About Walt Whitman


About Walt Whitman Essay, Research Paper

[Note: This biographical essay is excerpted from a longer essay included in The

Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive at http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/whitman/

It is copyright ? 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 by Kenneth M. Price and Ed Folsom.

Family Origins

Walt Whitman, arguably America’s most influential and innovative

poet, was born into a working class family in West Hills, New York, a village near

Hempstead, Long Island, on May 31, 1819, just thirty years after George Washington was

inaugurated as the first president of the newly formed United States. Walt Whitman was

named after his father, a carpenter and farmer who was 34 years old when Whitman was born.

Walter Whitman, Sr., had been born just after the end of the American Revolution; always a

liberal thinker, he knew and admired Thomas Paine. Trained as a carpenter but struggling

to find work, he had taken up farming by the time Walt was born, but when Walt was just

about to turn four, Walter Sr. moved the family to the growing city of Brooklyn, across

from New York City, or "Mannahatta" as Whitman would come to call it in his

celebratory writings about the city that was just emerging as the nation’s major

urban center. One of Walt’s favorite stories about his childhood concerned the time

General Lafayette visited New York and, selecting the six-year-old Walt from the crowd,

lifted him up and carried him. Whitman later came to view this event as a kind of laying

on of hands, the French hero of the American Revolution anointing the future poet of

democracy in the energetic city of immigrants, where the new nation was being invented day

by day.

Walt Whitman is thus of the first generation of Americans who were born in

the newly formed United States and grew up assuming the stable existence of the new

country. Pride in the emergent nation was rampant, and Walter Sr.—after giving his

first son Jesse (1818-1870) his own father’s name, his second son his own name, his

daughter Mary (1822-1899) the name of Walt’s maternal great grandmothers, and his

daughter Hannah (1823-1908) the name of his own mother—turned to the heroes of the

Revolution and the War of 1812 for the names of his other three sons: Andrew Jackson

Whitman (1827-1863), George Washington Whitman (1829-1901), and Thomas Jefferson Whitman

(1833-1890). Only the youngest son, Edward (1835-1902), who was mentally and physically

handicapped, carried a name that tied him to neither the family’s nor the

country’s history.

Walter Whitman Sr. was of English stock, and his marriage in 1816 to

Louisa Van Velsor, of Dutch and Welsh stock, led to what Walt always considered a fertile

tension in the Whitman children between a more smoldering, brooding Puritanical

temperament and a sunnier, more outgoing Dutch disposition. Whitman’s father was a

stern and sometimes hot-tempered man, maybe an alcoholic, whom Whitman respected but for

whom he never felt a great deal of affection. His mother, on the other hand, served

throughout his life as his emotional touchstone. There was a special affectional bond

between Whitman and his mother, and the long correspondence between them records a kind of

partnership in attempting to deal with the family crises that mounted over the years, as

Jesse became mentally unstable and violent and eventually had to be institutionalized, as

Hannah entered a disastrous marriage with an abusive husband, as Andrew became an

alcoholic and married a prostitute before dying of ill health in his 30s, and as Edward

required increasingly dedicated care.

A Brooklyn Childhood and LongIsland Interludes

During Walt’s childhood, the Whitman family moved around Brooklyn a

great deal as Walter Sr. tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to cash in on the city’s quick

growth by speculating in real estate—buying an empty lot, building a house, moving

his family in, then trying to sell it at a profit to start the whole process over again.

Walt loved living close to the East River, where as a child he rode the ferries back and

forth to New York City, imbibing an experience that would remain significant for him his

whole life: he loved ferries and the people who worked on them, and his 1856 poem

eventually entitled "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" explored the full resonance of the

experience. The act of crossing became, for Whitman, one of the most evocative events in

his life—at once practical, enjoyable, and mystical. The daily commute suggested the

passage from life to death to life again and suggested too the passage from poet to reader

to poet via the vehicle of the poem. By crossing Brooklyn ferry, Whitman first discovered

the magical commutations that he would eventually accomplish in his poetry.

While in Brooklyn, Whitman attended the newly founded Brooklyn public

schools for six years, sharing his classes with students of a variety of ages and

backgrounds, though most were poor, since children from wealthy families attended private

schools. In Whitman’s school, all the students were in the same room, except African

Americans, who had to attend a separate class on the top floor. Whitman had little to say

about his rudimentary formal schooling, except that he hated corporal punishment, a common

practice in schools and one that he would attack in later years in both his journalism and

his fiction. But most of Whitman’s meaningful education came outside of school, when

he visited museums, went to libraries, and attended lectures. He always recalled the first

great lecture he heard, when he was ten years old, given by the radical Quaker leader

Elias Hicks, an acquaintance of Whitman’s father and a close friend of Whitman’s

grandfather Jesse. While Whitman’s parents were not members of any religious

denomination, Quaker thought always played a major role in Whitman’s life, in part

because of the early influence of Hicks, and in part because his mother Louisa’s

family had a Quaker background, especially Whitman’s grandmother Amy Williams Van

Velsor, whose death—the same year Whitman first heard Hicks—hit young Walt hard,

since he had spent many happy days at the farm of his grandmother and colorful

grandfather, Major Cornelius Van Velsor.

Visiting his grandparents on Long Island was one of Whitman’s

favorite boyhood activities, and during those visits he developed his lifelong love of the

Long Island shore, sensing the mystery of that territory where water meets land, fluid

melds with solid. One of Whitman’s greatest poems, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly

Rocking," is on one level a reminiscence of his boyhood on the Long Island shore and

of how his desire to be a poet arose in that landscape. The idyllic Long Island

countryside formed a sharp contrast to the crowded energy of the quickly growing

Brooklyn-New York City urban center. Whitman’s experiences as a young man alternated

between the city and the Long Island countryside, and he was attracted to both ways of

life. This dual allegiance can be traced in his poetry, which is often marked by shifts

between rural and urban settings.

