There is a core belief that each of us has inherent goodness and nature while some of us believe that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, I think people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent of the thoughts of others.
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that espoused this message from its creation in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern United States. Transcendentalists saw divine experience inherent in the every day, rather than believing in a distant heaven. They chose to witness the physical and spiritual phenomena as part of the daily process rather than individual oddities.
Whitman was an American poet, essayist, and journalist and was regarded as the father of free verse. He was a controversial figure for his epic poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which had been described as obscene for its overt sensuality. Ezra Pound called Whitman "America's poet ... He is America".
Who was this man? Where did he come from, and why don't I know anything more about him? To be honest, the first time I heard his name was in a movie, Bull Durham. A female character played by Susanne Sarandon, Anne, had said this line: Walt Whitman, once said, “I see great things in baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.”
That caught my 22-year-old self's attention, and it has taken me 32 years to investigate who this man was. If you are interested in learning more about him, then I invite you to read on.
Walt - The Early Years
Walt was born on May 31st, 1819, in Huntington, Long Island but resided in Brooklyn. He was one of nine children and his family had moved a lot during his early childhood. He would later recall feeling restless and never grounded during those early years. This may have contributed to his ability to stop and take note of everything in his vicinity. In 1830 Whitman was 11 years old and had concluded his schooling. He started his working career as an apprentice and printer's devil (ink and type runner) for the weekly Long Island newspaper called the Patriot. He would do various jobs at the paper, and he had also contributed small written pieces of work.
In the following years, Whitman would work at various newspapers as a compositor (typesetter). He also started to engage in the city around him and became a regular patron of the local library, joined a town debating society, began attending theater performances. He would anonymously publish some of his earliest poetry in the New York Mirror. Due to a severe fire in the printing and publishing district, and in part to a general collapse in the economy leading up to the Panic of 1837, Whitman would rejoin his family, now living in Hempstead, Long Island. Whitman started teaching intermittently at various schools until the spring of 1838, though he was not satisfied as a teacher.
The Opera Was My Muse
Restless and dissatisfied with teaching, Walt moved back to Huntington, New York, and started his own newspaper, the Long Islander. After ten months, he sold the publication to E. O. Crowell, whose first issue appeared on July 12, 1839. He would go back to work as a typesetter and then teaching and then back to publishing. During this time, Whitman published a series of ten editorials, called Sun-Down Papers—From the Desk of a Schoolmaster. In these essays, he adopted a constructed persona (A constructed persona is a representation, fictional character, that appeals to a specific customer or audience), a technique he would employ throughout his career.
Over the next six years, Walt would be a music critic for several newspapers in New York. During this time he became a devoted lover of Italian opera through reviewing performances of works by Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. This new interest had an impact on his writing in free verse. He later said, "But for the opera, I could never have written Leaves of Grass". He would continue to write as a critic up until 1848 where he would express his political views through his writing and public persona. These views were unfortunately the opposite of the newspaper's owner, Isaac Van Anden, who belonged to the conservative Whig party. Whitman was quickly relieved of his job.
Over the next several years, Whitman would write a serialized novel titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography as well as an offbeat and irreverent, 47,000 word series called Manly Health and Training under the pen name Mose Velsor. The pen name came from, you guessed it, his old boss, Isaac Van Anden. He apparently took Isaac's mother's family name. You can no doubt see that Walt enjoyed being silly and could be clever in exposing petty insecure men. Some of the key recommendations in Manly Health included suggestions of nude sunbathing, comfortable shoes, bathing daily in cold water, eating meat almost exclusively, plenty of fresh air, and getting up early each morning.
In the early 1850s, Whitman was coming into his own and began writing Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry which he would continue editing and revising until his death. Whitman intended to write a distinctly American epic and used free verse with a tempo similar to the Bible. At the end of June 1855, Whitman gave his brother an already-printed first edition of Leaves of Grass. His brother George "didn't think it worth reading".
