Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is generally considered to be the most important American poet of the 19th century. He wrote in free verse, relying heavily on the rhythms of native American speech.
In all, over a 37-year period, Walt Whitman published nine separate editions of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. The final, 1892 edition, is the one familiar to readers today. He has strongly influenced the direction of 20th-century American poets, especially Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, and, most recently, Allen Ginsberg and other "beat" poets.
Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Huntington town, Long Island, the second of nine children. His family soon moved to Brooklyn, where he attended school for a few years. By 1830 his formal education was over, and for the next five years he learned the printing trade. For about five years, beginning in 1836, he taught school, on Long Island; during this time he also founded the weekly newspaper Long-Islander.
By 1841 Whitman was in New York City, where his interests turned to journalism. His short stories and poetry of this period were highly derivative and indistinguishable from the popular sentimental claptrap of the day, as was his temperance novel, Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate (1842).
For the next few years Whitman edited several newspapers and contributed to others. He was dismissed from the Brooklyn Eagle because of political differences with the owner. In 1848 he traveled south and for three months worked for the New Orleans Crescent. The sheer physical beauty of the new nation made a vivid impression on him, and he was to draw on this experience in his later poetry. His brief stay in New Orleans also led his early biographers to suggest an early romance with a Creole woman, for which there is no evidence. In his later years, Whitman spoke of fathering six illegitimate children (one being a "living Southern grandchild"), but there is no evidence for this claim either. In 1848 he returned to Brooklyn, where he edited a "free-soil" newspaper. Between this time and 1854, he worked as a carpenter, operated a printing office, did free-lance journalism, built houses, and speculated in real estate.
Not much is known of Whitman's literary activities that can account for his sudden transformation from journalist and hack writer into the iconoclastic and revolutionary poet.
The first edition (1855) opened with a rather casual portrait of Whitman, the self-professed "poet of the people," dressed in workman's clothes. In a lengthy preface Whitman announced that his poetry would celebrate the greatness of the new nation—"The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem"—and of the peoples—"The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen." Of the 12 poems (the titles were added later), "Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," "There Was a Child Went Forth," and "I Sing the Body Electric" are the best-known today. In these Whitman turned his back on the literary models of the past. He stressed the rhythms of native American speech, delighting in colloquial and slang expressions. He wrote in free verse, that is, poetry of irregular meter, usually (or in Whitman's case, almost always) without rime.
Whitman stressed contemporary events and everyday happenings. He drew his vocabulary from commerce and industry. He exalted the commonplace: "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,/ And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of a wren." The worker, the farmer, and the trapper were his muses. He identified strongly with the outcasts of society. Rebelling against the restrictive puritanical code of the day, he delighted in conveying in graphic terms the beauty of the "undraped" human body; he stressed in his poetry the purity of the sexual act—"Urge and urge and urge,/ Always the procreant urge of the world."
The first edition of Leaves sold poorly. Fortunately, Whitman had sent Ralph Waldo Emerson a complimentary copy, and in his now famous reply, Emerson wrote: "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." Emerson's enthusiasm for Leaves of Grass was understandable, for he had strongly influenced the younger poet. Whitman echoed much of Emerson's philosophy in his preface and poems. Emerson's letter had a profound impact on Whitman, completely overshadowing the otherwise poor reception the volume received.
For the second edition (1856), Whitman added 20 new poems to his original 12. With this edition, he began his lifelong practice of adding new poems to Leaves of Grass and revising those previously published in order to bring them into line with his present moods and feelings. Also, over the years he was to drop a number of poems from Leaves.
Among the new poems in the 1856 edition were "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (one of Whitman's masterpieces), "Salut au Monde!," "A Woman Waits for Me," and "Spontaneous Me." Most of the 1855 preface he reworked to form the nationalistic poem "By Blue Ontario's Shore." Like the first edition, the second sold poorly.
The third edition (1860) was brought out by a Boston publisher, one of the few times in his career that Whitman did not have to publish Leaves of Grass at his own expense. This edition, referred to by Whitman as his "new Bible," contained the earlier poems plus 146 new ones. For the first time, Whitman arranged many of the poems in special groupings, a practice he continued in all subsequent editions. The most notable of these "groups" were "Children of Adam," a gathering of heterosexual love poems, and "Calamus," a group of poems celebrating the brotherhood and comradeship of men, or, more properly, in Whitman's phrase, "manly love."
In addition to the pervading optimism and nationalistic fervor he generated in many of the poems in the third edition, Whitman was also very much concerned with the theme of death, the result of some emotional crisis (whose source is unknown) he had experienced in the late 1850s. Several of his great poems of this period testify to this—"As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and "Scented Herbage of My Breast." Other well-known poems of this edition were "Starting from Paumanok," "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," "As the Time Draws Nigh," and "I Sit and Look Out."
The critical reception of the third edition was mixed, although as usual the unfavorable reviews outnumbered the favorable. Many were repelled by the frank and open sexuality of a number of his poems. (One reviewer's reaction was so violent that he thought Whitman ought to kill himself.) The third edition was selling well—a new experience for Whitman—when his usual bad luck in such matters caught up with him: his publisher went into bankruptcy soon after the beginning of the Civil War. To add to Whitman's troubles, the plates of the third edition later came into the possession of an unscrupulous printer, who is believed to have issued over the years some 10,000 pirated copies of the book.
Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman went to Virginia to search for his brother George, reported wounded in action. Here Whitman experienced the war at first hand. He remained in Washington, working part-time in the Paymaster's Office. He devoted many long hours serving as a volunteer aide in the hospitals in Washington, ministering to the needs of the sick and wounded soldiers. Whitman's humanity was such that he brought comfort to Federal as well as Confederate soldiers. His daily contact with sickness and death took its toll. Whitman himself became ill with "hospital malaria." Within a few months his health was "quite reestablished." In January 1865 he took a clerk's position in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior.
