by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price
Walt Whitman, arguably America’s most influential and innovative poet, was born into a working class family in West Hills, New York, a village near Hempstead, Long Island, on May 31, 1819, just thirty years after George Washington was inaugurated a s the first president of the newly formed United States. Walt Whitman was named after his father, a carpenter and farmer who was 34 years old when Whitman was born. Walter Whitman, Sr., had been born just after the end of the American Revolution; always a liberal thinker, he knew and admired Thomas Paine. Trained as a carpenter but struggling to find work, he had taken up farming by the time Wa lt was born, but when Walt was just about to turn four, Walter Sr. moved the family to the growing city of Brooklyn, across from New York City, or "Mannahatta" as Whitman would come to call it in his celebratory writings about the city that was just emerg ing as the nation’s major urban center. One of Walt’s favorite stories about his childhood concerned the time General Lafayette visited New York and, selecting the six-year-old Walt from the crowd, lifted him up and carried him. Whitman later came to view this event as a kind of laying on of hands, the French hero of the American Revolution anointing the future poet of democracy in the energetic city of immigrants, where the new nation was being invented day by day.
Walt Whitman is thus of the first generation of Americans who were born in the newly formed United States and grew up assuming the stable existence of the new country. Pride in the emergent nation was rampant, and Walter Sr.—after giving his first son Jesse (1818-1870) his own father’s name, his second son his own name, his daughter Mary (1822-1899) the name of Walt’s maternal great grandmothers, and his daughter Hannah (1823-1908) the name of his own mother—turned to the heroes of the Revolution and t he War of 1812 for the names of his other three sons: Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827-1863), George Washington Whitman (1829-1901), and Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833-1890). Only the youngest son, Edward (1835-1902), who was mentally and physically handicapp ed, carried a name that tied him to neither the family’s nor the country’s history.
Walter Whitman Sr. was of English stock, and his marriage in 1816 to Louisa Van Velsor, of Dutch and Welsh stock, led to what Walt always considered a fertile tension in the Whitman children between a more smoldering, brooding Puritanical temperament a nd a sunnier, more outgoing Dutch disposition. Whitman’s father was a stern and sometimes hot-tempered man, maybe an alcoholic, whom Whitman respected but for whom he never felt a great deal of affection. His mother, on the other hand, served throughout h is life as his emotional touchstone. There was a special affectional bond between Whitman and his mother, and the long correspondence between them records a kind of partnership in attempting to deal with the family crises that mounted over the years, as J esse became mentally unstable and violent and eventually had to be institutionalized, as Hannah entered a disastrous marriage with an abusive husband, as Andrew became an alcoholic and married a prostitute before dying of ill health in his 30s, and as Edward required increasingly dedicated care.
A Brooklyn Childhood and Long Island Interludes
During Walt’s childhood, the Whitman family moved around Brooklyn a great deal as Walter Sr. tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to cash in on the city’s quick growth by speculating in real estate—buying an empty lot, building a house, moving his family in, then trying to sell it at a profit to start the whole process over again. Walt loved living close to the East River, where as a child he rode the ferries back and forth to New York City, imbibing an experience that would remain significant for him his whole life: he loved ferries and the people who worked on them, and his 1856 poem eventually entitled "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" explored the full resonance of the experience. The act of crossing became, for Whitman, one of the most evocative events in hi s life—at once practical, enjoyable, and mystical. The daily commute suggested the passage from life to death to life again and suggested too the passage from poet to reader to poet via the vehicle of the poem. By crossing Brooklyn ferry, Whitman first di scovered the magical commutations that he would eventually accomplish in his poetry.
While in Brooklyn, Whitman attended the newly founded Brooklyn public schools for six years, sharing his classes with students of a variety of ages and backgrounds, though most were poor, since children from wealthy families attended private schools. I n Whitman’s school, all the students were in the same room, except African Americans, who had to attend a separate class on the top floor. Whitman had little to say about his rudimentary formal schooling, except that he hated corporal punishment, a common practice in schools and one that he would attack in later years in both his journalism and his fiction. But most of Whitman’s meaningful education came outside of school, when he visited museums, went to libraries, and attended lectures. He always recalle d the first great lecture he heard, when he was ten years old, given by the radical Quaker leader Elias Hicks, an acquaintance of Whitman’s father and a close friend of Whitman’s grandfather Jesse. While Whitman’s parents were not members of any religious denomination, Quaker thought always played a major role in Whitman’s life, in part because of the early influence of Hicks, and in part because his mother Louisa’s family had a Quaker background, especially Whitman’s grandmother Amy Williams Van Velsor, whose death—the same year Whitman first heard Hicks—hit young Walt hard, since he had spent many happy days at the farm of his grandmother and colorful grandfather, Major Cornelius Van Velsor.
Visiting his grandparents on Long Island was one of Whitman’s favorite boyhood activities, and during those visits he developed his lifelong love of the Long Island shore, sensing the mystery of that territory where water meets land, fluid melds with s olid. One of Whitman’s greatest poems, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," is on one level a reminiscence of his boyhood on the Long Island shore and of how his desire to be a poet arose in that landscape. The idyllic Long Island countryside formed a s harp contrast to the crowded energy of the quickly growing Brooklyn-New York City urban center. Whitman’s experiences as a young man alternated between the city and the Long Island countryside, and he was attracted to both ways of life. This dual allegian ce can be traced in his poetry, which is often marked by shifts between rural and urban settings.
