Walt Whitman

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Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Walter "Walt" Whitman ( May 31, 1819- March 26, 1892) was an American Romantic poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist. Proclaimed the "greatest of all American poets" by many foreign observers a mere four years after his death, his works have been translated into more than 25 languages. Whitman is among the most influential and controversial poets in the American canon, his work described in 1897 as a "rude shock" and "the most audacious and debatable contribution yet made to American literature." He largely abandoned the metrical structures of European poetry for an expansionist freestyle verse—"irregular" but "beautifully rhythmic" —which represented his philosophical view that America was destined to reinvent the world as emancipator and liberator of the human spirit. As he wrote in Chants Democratic, "Rhymes and rhymers pass away—… America justifies itself, give it time.…"

Early life

Whitman was born in West Hills, Huntington on Long Island in New York, second oldest of nine children of Walter Whitman and Louisa (Van Velsor) Whitman. His most famous work is Leaves of Grass, which he continued to edit and revise until his death. A group of civil war poems, included within Leaves of Grass, is often published as an independent collection under the name of Drum-Taps.

The first versions of "Leaves of Grass" were self-published and poorly received. Several poems featured graphic depictions of the human body, enumerated in Whitman's innovative "cataloguing" style, which contrasted with the reserved Puritan ethic of the period. Despite its revolutionary content and structure, subsequent editions of the book evoked critical indifference in the US literary establishment. Outside the US, the book was a world-wide sensation, especially in France, where Whitman's intense humanism influenced the naturalist revolution in French letters.

By 1864, Walt Whitman was world famous and Leaves of Grass had been accepted by a publishing house in the US. Though still considered an iconoclast and a literary outsider, the poet's status began to grow at home. During his final years, Whitman became a respected literary vanguard visited by young artists. Several photographs and paintings of Whitman with a large beard cultivated a "Christ-figure" mystique. Whitman did not invent American transcendentalism, but he had become its most famous exponent and he was also associated with American mysticism. In the 20th century young writers such as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac rediscovered Whitman and reinterpreted his literary manifesto for younger audiences.


After losing his job as editor of the Daily Eagle because of his abolitionist sentiment and his support of the free-soil movement, Whitman self-published an early edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 with Rome Brothers. Except for his own anonymous reviews, the early edition of the book received little attention. One exception was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher and essayist, who praised Leaves of Grass in a letter to Whitman, saying "I greet you at the beginning of a great career". Whitman republished the letter in the second edition of Leaves of Grass without Emerson's permission. Emerson was furious, but continued to recommend the book. A few prominent intellectuals such as Oliver Wendell Holmes were outwardly opposed to Whitman and found his writing's sensuality obscene.

It was not until 1864 that Leaves of Grass found a publisher other than Whitman. After Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it, he said he found it offensive and fired Whitman from his job at the Interior Department. The 1860 re-issue was greatly enlarged, containing two new sections, "Children of Adam" and "Calamus". This revising of Leaves of Grass would continue for the rest of his life, and by 1892, Leaves of Grass had been reissued in more than seven different versions.

English composers of the early 20th century, notably Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, felt a strong affinity for Whitman's poetry. Williams' Symphony #1, "A Sea Symphony", uses Whitman's poems superbly, as does his "Dona Nobis Pacem".

Political views

Whitman's political views generally reflected 19th-century liberalism. On free trade he stated: "The spirit of the tariff is malevolent. It flies in the face of all American ideals. I hate it root and branch. It helps a few rich men to get rich, it helps the great mass of poor men to get poorer. I am for free trade because I am for anything that will break down the barriers between peoples. I want to see the countries all wide open." A little discussed aspect of Whitman's political views is that he wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle as a staunch supporter of the Mexican-American War.

American Civil War

In December of 1862, Whitman was first exposed to the tragedy of the American Civil War when he traveled to Virginia in search of his brother George who had been wounded in battle. Whitman spent several days at camp hospitals of the Army of the Potomac at Falmouth, VA just after the particularly bloody battle of Fredericksburg. He was so moved by the scene at the battlefield hospital that he traveled to Washington D.C. and spent much of the next three years working occasionally as an unofficial nurse in several army hospitals in and around the city. Whitman made a great effort to get to know wounded soldiers, bringing them small gifts and writing letters for them. He recorded his day-to-day experiences during this time and in 1875 published a volume of these journals under the title Memoranda During the War. This period also inspired the poem, "The Wound Dresser", which was later set to music by John Adams.