Self-Education and First Career

By the age of eleven, Whitman was done with his formal education (by this

time he had far more schooling than either of his parents had received), and he began his

life as a laborer, working first as an office boy for some prominent Brooklyn lawyers, who

gave him a subscription to a circulating library, where his self-education began. Always

an autodidact, Whitman absorbed an eclectic but wide-ranging education through his visits

to museums, his nonstop reading, and his penchant for engaging everyone he met in

conversation and debate. While most other major writers of his time enjoyed highly

structured, classical educations at private institutions, Whitman forged his own rough and

informal curriculum of literature, theater, history, geography, music, and archeology out

of the developing public resources of America’s fastest growing city.

In 1831, Whitman became an apprentice on the Long Island Patriot,

a liberal, working-class newspaper, where he learned the printing trade and was first

exposed to the excitement of putting words into print, observing how thought and event

could be quickly transformed into language and immediately communicated to thousands of

readers. At the age of twelve, young Walt was already contributing to the newspaper and

experiencing the exhilaration of getting his own words published. Whitman’s first

signed article, in the upscale New York Mirror in 1834, expressed his amazement

at how there were still people alive who could remember "the present great

metropolitan city as a little dorp or village; all fresh and green as it was,

from its beginning," and he wrote of a slave, "Negro Harry," who had died

in1758 at age 120 and who could remember New York "when there were but three houses

in it." Even late in his life, he could still recall the excitement of seeing this

first article in print: "How it made my heart double-beat to see my piece on the

pretty white paper, in nice type." For his entire life, he would maintain this

fascination with the materiality of printed objects, with the way his voice and identity

could be embodied in type and paper.

Living away from home—the rest of his family moved back to the West

Hills area in 1833, leaving fourteen-year-old Walt alone in the city—and learning how

to set type under the Patriot’s foreman printer William Hartshorne, Whitman was

gaining skills and experiencing an independence that would mark his whole career: he would

always retain a typesetter’s concern for how his words looked on a page, what

typeface they were dressed in, what effects various spatial arrangements had, and he would

always retain his stubborn independence, never marrying and living alone for most of his

life. These early years on his own in Brooklyn and New York remained a formative influence

on his writing, for it was during this time that he developed the habit of close

observation of the ever-shifting panorama of the city, and a great deal of his journalism,

poetry, and prose came to focus on catalogs of urban life and the history of New York

City, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Walt’s brother Thomas Jefferson, known to

everyone in the family as "Jeff," was born during the summer of 1833, soon after

his family had resettled on a farm and only weeks after Walt had joined the crowds in

Brooklyn that warmly welcomed the newly re-elected president, Andrew Jackson. Brother

Jeff, fourteen years younger than Walt, would become the sibling he felt closest to, their

bond formed when they traveled together to New Orleans in 1848, when Jeff was about the

same age as Walt was when Jeff was born. But while Jeff was a young child, Whitman spent

little time with him. Walt remained separated from his family and furthered his education

by absorbing the power of language from a variety of sources: various circulating

libraries (where he read Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and other romance

novelists), theaters (where he fell in love with Shakespeare’s plays and saw Junius

Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s father, play the title role in Richard III, always

Whitman’s favorite play), and lectures (where he heard, among others, Frances Wright,

the Scottish radical emancipationist and women’s rights advocate). By the time he was

sixteen, Walt was a journeyman printer and compositor in New York City. His future career

seemed set in the newspaper and printing trades, but then two of New York’s worst

fires wiped out the major printing and business centers of the city, and, in the midst of

a dismal financial climate, Whitman retreated to rural Long Island, joining his family at

Hempstead in 1836. As he turned 17, the five-year veteran of the printing trade was

already on the verge of a career change.

Schoolteaching Years

His unlikely next career was that of a teacher. Although his own formal

education was, by today’s standards, minimal, he had developed as a newspaper

apprentice the skills of reading and writing, more than enough for the kind of teaching he

would find himself doing over the next few years. He knew he did not want to become a

farmer, and he rebelled at his father’s attempts to get him to work on the new family

farm. Teaching was therefore an escape but was also clearly a job he was forced to take in

bad economic times, and some of the unhappiest times of his life were these five years

when he taught school in at least ten different Long Island towns, rooming in the homes of

his students, teaching three-month terms to large and heterogeneous classes (some with

over eighty students, ranging in age from five to fifteen, for up to nine hours a day),

getting very little pay, and having to put up with some very unenlightened people. After

the excitement of Brooklyn and New York, these often isolated Long Island towns depressed

Whitman, and he recorded his disdain for country people in a series of letters (not

discovered until the 1980s) that he wrote to a friend named Abraham Leech: "Never

before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s

nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here," he wrote from

Woodbury in 1840: "Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the

reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair."

The little evidence we have of his teaching (mostly from short

recollections by a few former students) suggests that Whitman employed what were then

progressive techniques—encouraging students to think aloud rather than simply recite,

refusing to punish by paddling, involving his students in educational games, and joining

his students in baseball and card games.

[. . . .]

By 1841, Whitman’s second career was at an end. He had interrupted his teaching in

1838 to try his luck at starting his own newspaper, The Long Islander, devoted to

covering the towns around Huntington. He bought a press and type and hired his younger

brother George as an assistant, but, despite his energetic efforts to edit, publish, write

for, and deliver the new paper, it folded within a year, and he reluctantly returned to

the classroom. Newspaper work made him happy, but teaching did not, and two years later,

he abruptly quit his job as an itinerant schoolteacher. The reasons for his decision

continue to interest biographers. One persistent but unsubstantiated rumor has it that

Whitman committed sodomy with one of his students while teaching in Southold, though it is

not possible to prove that Whitman actually even taught there. The rumor suggests he was

run out of town in disgrace, never to return and soon to abandon teaching altogether. But

in fact Whitman did travel again to Southold, writing some remarkably unperturbed

journalistic pieces about the place in the late 1840s and early 1860s. It seems far more

likely that Whitman gave up schoolteaching because he found himself temperamentally

unsuited for it. And, besides, he had a new career opening up: he decided now to become a

fiction writer. Best of all, to nurture that career, he would need to return to New York

City and re-establish himself in the world of journalism.

[. . . .]

