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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Walt Whitman

The publication of Leaves of Grass on or about July 4, 1855, represented a revolutionary departure in American literature. Printed at Whitman’s expense, the green, quarto-sized volume bore no author’s name. Opposite the title page appeared a daguerreotype engraving of the poet, dressed in workingman’s trowsers, a shirt unbuttoned to reveal his undershirt, and a hat cocked casually upon his head. In a rousing Preface, the poet declared America’s literary independence, and in verse that rolled freely and dithyrambically across the page, he presented himself as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding.” Like his poet as common man, Whitman’s act of self-naming represented an assault on literary decorum and the Puritan pieties of the New England literary establishment. “It is as if the beasts spoke,” wrote the otherwise sympathetic Thoreau.

In the six editions of Leaves of Grass that were published between 1855 and 1881, Whitman opened the field of American and ultimately of modern poetry. His subject was not “the smooth walks, trimm’d hedges, poseys and nightingales of the English poets, but the whole orb, with its geologic history, the Kosmos, carrying fire and snow.” He was the poet not only of Darwinian evolution, but of the city and the crowd, science and the machine. Presenting himself as a model democrat who spoke as and for rather than apart from the people, Whitman’s poet was a breaker of bounds: he was female and male, farmer and factory worker, prostitute and slave, citizen of America and citizen of the world; shuttling between past, present, and future, he was “an acme of things accomplished” and an “encloser of things to be.” His songs were songs not only of occupations but of sex and the body. He sang of masturbation, the sexual organs, and the sexual act; he was one of the first poets to write of the “body electric,” of female eroticism, homosexual love, and the anguish of repressed desire.

Puzzled by Whitman’s sudden emergence at age 36 in 1855 as the American bard, critics have proposed several explanations: a reading of Emerson, a love affair, a mystic experience, an Oedipal crisis. Considered within the context of his time, however, Whitman’s emergence seems neither mystifying nor particularly disconnected from his family background and his early life as radical Democrat, political journalist, and sometime dandy. His mother was an ardent follower of the mystical doctrines of the Quaker preacher Elias Hicks, whom Whitman later described as “the democrat in religion as Jefferson was the democrat in politics.” His father was a carpenter who embraced the radical political philosophy of Tom Paine and subscribed to the Free Enquirer, edited by Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, which sought through the rhetoric of class warfare to unite the grievances of New York City workers in an anticapitalist and anticlerical platform. Raised among eight brothers and sisters whose very names—Andrew Jackson, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson—bore the inscription of the democratic ideals of his family, Whitman early began to develop a sense of self that was inextricably bound up with the political identity of America.

Although Whitman attended school between 1825 and 1830, he was largely self-educated. During the thirties he served as a printer’s apprentice, engaged in local politics, and taught for a few years in Long Island schools. He read voraciously but erratically, attended the theater and the opera, and poked about the antiquities at Dr. Abbott’s Egyptian Museum. As editor of the Aurora in 1842 and later of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1846–1847), Whitman placed himself at the very center of the political battles over slavery, territorial expansion, the Mexican War, sectionalism, free trade, states’ rights, worker strife, and the new market economy. His support for David Wilmot’s proposal to forbid the extension of slavery into the new territory led to his being fired as editor of the Eagle. Perhaps disillusioned by party politics, he began to experiment with the idea of using poetry as a form of political action. When in his earliest notebook, dated 1847, Whitman breaks for the first time into lines approximating the free verse of Leaves of Grass, the lines bear the impress of the slavery issue:

I am the poet of slaves, and of the
  masters of slaves
I am the poet of the body
And I am

Similarly, Whitman’s first free verse poems, “Blood Money,” “House of Friends,” and “Resurgemus,” which were published in 1850, emerged out of the political passions aroused by slavery, free soil, and the European revolutions of 1848.

Although Whitman continued to support the cause of Free Soil, in the early fifties he withdrew from party politics. Working part-time as a house builder in Brooklyn, he completed his 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. The poems are propelled by the desire to enlighten and regenerate the people in the ideals of the democratic republic. The drama of identity in the initially untitled “Song of Myself,” the first and longest poem in the 1855 Leaves, is rooted in the political drama of a nation in crisis. The poet’s conflict between separate person and en masse, between pride and sympathy, individualism and equality, nature and the city, the body and the soul, symbolically enacts the larger political conflicts in the nation, which grew out of the controversies over industrialization, wage labor, women’s rights, finance, immigration, slavery, territorial expansion, technological progress, and the whole question of the relation of individual and state, state and nation.

