Walt Whitman was looked upon as the forerunner of 20th Century poetry, praising democracy, and becoming a proclaimed poet of American democracy. He was known as the Son of Long Island, and he loved his country and everything about it. (Current, Williams, Freidel- page 292-293). Whitman lived during the time of the Civil War; a fact that increased his patriotism. Whitman was considered one of the most important American Poets of the 19th Century. (Encyclopedia of World Biography- page 249). He influenced the direction of 20th Century poets such as Erza Pound, William Carlos Williams, Carlos Sandberg, and Allen Ginsberg.
Whitman praised democracy and spoke of the flesh as well as the spirit. (Encyclopedia of Biography- page 249). He rejected the normal rhyme and meter of poetry and wrote in free verse, relying on Native American language. In general, Whitman’s poetry is idealistic and romantic.
Whitman identified strongly with the outcasts of society. He said to one outcast, Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you. (Lowen, Nancy- page 11) People hailed him as the most authentic voice of the United States of America. Edgar Allen Poe had said, The vitality and variety of his life was the mere reflection of the vitality and variety of the United States of America.
Walter Whitman was born into a family of nine children and he had a rough childhood. The Whitman family first settled in the Huntington area by the middle of the seventeenth century. This helped him to write two of the worlds greatest literary works, There was a Child Went Forth and Song to Myself. (Lowen, Nancy- page 6).
There was a Child Went Forth was about his siblings and his childhood. Out of nine children, only four survived to live to old age. He spoke of how his siblings died and how it affected his family. Whitman had one sibling who was insane, one who was severely retarded, one who died at infancy, one who died of alcoholism, one who died of tuberculosis, and one who fought and almost died in the Civil War. These things directly effected the writing of this poem. (Lowen, Nancy- page 6).
Song to Myself spoke of his childhood and how it directly affected the fact that he was going to reject the norm, how he did not care about what people thought about him, and his work. “Song of Myself,” was considered Whitmans greatest. It was a lyric poem told through the joyful experiences of the narrator. Sometimes the narrator was the poet himself. (Lowen, Nancy- page 6). In other passages, “I” speaks for the human race, the universe, or a specific character, which was dramatized. Like all Whitman’s major poems, “Song of Myself” contained symbols. For example, in the poem he described grass as a symbol of life “the babe of vegetation,” “the handkerchief of the Lord.” Whitman praised God and nature. He exposed his gentle nature to his fellow man, and in doing so expressed his love of the world. This was a love he grew up with and carried with him everywhere he went.
Whitman loved Long Island and it became a major part of his works. (Webster, Orville III- page 122). He held various jobs throughout his life. He was a printing apprentice, journalist, editor, and school teacher. Walt Whitman sold his first story to “The Democratic Review” shortly after leaving his teaching job. This publication was known to pirate literature from Europe to save money, but it also printed the works of Poe, Lowell, Whittier, Hawthorne, as well as other well-known American lyricists. (Webster Orville III- page 123). It was this publication which gave Whitman his first break as a professional writer. The editor of “The Democratic Review,” John L. OSullivan, was so impressed with Whitman and his work, he bought at least three more stories from Whitman that very same autumn for the magazine. He also gave Whitman a job writing political speeches for Tammany Hall Democrats.
When Whitman turned 19, he took an apprenticeship at a local paper. Later he founded the weekly newspaper, the Long-Islander. He wrote, printed, and delivered his paper himself. Then, he became a school teacher. These factors would later aid him in publishing his own work, especially his first book of poems, Leaves of Grass in 1855. (Encyclopedia of World Biography- pages 249-250).
When Whitman compiled poems for his book, Leaves of Grass, he decided to become a revolutionary poet. He wrote only about his love for his country. This book was so unusual, no one would publish it; so he did it himself. (Encyclopedia of World Biography- page 249). This book only contained twelve poems, including poems such as, Song to Myself, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, I Sing The Body Electric, and There was a Child Went Forth.
Whitman believed Leaves of Grass had grown with his own emotional and intellectual development. This book became his lifes work, being praised by many, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Addington Symonds, and Edward Carpenter. Emerson said, the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. (Kaplan, Justin- page 11). Yet, the world was not ready for Whitmans celebration of the human body and spirit, nor for his candor, brilliance, and prophetic view. People had mixed emotions about Leaves of Grass because its sexual themes were too shocking for the naive public. It had been largely ignored by many people, but had also been largely praised. (Lowen, Nancy- page 22). Emerson also said, Its a great start to a great career. Eight more editions of Leaves of Grass followed; each adding more poems which reflected his nationalism.
Whitman experienced the Civil War first hand in 1862. The impact of what he saw was reflected in the book, Drum-Taps. (Lowen, Nancy- page 29). When Whitman saw his brothers name printed on the injured list, he rushed to help him. It was during this experience that he saw what human suffering was and how it affected everyone in the world. This gave him the idea to move to Washington D.C. and became a Civil War nurse. He stayed with William Douglas OConnor and his family. This was where he collected his feelings for his book. (Kaplan, Justin- page 320). It was also during this time, Whitman developed a respect for Abraham Lincoln.