Mature Journalist

By the mid-1840s, Whitman had a keen awareness of the cultural resources of New York

City and probably had more inside knowledge of New York journalism than anyone else in

Brooklyn. The Long Island Star recognized his value as a journalist and, once he

resettled in Brooklyn, quickly arranged to have him compose a series of editorials, two or

three a week, from September 1845 to March 1846. With the death of William Marsh, the

editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, Whitman became chief editor of that paper (he

served from March 5, 1846 to January 18, 1848). He dedicated himself to journalism in

these years and published little of his own poetry and fiction. However, he introduced

literary reviewing to the Eagle, and he commented, if often superficially, on writers such

as Carlyle and Emerson, who in the next decade would have a significant impact on Leaves

of Grass. The editor’s role gave Whitman a platform from which to comment on

various issues from street lighting to politics, from banking to poetry. But Whitman

claimed that what he most valued was not the ability to promote his opinions, but rather

something more intimate, the "curious kind of sympathy . . . that arises in the mind

of a newspaper conductor with the public he serves. He gets to love them."

For Whitman, to serve the public was to frame issues in accordance with working class

interests—and for Whitman this usually meant white working class interests.

He sometimes dreaded slave labor as a "black tide" that could overwhelm white

workingmen. He was adamant that slavery should not be allowed into the new western

territories because he feared whites would not migrate to an area where their own labor

was devalued unfairly by the institution of black slavery. Periodically, Whitman expressed

outrage at practices that furthered slavery itself: for example, he was incensed at laws

that made possible the importation of slaves by way of Brazil. Like Lincoln, he

consistently opposed slavery and its further extension, even while he knew (again like

Lincoln) that the more extreme abolitionists threatened the Union itself. In a famous

incident, Whitman lost his position as editor of the Eagle because the publisher,

Isaac Van Anden, as an "Old Hunker," sided with conservative pro-slavery

Democrats and could no longer abide Whitman’s support of free soil and the Wilmot

Proviso (a legislative proposal designed to stop the expansion of slavery into the western


New Orleans Sojourn

Fortunately, on February 9, 1846, Whitman met, between acts of a performance at the

Broadway Theatre in New York, J. E. McClure, who intended to launch a New Orleans paper,

the Crescent, with an associate, A. H. Hayes. In a stunningly short

time—reportedly in fifteen minutes—McClure struck a deal with Whitman and

provided him with an advance to cover his travel expenses to New Orleans. Whitman’s

younger brother Jeff , then only fifteen years old, decided to travel with Walt and work

as an office boy on the paper. The journey—by train, steamboat, and

stagecoach—widened Walt’s sense of the country’s scope and diversity, as he

left the New York City and Long Island area for the first time. Once in New Orleans, Walt

did not have the famous New Orleans romance with a beautiful Creole woman, a relationship

first imagined by the biographer Henry Bryan Binns and further elaborated by others who

were charmed by the city’s exoticism and who were eager to identify heterosexual

desires in the poet. The published versions of his New Orleans poem called "Once I

Pass’d Through a Populous City" seem to recount a romance with a woman, though

the original manuscript reveals that he initially wrote with a male lover in mind.

Whatever the nature of his personal attachments in New Orleans, he certainly

encountered a city full of color and excitement. He wandered the French quarter and the

old French market, attracted by "the Indian and negro hucksters with their

wares" and the "great Creole mulatto woman" who sold him the best coffee he

ever tasted. He enjoyed the "splendid and roomy bars" (with "exquisite

wines, and the perfect and mild French brandy") that were packed with soldiers who

had recently returned from the war with Mexico, and his first encounters with young men

who had seen battle, many of them recovering from war wounds, occurred in New Orleans, a

precursor of his Civil War experiences. He was entranced by the intoxicating mix of

languages—French and Spanish and English—in that cosmopolitan city and began to

see the possibilities of a distinctive American culture emerging from the melding of races

and backgrounds (his own fondness for using French terms may well have derived from his

New Orleans stay). But the exotic nature of the Southern city was not without its horrors:

slaves were auctioned within an easy walk of where the Whitman brothers were lodging at

the Tremont House, around the corner from Lafayette Square. Whitman never forgot the

experience of seeing humans on the selling block, and he kept a poster of a slave auction

hanging in his room for many years as a reminder that such dehumanizing events occurred

regularly in the United States. The slave auction was an experience that he would later

incorporate in his poem "I Sing the Body Electric."

Walt felt wonderfully healthy in New Orleans, concluding that it agreed with him better

than New York, but Jeff was often sick with dysentery, and his illness and homesickness

contributed to their growing desire to return home. The final decision, though, was

taken out of the hands of the brothers, as the Crescent owners exhibited what

Whitman called a "singular sort of coldness" toward their new editor. They

probably feared that this northern editor would embarrass them because of his unorthodox

ideas, especially about slavery. Whitman’s sojourn in New Orleans lasted only three


Budding Poet

His trip South produced a few lively sketches of New Orleans life and at least one

poem, "Sailing the Mississippi at Midnight," in which the steamboat journey

becomes a symbolic journey of life:

Vast and starless, the pall of heaven

Laps on the trailing pall below;

And forward, forward, in solemn darkness,

As if to the sea of the lost we go.

Throughout much of the 1840s Whitman wrote conventional poems like this one, often

echoing Bryant, and, at times, Shelley and Keats. Bryant—and the graveyard school of

English poetry—probably had the most important impact on his sensibility, as can be

seen in his pre-Leaves of Grass poems "Our Future Lot,"

"Ambition," "The Winding-Up," "The Love that is Hereafter,"

and "Death of the Nature-Lover." The poetry of these years is artificial in

diction and didactic in purpose; Whitman rarely seems inspired or innovative. Instead,

tired language usually renders the poems inert. By the end of the decade, however, Whitman

had undertaken serious self-education in the art of poetry, conducted in a typically

unorthodox way—he clipped essays and reviews about leading British and American

writers, and as he studied them he began to be a more aggressive reader and a more

resistant respondent. His marginalia on these articles demonstrate that he was learning to

write not in the manner of his predecessors but against them.