Whitman sent a copy of the 1855 Leaves of Grass to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose response was immediate and generous: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Spurred by Emerson’s words of praise, Whitman published a second edition of Leaves of Grass with several new poems in 1856. While he was planning a third edition of Leaves as a kind of “New Bible” of democracy, Whitman had an unhappy love affair with a man. This tale of love and loss is the subject of a small sheaf of twelve poems, initially titled “Live Oak with Moss,” which was later incorporated into the “Calamus” cluster in the 1860 Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s homosexual love crisis along with the impending dissolution of the Union caused him to become increasingly doubtful about the future of America and his own future as the bard of democracy.

This doubt is evident in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, particularly in the “Chants Democratic” and “Calamus” groupings, and in such individual poems as “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” In the poems of “Calamus,” Whitman draws upon the language of democracy and phrenology to name his erotic feeling for men as both comradeship and “adhesiveness” (the phrenological term which Whitman defined as “the personal attachment of man to man”). The love poems of “Calamus” are paired with the procreation poems of “Children of Adam,” which focus upon “amative” love, the phrenological term for the love between men and women. Although the press and the literary establishment immediately focused upon the “sex” poems of “Children of Adam” as Whitman’s most provocative grouping, the love poems of “Calamus” were in fact his most radical sequence sexually and politically. Whitman infused the abstractions of democracy with the intensity of erotic passion, giving literature some of its first and most potent images of democratic comradeship; and by linking homoeroticism with a democratic breaking of bounds, he presents one of the most tender and moving accounts of homosexual love in Western literature.

For Whitman, as for the nation, the Civil War was a period of major crisis. Uncertain of the role of a national poet during a time of fratricidal war, Whitman published little during the war years. In 1862, when he went to the front in search of his brother George, he found the role he would play: he would become a kind of spiritual “wound-dresser” by visiting the sick and dying soldiers in the hospital wards of Washington. Like Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” the poems of Drum-Taps and Sequel (1865–1866) and the prose of Memoranda During the War (1875– 1876) were attempts to come to terms with the massive carnage of the war by placing its waste and apparent unreason within some larger providential design. In these volumes Whitman turns from romance to realism, vision to history, anticipating the naturalistic war writings of Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer.

Whitman remained in Washington during and after the war, working first as a clerk in the Indian Bureau and then, after being dismissed in 1865 for moral turpitude by Secretary of the Interior James Harlan, in the Attorney General’s office. For all Whitman’s effort to (re)present the war as testing ground for democracy, the Civil War unleashed a hoard of psychic and socio-economic demons that would continue to haunt his dream of America in the postwar period.

In his incisive political essay Democratic Vistas (1871), which was initially composed as a response to Carlyle’s attack on the “democratic rabble” in “Shooting Niagara,” Whitman seeks to come to terms with the gilded monsters of post-Civil War America. Even before the worst scandals of the Grant administration were exposed, he presents an image of America saturated in corruption and greed from the national to the local level. In “reconstructing, democratizing society” Whitman argues, the true “revolution” would be of the “interior life”; and in bringing about this democratic revolution, the poet would play the leading role by overhauling the “Culture theory” of the past and by providing the language, commonality, and myths by which America named itself. Like Leaves of Grass, Democratic Vistas works dialectically, as Whitman seeks to reconcile self and other, state and nation, North and South, country and city, labor and capital, money and soul. He arrives at no final synthesis of the values he seeks to juggle. Amid the modernizing, standardizing, and capitalizing whirl of America, where “with steam-engine speed” generations of humanity are turned out “like uniform iron castings,” Whitman recognizes that the road to the future might be the road of the “fabled damned.”

