his childhood as being “restless and unhappy,” due to his family’s financial difficulties, but he later recalled one particularly happy moment. During a celebration in 1825 at a library in Brooklyn, the Revolutionary War hero General Marquis de Lafayette lifted the young Whitman into the air and kissed his cheek. Years later, Whitman worked at that same institution as a librarian.
Whitman attended public schools in Brooklyn up until the age of 11, after which he sought employment to assist his family. He worked as an attorney’s assistant, had clerical jobs with the federal government, and was a newspaper printer. In 1831, Whitman took a job as the apprentice of Alden Spooner, who was the editor of the weekly newspaper The Long Island Star. Whitman spent much time at his local library, he joined a town debating society and began attending theater performances.
It was around this time that Whitman published some of his earliest poetry in The New York Daily Mirror. In 1835, he worked as a typesetter in New York City, and the following year he moved back in with his family in Long Island, where he taught intermittently at various schools until 1838. Whitman wasn’t happy teaching, and he decided to start his newspaper, which he called the Long Islander. Whitman did everything for the paper; he was the reporter, publisher, editor, pressman, and distributor. He even provided home delivery. After ten months he sold the publication.
Whitman continued writing. During the 1840s, he contributed freelance fiction and poetry to various periodicals, such as Brother Jonathan magazine. In 1842, Whitman wrote a novel called Franklin Evans about the temperance movement. In 1852, he serialized a mystery novel titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, and in 1858, he published a self-help guide called Manly Health and Training under the pen name Mose Velsor.
In 1855, Whitman self-published the first edition of his landmark poetry book Leaves of Grass, which he had been working on for around five years. This was his magnum opus. The book was strongly endorsed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a five-page letter to Whitman praising the work, which was printed in the New York Tribune, and this helped to stir up considerable interest in the book. Leaves of Grass, which was widely distributed, quickly became controversial, due to claims that some of the material in the poems was sexually offensive.
On more than one occasion, Whitman was fired or denied work because people were offended by the sexual imagery in his poetry. Although Whitman is largely considered to be gay or bisexual by biographers, his actual sexual orientation remains a mystery, and is debated. Whitman’s sexual orientation has been generally assumed based on his poetry, as he never publicly addressed this.
In 1856, the second edition of Leaves of Grass was published, with 20 additional poems. Then further revised editions were published in 1860, 1867, and five more times throughout Whitman’s life. Whitman continued to edit and revise Leaves of Grass until his death. The title of the poetry collection is an example of Whitman’s self-deprecating wordplay and humor. It’s a pun and meant to have multiple meanings. Leaves referred to the “sheets of paper in a book,” and “grass” was used to denote “things that weren’t of much value.” In other words, Leaves of Grass means “pages of little value.”
Whitman is often referred to as the “father of free verse poetry.” The poems in Leaves of Grass do not rhyme or follow standard rules for meter and length. The collection of loosely connected poems represents a celebration of Whitman’s philosophy of life, as well as his praise of nature and the human body. The first edition only contained twelve poems and the final edition contained over 400. The last version of the book was published in 1892, and is referred to as the “deathbed edition.”
Whitman’s poetry is intertwined with America’s past, and many scholars consider him to be an important figure in understanding our country’s history, because of his ability to write in a singularly American character. During the American Civil War, Whitman went to Washington, D.C. where he volunteered to work in hospitals caring for the wounded, and when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated Whitman wrote a highly influential poem about him called O Captain! My Captain. According to poet Ezra Pound, Whitman is “America’s poet… He is America,” and Whitman said, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
During his lifetime, groups of disciples and admirers of Whitman formed, who would meet to read and discuss his poetry. One group subsequently became known as the Bolton Whitman Fellowship, or Whitmanites” and its members held an annual Whitman Day celebration around the poet’s birthday on May 31st.
Whitman died in 1892, at the age of 72. He is buried at the Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey.
In 1940 a U.S. postage stamp was created in Whitman’s honor. His poetry has been set to music by more than 500 composers, and his vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the Beat culture and its writers, such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the 1950s and 1960s. Here in my hometown, at the Bookshop Santa Cruz, there’s a life-size replica of Gabriel Harrison’s famous drawing of Whitman standing at the front entrance of the store as its mascot.
Some of the quotes that Walt Whitman is known for include:
Keep your face always toward the sunshine— and shadows will fall behind you.
Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul… Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.
The art of art, the glory of expression, and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.
“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.
Pointing to another world will never stop vice among us; shedding light over this world can alone help us.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I am satisfied … I see, dance, laugh, sing… I exist as I am, that is enough.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.
In the faces of men and women, I see God.