The mystery about Whitman in the late 1840s is the speed of his transformation from an

unoriginal and conventional poet into one who abruptly abandoned conventional rhyme and

meter and, in jottings begun at this time, exploited the odd loveliness of homely imagery,

finding beauty in the commonplace but expressing it in an uncommon way. What is known as

Whitman’s earliest notebook (called "albot Wilson" in the Notebooks

and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts) may have been written as early as 1847, though

much of the writing probably derives from the early 1850s. This extraordinary document

contains early articulations of some of Whitman’s most compelling ideas. Famous

passages on "Dilation," on "True noble expanding American character,"

and on the "soul enfolding orbs" are memorable prose statements that express the

newly expansive sense of self that Whitman was discovering, and we find him here creating

the conditions—setting the tone and articulating the ideas—that would allow for

the writing of Leaves of Grass.

[. . . .]

Racial Politics and the Origins of Leaves of Grass

A pivotal and empowering change came over Whitman at this time of poetic

transformation. His politics—and especially his racial attitudes—underwent a

profound alteration. As we have noted, Whitman the journalist spoke to the interests of

the day and from a particular class perspective when he advanced the interests of white

workingmen while seeming, at times, unconcerned about the plight of blacks. Perhaps the

New Orleans experience had prompted a change in attitude, a change that was intensified by

an increasing number of friendships with radical thinkers and writers who led Whitman to

rethink his attitudes toward the issue of race. Whatever the cause, in Whitman’s

future-oriented poetry blacks become central to his new literary project and central to

his understanding of democracy. Notebook passages assert that the poet has the

"divine grammar of all tongues, and says indifferently and alike How are you friend?

to the President in the midst of his cabinet, and Good day my brother, to Sambo among the

hoes of the sugar field."

It appears that Whitman’s increasing frustration with the Democratic party’s

compromising approaches to the slavery crisis led him to continue his political efforts

through the more subtle and indirect means of experimental poetry, a poetry that he hoped

would be read by masses of average Americans and would transform their way of thinking. In

any event, his first notebook lines in the manner of Leaves of Grass focus

directly on the fundamental issue dividing the United States. His notebook breaks into

free verse for the first time in lines that seek to bind opposed categories, to link black

and white, to join master and slave:

I am the poet of the body

And I am the poet of the soul

And I am

I go with the slaves of the earth equally with he masters

And I will stand between the masters and the slaves,

Entering into both so that both will understand me alike.

The audacity of that final line remains striking. While most people were

lining up on one side or another, Whitman placed himself in that space—sometimes

violent, sometimes erotic, always volatile—between master and slave. His

extreme political despair led him to replace what he now named the "scum" of

corrupt American politics in the 1850s with his own persona—a shaman, a

culture-healer, an all-encompassing "I."

The American "I"

That "I" became the main character of Leaves of Grass,

the explosive book of twelve untitled poems that he wrote in the early years of the 1850s,

and for which he set some of the type, designed the cover, and carefully oversaw all the

details. When Whitman wrote "I, now thirty-six years old, in perfect health,

begin," he announced a new identity for himself, and his novitiate came at an age

quite advanced for a poet. Keats by that age had been dead for ten years; Byron had died

at exactly that age; Wordsworth and Coleridge produced Lyrical Ballads while both

were in their twenties; Bryant had written "Thanatopsis," his best-known poem,

at age sixteen; and most other great Romantic poets Whitman admired had done their most

memorable work early in their adult lives. Whitman, in contrast, by the time he had

reached his mid-thirties, seemed destined, if he were to achieve fame in any field, to do

so as a journalist or perhaps as a writer of fiction, but no one could have guessed that

this middle-aged writer of sensationalistic fiction and sentimental verse would suddenly

begin to produce work that would eventually lead many to view him as America’s

greatest and most revolutionary poet.

The mystery that has intrigued biographers and critics over the years has

been about what prompted the transformation: did Whitman undergo some sort of spiritual

illumination that opened the floodgates of a radical new kind of poetry, or was this

poetry the result of an original and carefully calculated strategy to blend journalism,

oratory, popular music, and other cultural forces into an innovative American voice like

the one Ralph Waldo Emerson had called for in his essay "The Poet"? "Our

log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our

boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men,

the Northern trade, the Southern planting, the Western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet

unsung," wrote Emerson; "Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography

dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres." Whitman began writing

poetry that seemed, wildly yet systematically, to record every single thing that Emerson

called for, and he began his preface to the 1855 Leaves by paraphrasing Emerson:

"The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." The romantic

view of Whitman is that he was suddenly inspired to impulsively write the poems that

transformed American poetry; the more pragmatic view holds that Whitman devoted himself in

the five years before the first publication of Leaves to a disciplined series of

experiments that led to the gradual and intricate structuring of his singular style. Was

he truly the intoxicated poet Emerson imagined or was he the architect of a poetic persona

that cleverly mimicked Emerson’s description?

There is evidence to support both theories. We know very little about the

details of Whitman’s life in the early 1850s; it is as if he retreated from the

public world to receive inspiration, and there are relatively few remaining manuscripts of

the poems in the first edition of Leaves, leading many to believe that they

emerged in a fury of inspiration. On the other hand, the manuscripts that do remain

indicate that Whitman meticulously worked and reworked passages of his poems, heavily

revising entire drafts of the poems, and that he issued detailed instructions to the Rome

brothers, the printers who were setting his book in type, carefully overseeing every

aspect of the production of his book.

Whitman seems, then, to have been both inspired poet and skilled

craftsman, at once under the spell of his newly discovered and intoxicating free verse

style while also remaining very much in control of it, adjusting and altering and

rearranging. For the rest of his life, he would add, delete, fuse, separate, and rearrange

poems as he issued six very distinct editions of Leaves of Grass. Emerson once

described Whitman’s poetry as "a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the

New York Herald," and that odd joining of the scriptural and the vernacular,

the transcendent and the mundane, effectively captures the quality of Whitman’s work,

work that most readers experience as simultaneously magical and commonplace, sublime and

prosaic. It was work produced by a poet who was both sage and huckster, who touched the

gods with ink-smudged fingers, and who was concerned as much with the sales and reviews of

his book as with the state of the human soul.