Whereas Whitman’s war poems were merely tagged onto the end of the fourth edition of Leaves, which was published in 1867, in the 1871 Leaves these poems were incorporated into the main body of his work. By 1872, Whitman came to regard Leaves of Grass as essentially complete. In his 1872 “Preface” to “As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free,” he announced his intention of turning away from his former emphasis on “a great composite democratic individual, male or female” toward an increased emphasis on “an aggregated, inseparable, unprecedented, vast, composite, electric democratic nationality.” His plan was cut short by a paralytic stroke which he suffered at the beginning of 1873. The seizure left him bedridden for several weeks and paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Whitman made a trip to Camden, New Jersey, a few days before his mother’s death in May 1873, and never returned to Washington. He spent the remainder of his life in Camden, first at his brother George’s house and finally, beginning in 1884, in his own home at 328 Mickle Street. Struggling with occasional spells of dizziness and a prematurely aging body, Whitman mustered enough strength to publish a dual volume of poetry and prose on the occasion of the American centennial in 1876. Invigorated by the visits to the New Jersey farm of Susan and George Stafford that he began making in 1876, by the economic recovery of the nation under the new political regime of Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881), and by the attention his work was beginning to receive in England and abroad, Whitman revised, reintegrated, and reordered all of his poems into the final 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. In 1882, he published a prose companion to his poems titled Specimen Days, in which he refigures the events of his life and times as a narrative of personal, national, and cosmic restoration.

The poems that Whitman wrote in the last two decades of his life, such as “Passage to India” and “Prayer of Columbus,” are characterized by a leap away from the physical landscape of America toward a more traditionally religious vision of God’s providence and spiritual grace. Despite his apparent disillusionment with the material conditions of America, however, Whitman continued to name the possibility of an other America. Figuring himself in the image of a new-world Columbus, he continued to imagine the possibility of a democratic golden world which, like the dream of a passage to India and a world in round, might bloom in some future transformation of vision into history.
Betsy Erkkila
Northwestern University

In the Heath Anthology
Respondez! (1856)
from Democratic Vistas (1871) (1871)
from Autumn Rivulets
      Sparkles from the Wheel (1871)
      Prayer of Columbus (1874)
from By the Roadside
      Europe, the 72d and 73d Years of These States (1850)
      To a President (1860)
      To the States (1860)
      When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer (1865)
      The Dalliance of the Eagles (1880)
from Calamus
      Here the Frailest Leaves of Me (1860)
      I Dream'd in a Dream (1860)
      In Paths Untrodden (1860)
      Recorders Ages Hence (1860)
      When I Heard at the Close of the Day (1860)
from Children of Adam
      A Woman Waits for Me (1856)
      To the Garden the World (1860)
from Drum-Taps
      Beat! Beat! Drums! (1861)
      A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown (1865)
      As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado (1865)  [n.b., 1865-66]
      Cavalry Crossing a Ford (1865)
      Reconciliation (1865)  [n.b., 1865-66]
      The Artilleryman's Vision (1865)
      Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night (1865)
      Year That Trembled and Reel'd Beneath Me (1865)
      Ethiopia Saluting the Colors (1870)
from Good-bye My Fancy (Second Annex)
      Good-bye My Fancy! (1891)
      Poem Deleted from Leaves of Grass (1891)
from Inscriptions
      One's-Self I Sing (1867)
from Leaves of Grass (1855 edition)
      Preface (1855)
      Song of Myself (1855)
      The Sleepers (1855)
from Memories of President Lincoln
      When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd (1865)  [n.b., 1865-66]
from Noon to Starry Night
      To a Locomotive in Winter (1876)
from Sands at Seventy (First Annex)
      Yonnondio (1887)
from Sea-Drift
      Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking (1859)
from Songs of Parting
      So Long! (1860)
from Whispers of Heavenly Death
      Quicksand Years (1865)

Other Works
Blood Money (1850)

Cultural Objects
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In Memory of Thomas Paine, 28 January 1877
The electronic text of a speech made by Whitman.

Academy of American Poets
A comprehensive Internet exhibit on Whitman, including many poems for browsing.

Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks
From the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection provided by the U.S. Library of Congress.

Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive
An extensive collection of Whitman's work including poetry, prose, notebooks, letters, and more.

Secondary Sources

Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer, 1955

Jeanetta Boswell, ed., Walt Whitman and the Critics: A Checklist of Criticism, (1900-1978), 1980

The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman, 1995

Richard Chase, Walt Whitman Reconsidered, 1955

Betsy Erkkila, Whitman the Political Poet, 1989

Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman, eds., Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies, 1994

Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life, 1980

F.O. Matthiesen, The American Renaissance, 1941

Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman, 1991

The New Walt Whitman Handbook, 1975

David S. Raynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, 1995

Joseph Jay Rubin, The Historic Whitman, 1973

Charley Shively, ed., Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working-Class Camerados, 1987

M. Wynn Thomas, The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry, 1987

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