Whitmans poem, “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” was a reflection of how the war began. It started with the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the Union defeat in the First Battle of Bull Run. This was made into as a recruiting poem for the Union. This poem reflected Whitman’s shock and desire for revenge on these events. (Webster, Orville III- page 123). Later that year, as he searched for his brother among the sick and wounded at Fredericksburg, his perceptions changed.
After what Whitman saw during the Civil War, his poetry became preoccupied with the soul, death, and immortality. He turned 45, shortly after the war. On his birthday, he wrote letters to soldiers he helped during the war. (Kaplan, Justin- page 323). He received many thank you letters from the soldiers and their families because of the great things he did for them.
Whitman was devastated by the death of President Abraham Lincoln and his reflections and tribute to the great leader were found in the poems, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomd and OCaptain, My Captain. (Lowen, Nancy- pages 29-30). Whitman described Lincoln as the most satisfactory thing I have ever seen, and I have seen hundreds of different ones. These poems showed the world how great of a captain Lincoln was.
In, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomd, Whitman said each spring the blooming lilac will remind him not only of the death of Lincoln, but also of the eternal return to life. In, OCaptain My Captain, Whitman called Lincoln dear father! (A Treasury of the Worlds Best Loved Poems- 151). This was to show the world how Lincoln was more than just a President; he was the father of the United States of America. These poems directly reflected his love for his country and one of its greatest leaders.
“O Captain, My Captain” indicated the impact Whitman had, and still has, on American society. (Kaplan, Justin- 228). Most recently, the movie Dead Poets Society used the Lincoln-inspired poem to make a point.
Whitman believed three events helped bring mankind together. ONE, the completion of the Union Pacific railroad. TWO, the spanning of the continental United States of America and the Suez Canal (connecting Europe to Asia). And THREE, the Atlantic Cable (connecting America to Europe). (Encyclopedia of World Biography- page 251).
From 1884 to 1865, he edited everything he had written in his life. He ripped out pages and changed many things. (Encyclopedia of World Biography- page 252). He moved into a small apartment and hired an old widow to care for him. Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas in 1871. This book became his most important prose work. It showed the corruption of Reconstruction. In 1873, after Whitman had a stroke, he was given the endearing nickname, the Good Grey Poet by William OConnor. (Encyclopedia of World Biography- page 252). In May of that year, Whitmans mother died and he had become very depressed. He moved in with his brother in New Jersey, only to become more depressed and move in with the Stafford family.
Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington, he lived on a clerk’s salary and modest royalties. He spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. (Current, Williams, and Freidel- page 293). He also sent money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him “purses” of money so he could get by.
Whitman spent the last years of his life crippled form his stroke and living in the squalor of Camden New Jersey. (Kaplan, Justin- page 11). The last creative thing Whitman did was designing his own tomb. He did on March 26, 1892, at the age of 72 years and he is buried in the Walt Whitman Cemetery, along with fifteen other members of his family. At his funeral, a friend had said, Whitman was A great man, a great American, the most eminent citizen of this Republic. He laid the foundations of it deep in the human heart and brain. He was, above all, I have known, the poet of humanity, of sympathy. He never claimed to be lower or greater than any of the sons of men. He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He sympathized with the imprisoned and despised and even on the brow of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy. His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was human suffering, human misfortune, and the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above the earth. He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique God. He was the poet of that divine democracy which gives equal rights to all the sons and daughters of men. He uttered the great American voice; uttered a song worthy of the great Republic. No man ever said more for the rights of humanity, more in favor of real democracy, of real justice. He was the poet of life, he was the poet of love, he was the poet of death, and he was the poet of the natural. He was not only the poet of democracy, not only the poet of the great Republic, but he was the Poet of the human race. He stretched out his hand and felt himself the equal of all kings and of all princes, and the brother of all men, no matter how high, no matter how low. (Current, Williams, Friedel- pages 292-283). His friend said these words of praise to illustrate how Whitman was truly a great man.
Whitman loved his country. Some say there was no one more nationalistic than Whitman. (Lowen, Nancy- page 31). The poet’s love for his country grew from his faith that Americans might reach new worldly and spiritual heights. He had said, The chief reason for being the United States of America is to bring about the common goodwill of all mankind and the solidarity of the world. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. His work boldly asserted the worth of the individual and the oneness of all humanity. Whitmans break from traditional poetic styles exerted a major influence on American thought and literature.
Today, Whitman’s poetry has been translated into every major language. He has had over 2000 poems published. It was widely recognized as a formative influence on the work of such American writers as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. Allen Ginsberg in particular was inspired by Whitman’s bold treatment of sexuality. Many modern scholars have sought to assess Whitman’s life and literary career. (Encyclopedia of World Biography- page 251).
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