The First Edition of Leaves of Grass

Whitman paid out of his own pocket for the production of the first edition

of his book and had only 795 copies printed, which he bound at various times as his

finances permitted. He always recalled the book as appearing, fittingly, on the Fourth of

July, as a kind of literary Independence Day. His joy at getting the book published was

quickly diminished by the death of his father within a week of the appearance of Leaves.

Walter Sr. had been ill for several years, and though he and Walt had never been

particularly close, they had only recently traveled together to West Hills, Long Island,

to the old Whitman homestead where Walt was born. Now his father’s death along with

his older brother Jesse’s absence as a merchant marine (and later Jesse’s

growing violence and mental instability) meant that Walt would become the

father-substitute for the family, the person his mother and siblings would turn to for

help and guidance. He had already had some experience enacting that role even while Walter

Sr. was alive; perhaps because of Walter Sr.’s drinking habits and growing general

depression, young Walt had taken on a number of adult responsibilities—buying boots

for his brothers, for instance, and holding the title to the family house as early as

1847. Now, however, he became the only person his mother and siblings could turn to.

But even given these growing family burdens, he managed to concentrate on

his new book, and, just as he oversaw all the details of its composition and printing, so

now did he supervise its distribution and try to control its reception. Even though

Whitman claimed that the first edition sold out, the book in fact had very poor sales. He

sent copies to a number of well-known writers (including John Greenleaf Whittier, who,

legend has it, threw his copy in the fire), but only one responded, and that, fittingly,

was Emerson, who recognized in Whitman’s work the very spirit and tone and style he

had called for. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," Emerson wrote

in his private letter to Whitman, noting that Leaves of Grass "meets the

demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much

handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and

mean." Whitman’s was poetry that would literally get the country in shape,

Emerson believed, give it shape, and help work off its excess of aristocratic fat.

Whitman’s book was an extraordinary accomplishment: after trying for

over a decade to address in journalism and fiction the social issues (such as education,

temperance, slavery, prostitution, immigration, democratic representation) that challenged

thenew nation, Whitman now turned to an unprecedented form, a kind of experimental verse

cast in unrhymed long lines with no identifiable meter, the voice an uncanny combination

of oratory, journalism, and the Bible—haranguing, mundane, and prophetic—all in

the service of identifying a new American democratic attitude, an absorptive and accepting

voice that would catalog the diversity of the country and manage to hold it all in a vast,

single, unified identity. "Do I contradict myself?" Whitman asked confidently

toward the end of the long poem he would come to call "Song of Myself":

"Very well then . . . . I contradict myself; / I am large . . . . I contain

multitudes." This new voice spoke confidently of union at a time of incredible

division and tension in the culture, and it spoke with the assurance of one for whom

everything, no matter how degraded, could be celebrated as part of itself: " What is

commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me." His work echoed with the lingo

of the American urban working class and reached deep into the various corners of the

roiling nineteenth-century culture, reverberating with the nation’s stormy politics,

its motley music, its new technologies, its fascination with science, and its evolving

pride in an American language that was forming as a tongue distinct from British English.

Though it was no secret who the author of Leaves of Grass was,

the fact that Whitman did not put his name on the title page was an unconventional and

suggestive act (his name would in fact not appear on a title page of Leaves until

the 1876 "Author’s Edition" of the book, and then only when Whitman signed

his name on the title page as each book was sold). The absence of a name indicated,

perhaps, that the author of this book believed he spoke not for himself so much as for

merica. But opposite the title page was a portrait of Whitman, an engraving made from a

daguerreotype that the photographer Gabriel Harrison had made during the summer of 1854.

It has become the most famous frontispiece in literary history, showing Walt in

workman’s clothes, shirt open, hat on and cocked to the side, standing insouciantly

and fixing the reader with a challenging stare. It is a full-body pose that indicates

Whitman’s re-calibration of the role of poet as the democratic spokesperson who no

longer speaks only from the intellect and with the formality of tradition and education:

the new poet pictured in Whitman’s book is a poet who speaks from and with the whole

body and who writes outside, in Nature, not in the library. It was what Whitman

called "al fresco" poetry, poetry written outside the walls, the bounds, of

convention and tradition.

The 1856 Leaves

Within a few months of producing his first edition of Leaves,

Whitman was already hard at work on the second edition. While in the first, he had given

his long lines room to stretch across the page by printing the book on large paper, in the

second edition he sacrificed the spacious pages and produced what he later called his

"chunky fat book," his earliest attempt to create a pocket-size edition that

would offer the reader what Whitman thought of as the "ideal

pleasure"—"to put a book in your pocket and [go] off to the seashore or the

forest." On the cover of this edition, published and distributed by Fowler and Wells

(though the firm carefully distanced themselves from the book by proclaiming that

"the author is still his own publisher"), Whitman emblazoned one of the first

"blurbs" in American publishing history: without asking Emerson’s

permission, he printed in gold on the spine of the book the opening words of

Emerson’s letter to him: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career,"

followed by Emerson’s name. And, to generate publicity for the volume, he appended to

the volume a group of reviews of the first edition—including three he wrote himself

along with a few negative reviews—and called the gathering Leaves-Droppings.

