Through the history of the United States there have been a countless numbers of poets. With them came an equal number of writing styles. Certainly one of the most unique poets to write life’s story through his own view of the world and with the ambition to do it was Walter Whitman. Greatly criticized by many readers of his work, Whitman was not a man to be deterred. Soon he would show the world that he had a voice, and that it spoke with a poet’s words. Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Thus Whitman began his “Song of the Open Road”. This paper will attempt to describe his life and poetry in a way that does justice to the path he chose. He was a man who grew up impoverished, who wrote from his experiences, and who tried to lift his fellow men above life’s trivialities. These are the points to be discussed on these pages. To know the essence of Walter Whitman, you would have to understand the heart of his writing. For he is in his pen.
Walter Whitman was born in West Hills, Long Island, New York, on May 31, 1819 . He did not have much opportunity for education in his early life. His parents were mostly poor and illiterate- his father a laborer, while his mother was a devout Quaker. Whitman was one of nine children and little is known about his youth except that two of his siblings were imbeciles. No wonder he demonstrated such an insight for life in his poems.
In 1830, at the age of eleven, he worked as an office boy for a lawyer, where he learned the printing trade. Whitman would soon take up teaching at various schools in Long Island. He also engaged in carpentry and house building while he edited newspapers. His early years seemed to show an active interest in working with the public.
Whitman at one time accepted a job with a New Orleans newspaper, and in doing so exposed himself to a great deal of the country. Getting to New Orleans required traveling over the Cumberland Gap and down rivers, of which he later wrote. America seemed to be both his home and inspiration. In “Calamus”, part of his single book, Leaves of Grass, he writes of Louisiana as a “live oak growing”, thus showing the joy he felt in everything he saw . In short, Whitman lived trough the nation’s heroic age, at a time when people had to be (or seemed to be) a little more than life-size to accomplish all the deeds they undertook. It was natural that Whitman, with his genius and metaphysical inclinations, should have drifted into journalism, a profession that could make some demands on his native endowments. As much as he was a traveler, he was also a man of the people. In one of his reviews, he described himself as “never on platforms amid the crowds of clergymen, or professors, or aldermen, or congressmen- rather down in the bay with pilots in their pilot boats- or off on a cruise with fishers in a fishing smack- or writing on a Broadway omnibus, side by side with the driver- or with a band of loungers over the open grounds of the country- fond of New York and Brooklyn- fond of the life of the great ferries.” Whitman obviously felt a kinship with his country, and later exhibited this in his writings. He also was not a man to follow others. “Self-reliant, with haughty eyes, assuming to himself all the attributes of his country, steps Walt Whitman into literature, talking like a man unaware that there was ever hitherto such a production as a book, or such a being as a writer” .
Whitman’s major work, Leaves of Grass, was first published on the fourth of July in 1855. He was thirty-six years old, not yet a published writer, and could not find any company willing to take a chance on his unusual style. His experience in newspapers allowed him to help publish his work himself, even setting up some of the type and distributing the first edition. To get a decent start, Whitman even went so far as to write complimentary unsigned reviews of his book which he had placed in the newspapers- “An American bard at last! “- his own words of his first work, showing his audacity to be well thought of. Whitman wrote only one book- Leaves of Grass- but he took a lifetime to write it, and he saw his one book through many shapes. As biographers have found, it is difficult to write the life of Whitman without writing instead the life and times of his book. He was the kind of parent who lives his life through his child, though he was unmarried and childless. As though in anticipation of scholars and critics who would probe deeply into his private affairs, Whitman placed a warning at the beginning of “Leaves of Grass”. A little reflection will confirm Whitman’s point: “no man’s life was ever captured and placed between the covers of a book .” As Whitman suggests, the reader who would know his life must read his book, and even there he will find only a “few diffused faint ‘clews’”. No longer a journalist, no longer a carpenter, Whitman was during this period in the process of establishing his identity, not only for the public and posterity, but for himself.
As first published, Leaves of Grass was a large book encased by green covers with an ornate, leafy design. It included twelve poems- “Song of Myself,” “A Song for Occupations,” “To Think of Time,” “The Sleepers,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Faces,” “Son of the Answerer,” “Europe,” “A Boston Ballad,” “There Was a Child Went Forth,” “Who Learns My Lesson Complete,” and “Great Are the Myths.”. Except for the last poem, all others continued to appear in each successive edition of the same title, as though Whitman was recreating and reliving his works as often as possible. “Song of Myself” was by far the longest, a prophetic chant that was designed to shock, startle, surprise, and disturb. The others varied from psychological dream fantasy to poetic-absorption of the universe. His preface even called for a new “Kosmic” poetry. Whitman celebrated an untamed communion with nature with overtones of sensuality that appeared shocking even though his poetry expressed solid transcendental doctrine.
The small sale of the first edition of Leaves of Grass did not discourage Whitman from publishing a new edition with a great many new poems the following year. His major encouragement was a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson praising his work. States Emerson,”I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed”. Whitman immediately seized on this, placing quotes of the praise on the binding of his second edition and also including the entire letter in the back of the book, as well as his own response.
The large number of new poems in the second edition must have kept Whitman busy as a poet the full year preceding its appearance. Twenty new poems were present, with several bordering on an almost obscene emphasis on sex. In the final analysis, it is perhaps impossible to say whether Whitman’s sexual imagery derives from one unconscious or the other – or, indeed, from higher levels of consciousness.
It is not enough to say only that Whitman was new and bold in his poetry. He had a unique style- the “lyric epic”- by which he made long poems stay alive. According to biographer James Miller, Jr., his work seemed to take “the shape of a life.” His form was similar to “thought-rhythm”, or “parallelism”, which also can be found in Old Testament poetry and in some Indian sacred books.
Whitman defined the poet’s function as seer: “The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality. If he breathes into anything that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeus and life of the universe. He is a seer. ” He saw the world as an open book filled with disillusioned people and the rights of man being abused. The reader of his works could not help to criticize him for his use of the world’s fault to explain his view of the world. To Whitman, the game was life, and in it he maintained his pose. It was important to Whitman to not be simply a poet. He volunteered in military hospitals after the Civil War and later worked in several government departments until he suffered a stroke in 1873. Although he still published several more editions of “Leaves of Grass” before his death in 1892, his last years were spent in poor health.
It is difficult to think of many major American poets who have not felt the need to produce their own long poem – and who have not felt that Whitman was looking over their shoulder as they wrote. Growing up without privilege did not dull his ability to decorate the written word from his varied experiences, and he forever strove to uncover the elusive meanings that he felt his readers deserved to know. These are the points that this paper has meant to communicate. Whitman truly placed his heart in his pen as few poets have. In short, it looks as though Whitman’s haunting figure will remain a presence in American literature he will be lurking there, waiting to see if the “poets to come” live up to his expectations expressed in the “Inscription” poem addressed to them:
I myself write but one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back
in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look
upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
In his farewell poem for “Leaves of Grass” he assumed his success:
“Camerado, this is no book/Who touches this touches a man.”