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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Leaves of Whitman: A Historical Perspective

Walt Whitman, circa 1865, photo possibly by
Matt Brady, colorized by Dana Keller.
By Michael Mauro DeBonis 
Copyright© 2019 All rights reserved by the author.


Part One: Paumanok.



Like so many other Americans before and after him, poet Walt Whitman was a man whose personality was filled to the hilt with a wide array of contradictions. He was a political liberal who openly and enthusiastically supported manifest destiny and Yankee industry, but he was bitterly opposed to and disgusted with slavery and cultural xenophobia. Unlike legions of his American contemporaries, Whitman welcomed the many different ethnicities coming to the United States during the wide span of the nineteenth century. He celebrated their mass migrations poignantly in such eloquent poems as Song of Myself and Manhatta.

He was first a printer and then a schoolteacher, journalist, editor of the Brooklyn newspaper Eagle…and later on a nurse. But these vocations only reveal part of the man and his vast and complex psyche.

He was born Walter Whitman on May 13, 1819, in West Hills (Huntington) Long Island. He was the son of a Quaker carpenter of English descent and his mother was of an old Dutch Long Island family. Both of Whitman’s lineages came to America well before the Revolution. And in being a true child of the 1800’s United States, the poet was a product of a truly dynamic and turbulent age. His family moved to Brooklyn early in Walt’s childhood, where he attended a few public elementary schools. Yet, Walt would always return to central Long Island as a youth during his summers, spending countless hours wandering the countryside and beaches of his very cherished Paumanok, an old Algonquin word naming the isle where he was born.

Whitman would continue to nurture and indulge his connection to the natural world as an adult and Walt would always revere it in his entirely visionary verse. Walt was both an insatiable and an eclectic reader, as a teen and as an adult. His love for books would never leave him and it bolstered his development as a poet as Walt Whitman came of age. History, religion, art, and philosophy enraptured the man consistently throughout his long and productive life, as it is testified to in Walt’s masterpiece of American literature and poetry Leaves of Grass.

Whitman would encounter the full thrust of the Romantic Movement, the Industrial Revolutions, westward expansion, the American Civil War and Reconstruction and the Indian Wars, which followed them all. His age was an age charged and energized with progress (ethical and legal), social unrest, political catastrophe, and tremendous and rapid technological and artistic development.


Part Two: Brooklyn.



Between 1846 and 1848 Whitman was editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, the dominant New York City newspaper of Antebellum America. He was to write many Anti-slavery essays in The Eagle…but it was slowly and surely poetry, which was pulling Whitman into its irresistible grasp. Whitman was steadily developing a new and very personal poetic doctrine based on his ecstatic theories and feelings of nature.

This entailed a dramatic tossing to the wayside some major old literary techniques such as anything typically using traditional and regular rhyme and meter, in his versification. The neatly pruned and planted “gardens” of Anglo-American poetry were superficial and contrived all as viable means of communication for Whitman. Poetry should mirror nature’s transcendental and wild design and structure. This meant for Walt Whitman as a poet that his poetry would be radically different than what had mainly preceded it in the whole history of British and American letters. Since nature was almost always without symmetrical borders and bounds, Walt’s poetry would imitate nature as such. The poems of his Leaves of Grass would not be mowed or trimmed. Whitman’s novel poems would turn their backs on the prevailing artistic styles of his day (and before) and they would instead become works of “…Nature without check with original energy,” as Walt describes his verse in stanza one of Song of Myself.

Whitman deviated from one literary tradition (the mediaeval and Renaissance European) and embraced another (the Judeo-Christian Biblical) one. To get rid of the “sing-songy” rhymes and regularity that Whitman so despised, he found more fitting artistic models for his verse in the Psalms of the Old Testament…and still others. His lines of verse would rely on alliteration, assonance and consonance and rich metaphorical word play. The musicality of idiomatic American English would both inhabit and thrive in Walt Whitman’s poetry.

In 1855, after years of studying and struggling with his written words, Walt composed and brought out his 1st edition of Leaves of Grass. It was a truly earth-shattering product. Ridiculed and ignored by most American literary pundits, Leaves of Grass fell mainly on deaf ears and incisive tongues. The slim volume was such that only America’s premiere philosopher and one of her best poets took notice of Walt’s breathtaking brilliance: His name was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Sources disagree as to why Whitman was fired from his post at The Eagle. The editors of Grolier Classics say his job was ended for Walt purportedly being not Anti-slavery enough. The Encyclopedia Americana’s biography of Whitman says the opposite. He bounced from job to job in the years from 1848-1855, when his Leaves of Grass made its debut. He practiced (as many have put it) “…saying new things in new ways.” Whitman would not let his setback at The Eagle bring him to ruin. Unlike the Whitman of old, this new Whitman gave up on formalities and gave in to poetry. Leaves of Grass was not much heralded soon after its publication. American poets Emily Dickenson and John Greenleaf Whittier were both repulsed by Whitman’s new work. Whittier is rumored to have thrown his copy of Leaves of Grass into his very active fireplace and burned it. Emerson’s reaction was entirely contrary to his less observant peers.