Whitman was a pioneer of the "any publicity is better than no publicity"

strategy. At the back of the book, he printed Emerson’s entire letter (again, without

permission) and wrote a long public letter back—a kind of apologia for his

poetry—addressing it to "Master." Although he would later downplay the

influence of Emerson on his work, at this time, he later recalled, he had


With four times as many pages as the first edition, the 1856 Leaves

added twenty new poems (including the powerful "Sun-Down Poem," later called

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry") to the original twelve in the 1855 edition. Those

original twelve had been untitled in 1855, but Whitman was doing all he could to make the

new edition look and feel different: small pages instead of large, a fat book instead of a

thin one, and long titles for his poems instead of none at all. So the untitled

introductory poem from the first edition that would eventually be named "Song of

Myself" was in 1856 called "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American," and the

poem that would become "This Compost" appeared here as "Poem of Wonder at

the Resurrection of The Wheat." Some titles seemed to challenge the very bounds of

titling by incorporating rolling catalogs like the poems themselves: "To a

Foil’d European Revolutionaire" appeared as "Liberty Poem for Asia, Africa,

Europe, America, Australia, Cuba, and The Archipelagoes of the Sea." As if to counter

some of the early criticism that he was not really writing poetry at all—the review

in Life Illustrated, for example, called Whitman’s work "lines of

rhythmical prose, or a series of utterances (we know not what else to call

them)"—Whitman put the word "Poem" in the title of all thirty-two

works in the 1856 Leaves. Like them or not, Whitman seemed to be saying, they are

poems, and more and more of them were on the way. But, despite his efforts to re-make his

book, the results were depressingly the same: sales of the thousand copies that were

printed were even poorer than for the first edition.

The Bohemian Years

In these years, Whitman was in fact working hard at becoming a poet by

forging literary connections: he entered the literary world in a way he never had as a

fiction writer or journalist, meeting some of the nation’s best-known writers,

beginning to socialize with a literary and artistic crowd, and cultivating an image as an

artist. Emerson had come to visit Whitman at the end of 1855 (they went back to

Emerson’s room at the elegant Astor Hotel, where Whitman—dressed as informally

as he was in his frontispiece portrait—was denied admission); this was the first of

many meetings the two would have over the next twenty-five years, as their relationship

turned into one of grudging respect for each other mixed with mutual suspicion. The next

year, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott visited Whitman’s home (Alcott described

Thoreau and Whitman as each "surveying the other curiously, like two beasts, each

wondering what the other would do"). Whitman also came to befriend a number of visual

artists, like the sculptor Henry Kirke Brown, the painter Elihu Vedder, and the

photographer Gabriel Harrison. And he came to know a number of women’s rights

activists and writers, some of whom became ardent readers and supporters of Leaves of

Grass. He became particularly close to Abby Price, Paulina Wright Davis, Sarah

Tyndale, and Sara Payson Willis (who, under the pseudonym Fanny Fern wrote a popular

newspaper column and many popular books, including Fern Leaves from Fanny’ s

Portfolio [1853], the cover of which Whitman imitated for his first edition of Leaves).

These women’s radical ideas about sexual equality had a growing impact on

Whitman’s poetry. He knew a number of abolitionist writers at this time, including

Moncure Conway, and Whitman wrote some vitriolic attacks on the fugitive slave law and the

moral bankruptcy of American politics, but these pieces (notably "The Eighteenth

Presidency!") were never published and remain vestiges of yet another

career—stump speaker, political pundit—that Whitman flirted with but never


Whitman also began in the late 1850s to become a regular at Pfaff’s

saloon, a favorite hangout for bohemian artists in New York.

[. . . .]

It was at Pfaff’s, too, that Whitman joined the "Fred Gray

Association," a loose confederation of young men who seemed anxious to explore new

possibilities of male-male affection. It may have been at Pfaff’s that Whitman met

Fred Vaughan, an intriguing mystery-figure in Whitman biography. Whitman and Vaughan, a

young Irish stage driver, clearly had an intense relationship at this time, perhaps

inspiring the sequence of homoerotic love poems Whitman called "Live Oak, with Moss,

poems that would become the heart of his Calamus cluster, which appeared

in the 1860 edition of Leaves. These poems recor a despair about the

failure of the relationship, and the loss of Whitman’s bond with Vaughan—who

soon married, had four children, and would only sporadically keep in touch with

Whitman—was clearly the source of some deep unhappiness for th poet.

1860 Edition of Leaves

Whitman’s re-made self-image is evident on the frontispiece of the

new edition of Leaves that appeared in 1860. It would be the only time Whitman

used this portrait, an engraving based on a painting done by Whitman’s artist friend

Charles Hine. Whitman’s friends called it the "Byronic portrait," and

Whitman does look more like the conventional image of a poet—with coiffure and

cravat—than he ever did before or after. This is the portrait of an artist who has

devoted significant time to his image and one who has also clearly enjoyed his growing

notoriety among the arty crowd at Pfaff’s.

Ever since the 1856 edition appeared, Whitman had been writing poems at a

furious pace; within a year of the 1856 edition’s appearance, he wrote nearly seventy

new poems. He continued to have them set in type by the Rome brothers and other printer

friends, as if he assumed that he would inevitably be publishing them himself, since no

commercial publisher had indicated an interest in his book. But there was another reason

Whitman set his poems in type: he always preferred to deal with his poems in printed form

instead of in manuscript. He often would revise directly on printed versions of his

poetry; for him, poetry was very much a public act, and until the poem was in

print he did not truly consider it a poem. Poetic manuscripts were never sacred objects

for Whitman, who often simply discarded them; getting the poem set in type was the most

important step in allowing it to begin to do its cultural work.

In 1860, while the nation seemed to be moving inexorably toward a major

crisis between the slaveholding and free states, Whitman’s poetic fortunes took a

positive turn. In February, he received a letter from the Boston publishers William Thayer

and Charles Eldridge, whose aggressive new publishing house specialized in abolitionist

literature; they wanted to become the publishers of the new edition of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman, feeling confirmed as an authentic poet now that he had been offered actual

royalties, readily agreed, and Thayer and Eldridge invested heavily in the stereotype

plates for Whitman’s idiosyncratic book—over 450 pages of varied typeface and

odd decorative motifs, a visually chaotic volume all carefully tended to by Whitman, who

traveled to Boston to oversee the printing.

