Whitman, Walt

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Whitman, Walt

Walt Whitman (Walter Whitman), 1819–92, American poet, b. West Hills, N.Y. Considered by many to be the greatest of all American poets, Walt Whitman celebrated the freedom and dignity of the individual and sang the praises of democracy and the brotherhood of man. His Leaves of Grass, unconventional in both content and technique, is probably the most influential volume of poems in the history of American literature.

Early Life

Whitman left school in 1830, worked as a printer's devil and later as a compositor. In 1838–39 he taught school on Long Island and edited the Long Islander newspaper. By 1841 he had become a full-time journalist, editing successively several papers and writing prose and verse for New York and Brooklyn journals. His active interest in politics during this period led to the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a Democratic party paper; he lost this job, however, because of his vehement advocacy of abolition and the "free-soil" movement. After a brief trip to New Orleans in 1848, Whitman returned to Brooklyn, continued as a journalist, and later worked as a carpenter.

Leaves of Grass

In 1855 Whitman published at his own expense a volume of 12 poems, Leaves of Grass, which he had begun working on probably as early as 1847. Prefaced by a statement of his theories of poetry, the volume included the poem later known as "Song of Myself," in which the author proclaims himself the symbolic representative of common people. Although the book was a commercial failure, critical reviewers recognized the appearance of a bold new voice in poetry. Two larger editions appeared in 1856 and 1860, and they had equally little public success.

Leaves of Grass was criticized because of Whitman's exaltation of the body and sexual love and also because of its innovation in verse form—that it, the use of free verse in long rhythmical lines with a natural, "organic" structure. Emerson was one of the few intellectuals to praise Whitman's work, writing him a famous congratulatory letter. Whitman continued to enlarge and revise further editions of Leaves of Grass; the last edition prepared under his supervision appeared in 1892.

Later Life and Works

From 1862 to 1865 Whitman worked as a volunteer hospital nurse in Washington. His poetry of the Civil War, Drum-Taps (1865), reissued with Sequel to Drum Taps (1865–66), included his two poems about Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," considered one of the finest elegies in the English language, and the much-recited "O Captain! My Captain!" For a while Whitman served as a clerk in the Dept. of the Interior, but he was discharged because Leaves of Grass was considered an immoral book.

In 1873 Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke and afterward lived in a semi-invalid state. His prose collection Democratic Vistas had appeared in 1871, and his last long poem, "Passage to India," was published in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass. From 1884 until his death he lived in Camden, N.J., where he continued to write and to revise his earlier work. His last book, November Boughs, appeared in 1888.

Assessment

Whitman was a complex person. He saw himself as the full-blooded, rough-and-ready spokesman for a young democracy, and he cultivated a bearded, shaggy appearance. Indeed, Whitman's early biographers John Burroughs and R. M. Bucke were so affected by the robust "I" of Whitman's poems and by the poet himself that they depicted him as a rowdy, sensual man, a great lover of women, and the father of several illegitimate children. Most of this was false. In reality Whitman was a quiet, gentle, circumspect man, robust in youth but sickly in middle age, who sired no children and is generally acknowledged to have been homosexual. Whitman had an incalculable effect on later poets, inspiring them to experiment in prosody as well as in subject matter.

Bibliography

See T. L. Brasher, ed., Early Poems and Fiction (1963) and H. W. Blodgett and S. Bradley, ed., Leaves of Grass (1965); his published prose, ed. by F. Stovall (2 vol., 1963–64); his uncollected prose, ed. by E. F. Grier et al. (6 vol., 1984); his daybooks and notebooks, ed. by W. White (3 vol., 1978); Collected Poetry and Prose (1982); his correspondence, ed. by E. H. Miller (6 vol., 1961–77); G. W. Allen, New Walt Whitman Handbook (1986); biographies by G. W. Allen (1955, rev. ed. 1969), J. Kaplan (1986), and J. Loving (1999); P. Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet (1984); D. S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America (1995); R. Roper, Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War (2008); T. Genoways, Walt Whitman and the Civil War (2009); C. K. Williams, On Whitman (2010).

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