From the early 1830’s onward, New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson had garnered a reputation (along with Washington Irving and others) as a top-notch American thinker and as a lyricist of note. Emerson in his spiritually pioneering books Nature and The Oversoul (in addition to his other texts) exerted a huge intellectual and cultural influence (distinctly American) on the European continent and in Latin America and Canada, as well. In 1842 Emerson had written an essay called The Poet. In it, Emerson describes the need for the United States to produce a poet markedly American in style, substance and in culture. According to Emerson, up until his time, no such poet had existed in the young nation’s history. Walt Whitman had read Emerson’s powerful monograph…and he in 1855 had produced an answer to Emerson’s frenetic literary riddle…Walt’s response was Leaves of Grass. Upon the first printing of his book, Whitman mailed R. W. Emerson a freshly minted copy. Emerson’s reply came as both a bolt of lightning and as a thunderclap:


“I give you joy of your free and brave thought…I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty….”



Emerson had of course prefaced his critique of Walt’s poetry book with:


“I greet you at the beginning of a great career…”


Walt (then living in a very hostile literary climate) sent Emerson immediate thanks and added Ralph’s positive comments concerning Leaves of Grass to all future editions of his work. Emerson was a bit upset with Whitman for doing this…yet R. W. never yielded in his constant support for his younger student poet. Emerson and Whitman would become close and valued friends, and they would remain so for the rest of their lives. In the confused, turbulent and bloody years ahead, Walt would turn to Emerson for guidance and enthusiasm…two American character traits that seemed to go extinct with the grim coming of the American Civil War, (1861-1865).

Yet we must keep in mind that Whitman was a complex man. He enjoyed and perfected a seemingly “disembodied” form of poetry (now called free verse) because he sought to set the human soul free from the artifice surrounding it. This is not an easy thing to understand and it is something often lost in both literary and historical circles. If we are to understand Whitman as a poet, we must first understand Whitman the man. Whitman was both Romanticist and Transcendentalist, artistically and philosophically. Both cultural movements turned away from the cold, rational and emotionally removed thinking of the Enlightenment and re-embraced and elevated older and more established literary, musical and aesthetic beliefs and motifs. Romanticism and its outgrowth of Transcendentalism took hold of the physical world of nature and tried to unite it with the realms of God and human consciousness and morality.

Hence nature was a mirror, which not only reflected the “human spirit,” but one that also revealed the human soul. Transcendentalism as chronological offspring of Romanticism was not so far removed from pantheism…another way of thinking that sought to connect God to the human psyche, via the natural world.

Consider Whitman’s great preamble to one of his most brilliant poems, Song of Myself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belong to me
as good belongs to you.


Whitman was here showing sublime reverence for the individual human soul…and he was putting into poetry the uniqueness of the American character. But he does not raise his singular personality above anyone other’s, because “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Whitman was saying in these spectacular lines human individuality is not necessarily what sets human beings apart from each other…but it is more of something that unites all people, for all time. The opening lines to Whitman’s Song of Myself are hence a lofty and philosophically intricate metaphysical statement. Whitman was also saying that in God’s plenty, differing views among people do not divide them…it is varying opinions on all matters which bonds God’s children together…“For what I assume you shall assume…”And this prevalence of opposing human attitudes is as universal as the atoms that make up human anatomy and physiology. Our differing viewpoints as individual people link our collective human consciousness together, because our human souls “belong” to the human opinions our minds compose…and vice versa.

To the Transcendentalists nature and the human soul were inextricably joined to each other. In being so, the human soul could be reborn at death…because the human soul followed the cyclic progression of the natural world’s seasons (Transcendentalists believed). As winter gives way to spring…the death of a loved one (in the physical realm) would give way to an immortal life in the hereafter, Emerson and Whitman concurred. The shapeless human spirit hence “transcended” the material body it inhabited on earth. In describing the central symbol of his book, the grass, in section 6 of Song of Myself, Whitman comments, “…I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation…now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” The grass itself is first depicted by Walt as an artifact of nature only. But then subsequently Whitman comments the grass is the new manifestation of a human soul, formerly deceased, and now living again as a recently formed being in God’s creation.