This was Whitman’s first trip to Boston, then considered the literary

capital of the nation. Whitman is a major part of the reason that America’s literary

center moved from Boston to New York in the second half of the nineteenth century, but in

1860 the superior power of Boston was still evident in its influential publishing houses,

its important journals (including the new Atlantic Monthly), and its

venerable authors (including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom Whitman met briefly while in

town). And, of course, Boston was the city of Emerson, who came to see Whitman shortly

after his arrival in the city in March. In one of the most celebrated meetings of major

American writers, the Boston Brahmin and the Yankee rowdy strolled together on the Boston

Common, while Emerson tried to convince Whitman to remove from his Boston edition the new Enfans

d’Adam cluster of poems (after 1860, Whitman dropped the French version of the

name and called the cluster Children of Adam), works that portrayed the human

body more explicitly and in more direct sexual terms than any previous American poems.

Whitman argued, as he later recalled, "that the sexual passion in itself, while

normal and unperverted, is inherently legitimate, creditable, not necessarily an improper

theme for poet." "That," insisted Whitman, "is what I felt in

my inmost brain and heart, when I only answer’d Emerson’s vehement arguments

with silence, under the old elms of Boston Common." Emerson’s caution

notwithstanding, the body—the entire body—would be Whitman’s

theme, and he would not shy away from any part of it, not discriminate or marginalize or

form hierarchies of bodily parts any more than he would of the diverse people making up

the American nation. His democratic belief in the importance of all the parts of any

whole, was central to his vision: the genitals and the arm-pits were as essential to the

fullness of identity as the brain and the soul, just as, in a democracy, the poorest and

most despised citizens were as important as the rich and famous. This, at any rate, was

the theory of radical union and equality that generated Whitman’ s work.

So he ignored Emerson’s advice and published the Children of Adam

poems in the 1860 edition along with his Calamus cluster; the first cluster

celebrated male-female sexual relations, and the second celebrated the love of men for

men. The body remained very much Whitman’s subject, but it was never separate from

the body of the text, and he always set out not just to write about sensual embrace but

also to enact the physical embrace of poet and reader. Whitman became a master of

sexual politics, but his sexual politics were always intertwined with his textual

politics. Leaves of Grass was not a book that set out to shock the reader so much

as to merge with the reader and make him or her more aware of the body each

reader inhabited, to convince us that the body and soul were conjoined and inseparable,

just as Whitman’s ideas were embodied in words that ha physical body in the ink

and paper that readers held physically in their hands. Ideas, Whitman’s poems insist,

pass from one person to another not in some ethereal process, but through the bodies of

texts, through the muscular operations of tongues and hands and eyes, through the material

objects of books.

Whitman was already well along on his radical program of delineating just

what democratic affection would entail. He called his Calamus poems his most

political work—"The special meaning of the Calamus cluster,"

Whitman wrote, "mainly resides in its Political significance"—since in

those poems he was articulating a new kind of intense affection between males who, in the

developing democratic society and emerging capitalistic system, were being encouraged to

become fiercely competitive. Whitman countered this movement with a call for manly love,

embrace, and affection. In giving voice to this new camaraderie, Whitman was also

inventing a language of homosexuality, and the Calamus poems became very

influential poems in the development of gay literature. In the nineteenth century,

however, the Calamus poems did not cause as much sensation as Children of

Adam because, even though they portrayed same-sex affection, they were only mildly

sensual, evoking handholding, hugging, and kissing, while the Children of Adam

poems evoked a more explicit genital sexuality. Emerson and others were apparently unfazed

by Calamus and focused their disapprobation on Children of Adam. Only

later in the century,when homosexuality began to be formulated in medical and

psychological circles as an aberrant personality type, did the Calamus poems

begin to be read by some as dangerous and "abnormal" and by others as brave

early expressions of gay identity.

With the 1860 edition of Leaves, Whitman began the incessant

rearrangement of his poems in various clusters and groupings. Whitman settled on cluster

arrangements as the most effective way to organize his work, but his notion of particular

clusters changed from edition to edition as he added, deleted, and rearranged his poems in

patterns that often alter their meaning and recontextualize their significance. In

addition to Calamus and Children of Adam, this edition contained

clusters called Chants Democratic and Native American, Messenger Leaves,

and another named the same as the book, Leaves of Grass. This edition also

contained the first book printings of "Starting from Paumanok" (here called

"Proto-Leaf") and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (here called

"A Word Out of the Sea"), along with over 120 other new poems. He also revised

many of his other poems, including "Song of Myself" (here called simply

"Walt Whitman"), and throughout the book he numbered his poetic verses, creating

a Biblical effect. This was no accident, since Whitman now conceived of his project as

involving the construction of what he called a "New Bible," a new covenant that

would convert America into a true democracy.

[. . . .]

Whitman’s time in Boston—the first extended period he had been

away from New York since his trip to New Orleans twelve years earlier—was a

transforming experience. He was surprised by the way African Americans were treated much

more fairly and more as equals than was the case in New York, sharing tables with whites

at eating houses, working next to whites in printing offices, and serving on juries. He

also met a number of abolitionist writers who would soon become close friends and

supporters, including William Douglas O’Connor and John Townsend Trowbridge, both of

whom would later write at length about Whitman. When he returned to New York at the end of

May, his mood was ebullient. He was now a recognized author; the Boston papers had run

feature stories about his visit to the city, and photographers had asked to photograph him

(not only did he have a growing notoriety, he was a striking physical specimen at over six

feet in height—especially tall for the time—with long, already graying hair and

beard). All summer long he read reviews of his work in prominent newspapers and journals.

And in November, Whitman’s young publishers announced that Whitman’s new

project, a book of poems he called Banner at Day-Break, would be forthcoming.

The Beginning of the Civil War

But just as suddenly as Whitman’s fortunes had turned so unexpectedly

good early in 1860, they now turned unexpectedly bad. The deteriorating national situation

made any business investment risky, and Thayer and Eldridge compounded the problem by

making a number of bad business decisions. At the beginning of 1861, they declared

bankruptcy and sold the plates of Leaves to Boston publisher Richard Worthington,

who would continue to publish pirated copies of this edition for decades, creating real

problems for Whitman every time he tried to market a new edition. Because of the large

number of copies that Thayer and Eldridge initially printed, combined with

Worthington’s ongoing piracy, the 1860 edition became the most commonly available

version of Leaves for the next twenty years and diluted the impact (as well as

depressing the sales) of Whitman’s new editions.