Leaves of Grass
The first edition of Leaves of Grass was paid for by Whitman himself, and the only author credit he gave, was an engraved portrait done by Samuel Hollyer. However, 500 lines into the body of the text, he calls himself "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest". The beginning of his book had a prose preface of 827 lines.
Here is the first part:
The following untitled twelve poems totaled 2315 lines—1336 lines belonging to the first untitled poem, which you just read the beginning, was later called "Song of Myself". The book soon found its way to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was his biggest fan and champion. Emerson would write a flattering five-page letter to Whitman and spoke highly of the book to friends. This event and Whitman's free-style verse would catapult him to national recognition and critique. The occasional criticism was for the seemingly "obscene" nature of the poetry. You'll have to read it to determine what people thought filthy meant in the 1850s.
If you have been keeping track of the years we have covered so far, you will see we are getting close to the 1860s and the American civil war. Walt's critical brother, George, had joined the Union Army in 1862 and was fighting down South. Walt had feared for his brother and read a news article that identified a George Whitmore as being severely wounded, he felt that even though the name was misspelled it might be his brother. He quickly traveled South and found his brother in a makeshift hospital with a superficial wound to his cheek. However, Walt witnessed the massive amount of wounded men and a large mound of amputee limbs in a heap near a medical tent. He was so affected that he knew he had to help in this campaign.
He quickly left for Washington to obtain part-time work in the army paymaster's office, leaving time for himself to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals. The experiences led to him writing "The Great Army of the Sick", in 1863 and, 12 years later, in a book called Memoranda During the War. Walt would call upon his friend Emerson once more to see if he could secure a higher post in Washington to be more effective in the war effort. Unfortunately, he was still considered an undesirable person, based on his book, the Leaves of Grass.
1864 would be no better for Whitman, his brother George was captured by Confederates in Virginia, and another brother, Andrew Jackson, died of tuberculosis compounded by alcoholism on December 3. That month, Whitman had to commit his brother Jesse to the Kings County Lunatic Asylum. He did find a better-paying government post as a low-grade clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior. A year later, in 1865, George was released from capture, and Whitman received a promotion to a slightly higher clerkship and published Drum-Taps. Here is a quote, Be not dishearten'd — Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet; Those who love each other shall become invincible.
The Good Gray Poet
Once again Whitman would be fired from his job because of Leaves of Grass, but he would always have a champion ready to help him. He was supported by his friend William Douglas O'Connor. O'Connor, a poet, daguerreotypist (a photo developer), and an editor at The Saturday Evening Post got him a position at the Attorney Generals' office. O'Connor, though, was still upset by the firing in the first place and vindicated Whitman by publishing a biased and exaggerated biographical study, The Good Gray Poet, in January 1866. This article would not only catapult Whitman to international favor but cement his nickname forever. To further Walt's popularity was the publication of "O Captain! My Captain!", a conventional poem regarding the death of Abraham Lincoln.
A quote from O Captain! My Captain!
This would be the only poem to appear in anthologies during Whitman's lifetime.
My Brother's Keeper
As time went on Whitman's brother George would eventually become his caretaker. Walt had suffered a paralytic stroke in early 1873 and needed support, George and his wife took him into their home. He lived with them and spent the greatest period of his career there. They also got the privilege of meeting and spending time with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Thomas Eakins as many celebrity guest would come to visit Walt.
Whitman was becoming less mobile, and due to a new job opportunity and relocation for George, Walt purchased his own home at 328 Mickle Street. While in Southern New Jersey, Whitman spent a good portion of his time in the then quite pastoral community of Laurel Springs, between 1876 and 1884, converting one of the Farm buildings to his summer home. He continued to produced further editions of Leaves of Grass in 1876, 1881, and 1889. His summer home was a continued source of joy and content for his writings.
As the end of 1891 approached, he prepared a final edition of Leaves of Grass, a version nicknamed the "Deathbed Edition". He wrote, "L. of G. at last complete—after 33 years of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old." In the last week of his life, he was too weak to lift a knife or fork and wrote: "I suffer all the time: I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony—monotony—monotony—in pain."