The impact of the war on Whitman was reflected in his separately published Drum-Taps (1865). In such poems as "Cavalry Crossing a Ford," "The Wound-Dresser," "Come Up from the Fields Father," "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," "Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim," and "Year That Trembled and Reel'd Beneath Me," Whitman caught with beautiful simplicity of statement the horror, loneliness, and anguish caused by this national calamity.
Whitman's revisions for the fourth edition (1867) were made in a blue-covered copy of the third, the so-called Blue Book, which he kept in his desk in the Indian Bureau. The secretary of the interior managed to get hold of it and was scandalized by its sexual references. In June 1865 he discharged Whitman from the clerkship, but an influential friend interceded in the poet's behalf. The next day Whitman was placed in the Attorney General's Office, where, safe from outraged moralists, he remained until 1873.
The upshot of the episode was the publication in 1866 of The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, written by Whitman's good friend William Douglas O'Connor. The book was so adulatory that Whitman emerged looking less like a poet than a candidate for sainthood. This book marked the beginning of a fiercely partisan, uncritical approach to
Whitman and his poetry by his followers that persisted until recent times. Late in 1865, Whitman published Sequel to Drum-Taps, whose best-known poem was the great elegy on Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
If Whitman was neglected at home, his fame was beginning to spread abroad. In England, William Rossetti's selection of poems from Leaves of Grass (1868) was well received.
Following the Civil War and the publication of the fourth edition, Whitman's poetry became increasingly preoccupied with themes relating to the soul, death, and immortality. He was entering the final phase of his career. Within the span of some dozen years, the poet of the body had given way to the poet of internationalism and the cosmic. Such poems as "Whispers of Heavenly Death," "Darest Thou Now O Soul," "The Last Invocation," and "A Noiseless Patient Spider," with their emphasis on the spiritual, paved the way for "Passage to India" (1871), Whitman's most important (and ambitious) poem of the post-Civil War period.
In "Passage to India," Whitman explored the implications to mankind of three great scientific achievements of the age—the completion in 1869 of the Union Pacific Railroad, spanning the continental United States and of the Suez Canal, connecting Europe with Asia, and the completion, a decade earlier, of the Atlantic cable, connecting America and Europe. To Whitman, these three great events had symbolically brought mankind together in a one-world federation. After centuries of struggle against bitter odds, man had at last achieved a harmony and unity with nature. What remained was for him to achieve his complete spiritual union with God, a transcendent universal spirit, or life force. This was the soul's "Passage to India," a passage to the very cradle of civilization.
In 1871 Whitman published Democratic Vistas, perhaps his most important prose work. He was thoroughly disenchanted with the pervading corruption in the United States during the period of Reconstruction. However, he believed in the ultimate triumph of the democratic ideal in the United States: "Many will say it is a dream … but I confidently expect a time when there will be seen … running … through … America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown."
In 1871-1872 and 1876, Whitman published the fifth and sixth editions of Leaves. The most notable poems were "The Base of All Metaphysics," "Prayer of Columbus," and "Song of the Redwood-Tree." In 1873 Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke and moved from Washington to Camden, N.J. Thereafter, he devoted much of his time to putting Leaves of Grass into final order. He had recovered sufficiently from his stroke to take a trip West in 1879 and to Ontario a year later.
In 1881 Whitman settled on the final arrangement of the poems in Leaves of Grass, and thereafter no revisions were made. (All new poems written after 1881 were added as annexes to Leaves. ) The seventh edition was published by James Osgood. The Boston district attorney threatened prosecution against Osgood unless certain objectionable poems were expurgated. When Whitman refused, Osgood dropped publication of the book. However, a Philadelphia publisher reissued the book in 1882.
Whitman's reminiscences of the Civil War and other prose pieces were published as Specimen Days and Collect (1882). The so-called "Death-bed Edition" of Leaves of Grass, published in 1892, is the one familiar to readers today.
In his last years Whitman received the homage due a great literary figure and personality. He died on March 26, 1892, in Camden. Leaves of Grass has been widely translated, and his reputation is now worldwide. His emphasis on his native idiom, his frank approach to subject matter hitherto thought unsuitable to poetry, and his variety of poetic expression have all contributed to making him a strong influence on the direction of modern poetry.
The standard edition of Whitman's major work is Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, edited by Harold William Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (1965), one volume of the projected 16-volume Collected Writings now in progress under the editorship of Gay Wilson Allen and Sculley Bradley. The definitive, scholarly biography is by Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (1955; rev. ed. 1967). Allen's Walt Whitman (1961; rev. ed. 1969) is a short, illustrated biography. Worth reading is Newton Arvin's study, Whitman (1938; repr. 1969).
The most comprehensive treatment of Whitman's thought and literary techniques is Gay Wilson Allen, Walt Whitman Handbook (1946). Allen's A Reader's Guide to Walt Whitman (1970) is a balanced analytical introduction to Whitman's thought. A stimulating psychological study is Edwin Haviland Miller, Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey (1968). Other sound studies include Frederik Schyberg, Walt Whitman (1933; trans. 1951); James E. Miller, Jr., A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass (1957); Roger Asselineau, The Evolution of Walt Whitman (trans., 2 vols., 1960-1962); and V. K. Charl, Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism (1964). See also Joseph Beaver, Walt Whitman: Poet of Science (1951), and Richard Chase, Walt Whitman Reconsidered (1955). F. O. Matthiessen's study of the mid-19th-century literary milieu, American Renaissance (1941), includes a sensitive account of Whitman's "Language Experiment." Recommended for general background are Roy Harvey Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry (1961), and Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets from the Puritans to the Present (1968).