Magazine article The Humanist

Celebrating 200 Years of WALT WHITMAN

Magazine article The Humanist

Celebrating 200 Years of WALT WHITMAN

Article excerpt

In 1844, at age twenty-five, Walt Whitman read an article by perhaps the preeminent poet, essayist, and intellectual of his day, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In it Emerson made the case that America needed a fresh new voice in poetry to be able to properly reflect a rapidly emerging society. Whitman decided that he should be that voice.

He was a journalist and itinerant schoolteacher in various places on New York's Long Island where he was born on May 31, 1819, eventually settling in the city of Brooklyn. In those days, New York City was entirely the island of Manhattan, separated from Brooklyn by the East River. Brooklyn was nothing less than a bustling, burgeoning urban environment, thick with the matters of commerce that proved a more than adequate source of ideas and inspiration for the young poet. For ten years Whitman struggled to produce but a dozen lengthy poems, found himself a print shop, and in 1855 created a volume doing very nearly all the work himself. It was titled Leaves of Grass.

Nothing like it had even been written prior and the book was initially presented as a collection of oddities. Poetry in those days still assumed the upper floor in the ivory tower of literature, and Whitman effectively took it out into the street. The print run of the first edition of Leaves of Grass was 795 copies, sized so that the collection could easily be carried in the pocket of the reader. Using his great literary flair, Whitman also wrote several shining reviews of his own book. He also did the obvious thing and sent a copy to Emerson up in Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson's reply was nothing less than laudatory, praising Whitman thusly:

   I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of LEAVES OF
   GRASS. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom
   that America has yet contributed.

   I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have
   had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes
   a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid
   sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits,
   namely, of fortifying and encouraging.

For most poets, these are dreams that never come true; that one should, at the get-go, receive the highest praise from the very highest authority. Whitman put out a second edition in 1856 that included the letter in its entirety, with a small excerpt on the volume's cover. Emerson had, in fact, visited Whitman in Brooklyn, and Whitman never reported his intentions about the second edition. When it came out Emerson was apparently furious, but Whitman carried on and never looked back.

Curiously, Whitman became perhaps the most severe critic of his seminal collection. Up until the time of his death in 1892, he produced six different editions, adding to and editing the original Leaves of Grass. It's certain he felt he had improved upon it, but whether that was the case depends very much on whom you ask. In some respects, a diamond can be cut but once. He felt strongly about perfecting the work he produced, and yet he was certain these were poems for the ages.

But Whitman's beginning had been as a printer and a journalist in New York at a time when newspapers were the sole means for the conveyance of news and information, their numbers plentiful, and the competition among them fierce. The publication that offered the most literary flourish succeeded, and Whitman became a very capable writer.

During the bleak days of the Civil War, Whitman moved to Washington, DC, working at several government agencies. He made it his business to visit the hospitals that were full to overflowing with the suffering battle casualties from the Union side, one of whom was his brother, George. He sat with the wounded to share their stories and their troubles, and took dictation of letters they hoped to send home to loved ones. The horrors Whitman witnessed and heard about from these young soldiers must have exacted a heavy toll on him. …

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