Romanticism, which took the religious, sexual, emotional and mystical ideologies of Western and even Eastern thought, infiltrated much of American mainstream thinking. Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe are notable examples of the Romantic Movement in America. But Ralph Waldo Emerson spawned Transcendentalism. It was carried on in unique ways by his protégés Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. It must be noted that Transcendentalism was primarily a New England cultural phenomenon and it did not have the same bite in the American South as it did in the Yankee North. Like Romanticism, Emerson’s school of thought sought to rebel and usurp the Age of Reason, which had founded the American homeland. So both Romanticism and Transcendentalism were literally revolutionary for their historical times. Empirical and scientific thinkers such as Ben Franklin and Voltaire did not probe deep enough into human psychology (for Whitman), as did Ralph Waldo Emerson. This is why Whitman revered the older sage and emulated him to a large extent.

Brooklyn was always home for Whitman, as was the whole of Long Island and New York City. Prior the Civil War Walt Whitman acted as a sort of itinerant Socrates (or so Grolier says). He would wander the city and its environs and walk among and talk to the common folk. Walt Whitman asked New Yorkers questions about all things, endlessly conversing with them. Walt would rid himself of office attire and dress in denims and laborer’s shirts. Long and wild hair of his would seldom be groomed. Walt was self-actualizing himself as a poet and sage. He was both to “talk the talk and walk the walk.” Whitman was seeking from both New York City and Long Island material to draw for Leaves of Grass. This was so, whether he sang of workmen in the street or of the running of the Brooklyn ferry. Walt was also to find inspiration for his great book elsewhere.



Part Three: The Civil War.

For two years, between 1857-1859, Whitman edited the Brooklyn Times. He was again let go from the paper because of what readers considered Walt’s radical ideas on human sexuality, abortion and slavery. Whitman’s poetry continued to deepen intellectually and spiritually during this time. As a result, Leaves of Grass was slowly and surely expanded and revised by Whitman. Yet, it was also during these years that the United States of America steadily moved towards a growing political and then finally a catastrophic military conflict over slavery. By early 1861, the Union stronghold of Fort Sumter, South Carolina was attacked and seized by the newly created Confederate Army. The Civil War was now in full swing and a nation’s new President, Abraham Lincoln, was now confronted with the Herculean task of defeating a dogged, hostile enemy on the battlefield and quelling much social unrest over the human rights failure of Afro-American bondage, not only in the deep South…but also along the border states. America was literally being ripped apart.

America’s entry into the Civil War had been pre-ordained with the passage of the Federal Constitution in 1787. In the Constitution, civil rights had only been guaranteed for white males. But colored people of both sexes (specifically living south of the Mason-Dixon line) were still deprived of American citizenship under the law. Slavery as a socio-economic and legal institution in the U. S. South was thereby left to flourish. The failures of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott Case to resolve the unjust and tyrannical issue of slavery (in America) and the ineptitude of President James Buchanan’s administration to successfully negotiate the matter peacefully between Northern abolitionists and Southern plantation owners, were all factors which greatly contributed to the Civil War. Yet the War had arrived, and the North, under Lincoln’s leadership, had to win the horrible military conflict, in addition to finally ending slavery in its entirety.

While the War raged between the Union and the Confederacy, Whitman “…worked as a volunteer nurse in (Union) Army hospitals in Washington, D. C.,” comments literary critic and historian Lance Ashworth. Mr. Ashworth continues Whitman’s kind and careful treatment of wounded Yankee and rebel soldiers gave the great poet “…some small fame for this service…” because Whitman was “… a sensitive and passionate humanitarian…” Numerous historical records do not dispute this unambiguous and concrete fact.

Untold human carnage was spilled during the American Civil War, in every arena and vicinity it was fought. Whitman looked with earnest respect and hope to a leader who would not only bring the Union to victory, but one who would terminate the evil American institution of slavery forever. This man Whitman was referring to was President Abraham Lincoln…often called the “poet-President,” because of Lincoln’s own very profound and elegant prose. This aspiration was partly fulfilled (according to our own National Archives) on January 1st, 1863, with Lincoln’s executive order, commonly called by Americans as the “Emancipation Proclamation.” Lincoln’s Presidential decree formally ended slavery in every state in open rebellion against the United States. The 13thAmendment added to the

U. S. Constitution (as informed to us by the National Archives again) on December 18th, 1865, formally and legally ended slavery everywhere in America, in permanence.