Much of Memoranda During the War is devoted to brief portraits of wounded and dying soldiers met during his time in the hospitals. Some of these wounded men spent their last moments of life in the company of Whitman and his prose monuments to them reveal a deeply human side of the man whose poetry often tends toward the grandiose.

While he eventually came to see the war as a necessary step in the moral development of the still-young nation, much of Whitman's writing from this period evinces a pessimistic uncertainty about the nation and the people that he spent his early career exalting. He mentions near the beginning of Memoranda that "...so much of a Race depends on what it thinks of death, and how it stands personal anguish and sickness." It is this aspect of the American character that was tested on an unprecedented scale during the Civil War and Whitman, self-appointed spokesman of the nation's soul, put himself in a position to witness and participate in the trial. Whitman was a great admirer of Lincoln and deeply mourned his death. He wrote multiple poems concerning the passing of the beloved president, including the elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and the minor but famous " O Captain! My Captain!"

Later life and honours

Walt Whitman, 1887
Walt Whitman, 1887

In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke while working and living in Washington, D.C. He never completely recovered, but continued to write poetry. He lived his final years at his home on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, revising Leaves of Grass and receiving visitors including Oscar Wilde.

After his stroke, his fame grew substantially both at home and abroad. Mostly it was stimulated by several prominent British writers criticizing the American academy for not recognizing Whitman's talents. These included William Rossetti and Anne Gilchrist. At this time in his life, Whitman also had a prominent group of national and international disciples, including Canadian writer and physician Richard Bucke.

During his later years, Whitman ventured out on only two significant journeys: to Colorado in 1879 and to Boston to visit Emerson in 1881. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and was buried in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery.

Although Whitman left Long Island at age 22, he is still much revered there and especially in his native Huntington, where a large shopping mall, high school and major road are all named in his honor. Camden and the surrounding area also honour the poet. The Walt Whitman Bridge spans the Delaware River, linking Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, and the Walt Whitman Centre at Rutgers Camden hosts poets, plays and other events. Additionally, a statue of Whitman can be found in the campus centre.


An extensive collection of Walt Whitman's manuscripts is maintained in the Library of Congress thanks largely to the efforts of Russian immigrant Charles Feinberg. Feinberg preserved Whitman's manuscripts and promoted his poetry so intensely through a period when Whitman's fame largely declined that University of Paris-Sorbonne Professor Steven Asselineau claimed "for nearly half a century Feinberg was in a way Whitman's representative on earth" .

Influence on later poets

Walt Whitman's influence on contemporary North American poetry is so enormous that it has been said that American poetry divides into two camps: that which naturally flows from Whitman and that which consciously strives to reject it. Whitman's great talents presented a complex paradox for the modernist poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who recognized Whitman's value, but feared the implications of his influence.

During the height of modernism, Whitman continued to present "a problem" until he was rescued by such influential poets as William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. Later, Allen Ginsberg and the beat poets would become the most vociferous champions of Whitman's expansive, abundant, humanistic America. Ginsberg begins his famous poem "Supermarket in California" with a reference to Walt Whitman. The hand of Whitman can be seen working in such diverse twentieth-century poets as John Berryman, Galway Kinnell, Langston Hughes, Philip Levine, Kenneth Koch, James Wright, Joy Harjo, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver, and June Jordan, to name only a few.

Whitman was also revered by international poets ranging from Pablo Neruda to Rimbaud to Federico García Lorca to Fernando Pessoa.

Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom considers Walt Whitman to be among the five most important U.S. poets of all time (along with Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Robert Frost).

Whitman was also a huge influence on the English novelist and poet, D.H. Lawrence.

Whitman and sexuality

Whitman's expression of sexuality ranged from his admiration for 19th-century ideals of male friendship to openly erotic descriptions of the male body, as can be readily seen in his poem " Song of Myself". This is in contradiction to the outrage Whitman displayed when confronted about these messages in public, praising chastity and denouncing onanism. He also long claimed to have a Black female paramour in New Orleans, and six illegitimate children. This story about the paramour in New Orleans has led historians on a wild goose chase. Jean Luc Montaigne specifies that the name of Whitman's lover was Jean Granouille, not Jeanine Granouille. This mixed-blood male was only 26 years old when he met Whitman, and was the son of a Huguenot preacher and a slave. Some, in order to whitewash Whitman's reputation, converted Jean into Jeanine. Having an African-American female as a lover was far more acceptable than having a partially-Black male lover. Modern scholarly opinion believes these poems reflected Whitman's true feelings towards his sexuality, but he tried to cover up his feelings in a homophobic culture. In " Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City" he changed the sex of the beloved from male to female prior to publication.