Whitman had dated the title page of his 1860 Leaves

"1860-61," as if he anticipated the liminal nature of that moment in American

history—the fragile moment, between a year of peace and a year of war. In February

1861 he saw Abraham Lincoln pass through New York on the way to his inauguration, and in

April he was walking home from an opera performance when he bought a newspaper and read

the headlines about Southern forces firing on Fort Sumter. He remembers a group gathering

in the New York streets that night as those with newspapers read the story aloud to the

others in the crowd. Even though no one was aware of the full extent of what was to

come—Whitman, like many others, thought the struggle would be over in sixty days or

so—the nation was in fact slipping into four years of the bloodiest fighting it would

ever know. A few days after the firing on Fort Sumter, Whitman recorded in his journal his

resolution "to inaugurate for myself a pure perfect sweet, cleanblooded robust body

by ignoring all drinks but water and pure milk—and all fat meats late suppers—a

great body—a purged, cleansed, spiritualised invigorated body." It was as if he

sensed at some level the need to break out of his newfound complacency, to cease his

Pfaff’s beerhall habits and bohemian ways, and to prepare himself for the challenges

that now faced the divided nation. But it would take Whitman some time before he was able

to discern the form his war sacrifice would take.

Whitman’s brother George immediately enlisted in the Union Army and

would serve for the duration of the war, fighting in many of the major battles; he

eventually was incarcerated as a prisoner-of-war in Danville, Virginia. George had a

distinguished career as a soldier and left the service as a lieutenant colonel; his

descriptions of his war experiences provided Walt with many of his insights into the

nature of the war and of soldiers’ feelings. Whitman’s chronically ill brother

Andrew would also enlist but would serve only three months in 1862 before dying, probably

of tuberculosis, in 1863. Walt’s other brothers—the hot-tempered Jesse (whom

Whitman had to have committed to an insane asylum in 1864 after he physically attacked his

mother), the recently-married Jeff (on whom fell the burden of caring for the extended

family, including his own infant daughter), and the mentally-enfeebled Eddy—did not

enlist, and neither did Walt, who was already in his early forties when the war began.

One of the haziest periods of Whitman’s life, in fact, is the first

year and a half of the war. He stayed in New York and Brooklyn, writing some extended

newspaper pieces about the history of Brooklyn for the Brooklyn Daily Standard;

these pieces, called "Brooklyniana" and consisting of twenty-five lengthy

installments, form a book-length anecdotal history of the city Whitman knew so well but

was now about to leave—he would return only occasionally for brief visits. It was

during this period that Whitman first encountered casualties of the war that was already

lasting far longer than anyone had anticipated. He began visiting wounded soldiers who

were moved to New York hospitals, and he wrote about them in a series called "City

Photographs" that he published in the New York Leader in 1862.

Whitman had in fact been visiting Broadway Hospital for several years,

comforting injured stage drivers and ferryboat workers (serious injuries in the chaotic

transportation industry in New York at the time were common). While he was enamoured with

the idea of having literary figures as friends, Whitman’s true preference for

companions had always been and would continue to be working class men, especially those

who worked on the omnibuses and the ferries ("all my ferry friends," as he

called them), where he enjoyed the endless rhythms of movement, the open road, the

back-and-forth journeys, with good companions. He reveled in the energy and pleasure of

travel instead of worrying about destinations: "I cross’d and recross’d,

merely for pleasure," he wrote of his trips on the ferry. He remembered fondly the

"immense qualities, largely animal" of the colorful omnibus drivers, whom he

said he enjoyed "for comradeship, and sometimes affection" as he would ride

"the whole length of Broadway," listening to the stories of the driver and

conductor, or "declaiming some stormy passage" from one of his favorite

Shakespeare plays.

So his hospital visits began with a kind of obligation of friendship to

the injured transportation workers, and, as the Civil War began taking its toll, wounded

soldiers joined the transportation workers on Whitman’s frequent rounds. These

soldiers came from all over the country, and their reminiscences of home taught Whitman

about the breadth and diversity of the growing nation. He developed an idiosyncratic style

of informal personal nursing, writing down stories the patients told him, giving them

small gifts, writing letters for them, holding them, comforting them, and kissing them.

His purpose, he wrote, was "just to help cheer and change a little the monotony of

their sickness and confinement," though he found that their effect on him was every

bit as rewarding as his on them, for the wounded and maimed young men aroused in him

"friendly interest and sympathy," and he said some of "the most agreeable

evenings of my life" were spent in hospitals. By 1861, his New York hospital visits

had prepared him for the draining ordeal he was about to face when he went to Washington,

D.C., where he would nurse thousands of injured soldiers in the makeshift hospitals there.

Whitman once said that, had he not become a writer, he would have become a doctor, and at

Broadway Hospital he developed close friendships with many of the physicians, even

occasionally assisting them in surgery. His fascination with the body, so evident in his

poetry, was intricately bound to his attraction to medicine and to the hospitals, where he

learned to face bodily disfigurations and gained the ability to see beyond wounds and

illness to the human personalities that persisted through the pain and humiliation. It was

a skill he would need in abundance over the next three years as he began yet another


To the Battlefield

With the nation now locked in an extended war, all of Whitman’s

deepest concerns and beliefs were under attack. Leaves of Grass had been built on

a faith in union, wholeness, the ability of a self and a nation to contain contradictions

and absorb diversity; now the United States had come apart, and Whitman’s very

project was now in danger of becoming an anachronism as the Southern states sought to

divide the country in two. Leaves had been built, too, on a belief in the power

of affection to overcome division and competition; his Calamus vision was of a

"continent indissoluble" with "inseparable cities" all joined by

"the life-long love of comrades." But now the young men of America were killing

each other in bloody battles; fathers were killing sons, sons fathers, brothers brothers.

Whitman’s prospects for his "new Bible" that would bind a nation, build an

affectionate democracy, and guide a citizenry to celebrate its unified diversity, were

shattered in the fratricidal conflict that engulfed America.

Like many Americans, Whitman and his family daily checked

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