Lincoln had not disappointed Whitman or the United States by his termination of slavery and by his asking Northerners to show Southern rebels “the better angels of [their] nature,” in forgiving them for their treachery towards the North, once the Civil War was concluded. Lincoln wanted a smooth and peaceful reclamation of power during the Reconstruction era, in allowing clemency for all Southern states and their citizenry, to again be admitted into the Union (as Federal territories) and for Southerners to resume being Americans once more. Yankee vengeance upon the South was to be avoided at all costs. These thoughts Lincoln expressed succinctly in his Second Inaugural speech.

Abraham Lincoln’s life was brutally and prematurely ended by an assassin’s bullet, in early April, of 1865. Lincoln’s ethical and political vision had been achieved (also in part due to General R. E. Lee’s surrender to General U. S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, at roughly this same time). But the Union victory came at a most terrible cost to the country. With Lincoln’s demise, Walt Whitman and America were both left shattered. Whitman’s poetry and America would be forever changed.



Part Four: The Elder Statesman.


There is no doubt that the historically defining event of Walt Whitman’s life was the American Civil War. Yet even after this vile and disastrous conflict was over, Whitman and the remainder of his countrymen were forced by circumstance to move forward with their lives. Lincoln’s ungodly assassination and the War itself badly traumatized the nation. And a new despondence and melancholy filled Whitman’s verse. In poems such as Drum Taps and O Captain! My Captain! Whitman poignantly and realistically gave life and breath to his painful wartime memories, to the point where they have had lasting literary excellence bestowed on them by numerous literary critics and they have become a permanent part of America’s vast cultural heritage.

English scholars of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (2nd edition) Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair on page 22 note that Walt Whitman stayed on in the nation’s capital, following the close of the Civil War. In 1865, Whitman earned a cushy office job in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, yet he was later on rudely dismissed from it after half a year had passed. His boss, one James Harlan, lifted a copy of Leaves of Grass up from Whitman’s desk one afternoon, and after reading some of the poet’s passages in it, Harlan fired Whitman for writing material that the Puritanical supervisor deemed “of dubious morality,” as Grolier describes the incident in their accurate account of it. The introspective but tough-spirited Whitman soon obtained another clerkship in the Attorney General’s Office, where he remained a valuable member of its staff until he endured a horrible stroke in 1873. Whitman was in his fifties at this point, and he was crippled by his stroke. After years of struggle, Whitman did indeed learn to walk again. He moved to Camden, New Jersey to live near his younger brother, George Whitman. During this time Whitman continued to write and he even lectured on verse. His poetry did not decline in luster or in scope. Literary giants such as Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde paid him high personal tributes, firstly Wilde in 1882, and then secondly Twain in 1889. And Whitman’s fame at this time was spreading like wildfire throughout Europe. In countries such as France and Germany, Whitman was becoming a perennial smash hit…though not so much in America and in Britain, where his work was largely neglected.

Whitman (now a silver-haired sage) was to earn a meager salary from the royalties of Leaves of Grass. And he earned some extra money through his public speaking. He bought a small house of his own in Camden and he spent the last few years of his life in the pleasant company of friends and family members. His last days were filled with joy and comfort. Other well-known artists visited him and gave his work huge accolades. Whitman was not pleased with America’s growing materialism…but he did believe in the great power of poetry and in art to redeem the souls of men, in addition to the power of God, to do the same. Whitman died on the 26th of March 1892, in Camden, New Jersey. Walt was 73 years old. His home subsequently became a national memorial, and it remains so, to this very day.

Decades passed and Whitman’s novel and spectacular work was to fade from the literary scene as American and British Victorian aesthetics favored more traditional verse forms and poets. But as World War I concluded, major American poets Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, and others, rescued Whitman’s reputation from years of dereliction and obscurity. The British poet (and also a visionary) D. H. Lawrence exalted Walt Whitman for Whitman’s poetic daring and unmitigated willingness to depart from the direction of established literary styles and conventions, while never compromising substance. Hart Crane, a brilliant American poet whose work spanned the Roaring Twenties and the early Depression, also deeply respected Whitman’s work, and to a large degree, imitated it. The American Beatniks of 1950’s (notably poet Allen Ginsberg) placed Whitman on an even more elevated footing, and the Beatniks (also called Beats) often referred to Whitman as their almost kingly progenitor. History, after nearly seventy years, has yet to prove them wrong.



About the Author: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, New York. A graduate of both Suffolk County Community College (A. A. in Liberal Studies) and SUNY Stony Brook (B. A. English), Mr. DeBonis’ work first appeared in the Village Beacon Record and the Brookhaven Times newspapers. Michael’s latest work (poetry and prose) can be found in the New York History Review and elsewhere. Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York.

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