During the American Civil War, the intense comradeship at the front lines in Virginia, which were visited by Whitman as he searched for his wounded brother, and later in Washington, D.C. where he spent a huge amount of time as an unpaid nurse, fueled his ideas about the convergence of homosexuality and democracy. In " Democratic Vistas", he begins to discriminate between amative (i.e., heterosexual) and adhesive (i.e., homosexual) love, and identifies the latter as the key to forming the community without which democracy is incomplete:

It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it), that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof.

In 1915, Fernando Pessoa explicitly described Whitman as being homosexual in his sensationalistic poem Saudação a Walt Whitman.

In the 1970s, the gay liberation movement made Whitman one of their poster children, citing the homosexual content and comparing him to Jean Genet for his love of young working-class men ("We Two Boys Together Clinging"). In particular the " Calamus" poems, written after a failed and very likely homosexual relationship, contain passages that were interpreted to represent the coming out of a gay man. The name of the poems alone would have sufficed to convey homosexual connotations to the ones in the know at the time, since the calamus plant is associated with Kalamos, a god in antique mythology who was transformed with grief by the death of his lover, the male youth Karpos. In addition, the calamus plant's central characteristic is a prominent central vein that is phallic in appearance.

Whitman's romantic and sexual attraction towards other men is not disputed. However, whether or not Whitman had sexual relationships with men has been the subject of some critical disagreement. The best evidence is a pair of third-hand accounts attributed to fellow poets George Sylvester Viereck and Edward Carpenter, neither of whom entrusted those accounts to print themselves. Though scholars in the field have increasingly supported the view of Whitman as actively homosexual, this aspect of his personality is still sometimes omitted when his works are presented in educational settings. The love of Whitman's life may well have been Peter Doyle, a bus conductor whom he met around 1866. They were inseparable for several years. Interviewed in 1895, Doyle said: "We were familiar at once — I put my hand on his knee — we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip — in fact went all the way back with me.". Whitman's love for Peter Doyle influenced his prophetic theory of comradeship.


Harold Bloom in The Western Canon proposes that although Whitman was primarily attracted to his own sex, his primary expressions of sexuality throughout his life were onanistic and reads numerous onanistic references into Leaves of Grass. He writes of Whitman as one of the first Western writers to speak in praise of masturbation. This view is supported by Robert S. Frederickson in his essay "Public Onanism: Whitman's Song of Himself". Bloom's thesis – that the sexual experience Whitman celebrates was possibly merely imagined - has been ridiculed by other scholars, such as Gary Schmidgall, who view it as obtuse at best, and homophobic at worst.


  • 1819: Born on May 31.
  • 1841: Moves to New York City.
  • 1855: Father, Walter, dies. First edition of Leaves of Grass.
  • 1862: Visits his brother, George, who was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg.
  • 1865: Drum-Taps, Whitman's wartime poetry (later incorporated into Leaves of Grass), published.
  • 1866: Meets Peter Doyle
  • 1873: Suffers first Stroke, Moves to Camden. Mother Louisa dies.
  • 1877: Meets Richard Maurice Bucke
  • 1882: Meets Oscar Wilde. Publishes Specimen Days & Collect.
  • 1888: Second stroke. Serious illness. Publishes November Boughs.
  • 1891: Final edition of Leaves of Grass.
  • 1892: Dies on March 26, buried Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey.

Selected works

  • 1855 Leaves of Grass — 95 pages; 10-page preface, followed by 12 poems
  • 1856 Leaves of Grass — 32 poems, with prose annexes
  • 1860 Leaves of Grass — 456 pages; 178 poems
  • 1865 Drum-Taps
  • 1865–1866 Sequel to Drum-Taps
  • 1867 Leaves of Grass — re-edited; adding Drum-Taps, Sequel to Drum-Taps, and Songs Before Parting; 6 new poems
  • 1871–72 Leaves of Grass — adding 120 pages with 74 poems, 24 of which were new texts
  • 1881–82 Leaves of Grass — adding 17 new poems, deleting 39, and rearranging; 293 poems total
  • 1891–92 Leaves of Grass — no significant new material
  • Walt Whitman, et al., The Classics of Style. The American Academic Press, 2006, includes writing advice of Whitman, as well as other authors
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