Self-Education and First Career
By the age of eleven, Whitman was done with his formal education (by this time he had far more schooling than either of his parents had received), and he began his life as a laborer, working first as an office boy for some prominent Brooklyn lawyer s, who gave him a subscription to a circulating library, where his self-education began. Always an autodidact, Whitman absorbed an eclectic but wide-ranging education through his visits to museums, his nonstop reading, and his penchant for engaging everyo ne he met in conversation and debate. While most other major writers of his time enjoyed highly structured, classical educations at private institutions, Whitman forged his own rough and informal curriculum of literature, theater, history, geography, musi c, and archeology out of the developing public resources of America’s fastest growing city.
In 1831, Whitman became an apprentice on the Long Island Patriot, a liberal, working-class newspaper, where he learned the printing trade and was first exposed to the excitement of putting words into print, observing how thought and event could be quickly transformed into language and immediately communicated to thousands of readers. At the age of twelve, young Walt was already contributing to the newspaper and experiencing the exhilaration of getting his own words published. Whitman’s first sig ned article, in the upscale New York Mirror in 1834, expressed his amazement at how there were still people alive who could remember "the present great metropolitan city as a little dorp or village; all fresh and green as it was, from its be ginning," and he wrote of a slave, "Negro Harry," who had died in1758 at age 120 and who could remember New York "when there were but three houses in it." Even late in his life, he could still recall the excitement of seeing this first article in print: " How it made my heart double-beat to see my piece on the pretty white paper, in nice type." For his entire life, he would maintain this fascination with the materiality of printed objects, with the way his voice and identity could be embodied in typ e and paper.
Living away from home—the rest of his family moved back to the West Hills area in 1833, leaving fourteen-year-old Walt alone in the city—and learning how to set type under the Patriot’s foreman printer William Hartshorne, Whitman was gaining ski lls and experiencing an independence that would mark his whole career: he would always retain a typesetter’s concern for how his words looked on a page, what typeface they were dressed in, what effects various spatial arrangements had, and he would alway s retain his stubborn independence, never marrying and living alone for most of his life. These early years on his own in Brooklyn and New York remained a formative influence on his writing, for it was during this time that he developed the habit of close observation of the ever-shifting panorama of the city, and a great deal of his journalism, poetry, and prose came to focus on catalogs of urban life and the history of New York City, Brooklyn, and Long Island.
Walt’s brother Thomas Jefferson, known to everyone in the family as "Jeff," was born during the summer of 1833, soon after his family had resettled on a farm and only weeks after Walt had joined the crowds in Brooklyn that warmly welcomed the newly re- elected president, Andrew Jackson. Brother Jeff, fourteen years younger than Walt, would become the sibling he felt closest to, their bond formed when they traveled together to New Orleans in 1848, when Jeff was about the same age as Walt was when Jeff wa s born. But while Jeff was a young child, Whitman spent little time with him. Walt remained separated from his family and furthered his education by absorbing the power of language from a variety of sources: various circulating libraries (where he read Si r Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and other romance novelists), theaters (where he fell in love with Shakespeare’s plays and saw Junius Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s father, play the title role in Richard III, always Whitman’s favorite play), and lectures (where he heard, among others, Frances Wright, the Scottish radical emancipationist and women’s rights advocate). By the time he was sixteen, Walt was a journeyman printer and compositor in New York City. His future career seemed set in the news paper and printing trades, but then two of New York’s worst fires wiped out the major printing and business centers of the city, and, in the midst of a dismal financial climate, Whitman retreated to rural Long Island, joining his family at Hempstead in 18 36. As he turned 17, the five-year veteran of the printing trade was already on the verge of a career change.
His unlikely next career was that of a teacher. Although his own formal education was, by today’s standards, minimal, he had developed as a newspaper apprentice the skills of reading and writing, more than enough for the kind of teaching he would f ind himself doing over the next few years. He knew he did not want to become a farmer, and he rebelled at his father’s attempts to get him to work on the new family farm. Teaching was therefore an escape but was also clearly a job he was forced to take in bad economic times, and some of the unhappiest times of his life were these five years when he taught school in at least ten different Long Island towns, rooming in the homes of his students, teaching three-month terms to large and heterogeneous classes (some with over eighty students, ranging in age from five to fifteen, for up to nine hours a day), getting very little pay, and having to put up with some very unenlightened people. After the excitement of Brooklyn and New York, these often isolated Long Island towns depressed Whitman, and he recorded his disdain for country people in a series of letters (not discovered until the 1980s) that he wrote to a friend named Abraham Leech: "Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfect ion of man’s nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here," he wrote from Woodbury in 1840: "Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair."
The little evidence we have of his teaching (mostly from short recollections by a few former students) suggests that Whitman employed what were then progressive techniques—encouraging students to think aloud rather than simply recite, refusing to punis h by paddling, involving his students in educational games, and joining his students in baseball and card games. He did not hesitate to use his own poems—which he was by this time writing with some frequency, though they were rhymed, conventional verses t hat indicated nothing of the innovative poetry to come—as texts in his classroom. While he would continue to write frequently about educational issues and would always retain a keen interest in how knowledge is acquired, he was clearly not suited to be a country teacher. One of the poems in his first edition of Leaves of Grass, eventually called "There Was a Child Went Forth," can be read as a statement of Whitman’s educational philosophy, celebrating unrestricted extracurricular learning, an openn ess to experience and ideas that would allow for endless absorption of variety and difference: this was the kind of education Whitman had given himself and the kind he valued. He would always be suspicious of classrooms, and his great poem "Song of Myself " is generated by a child’s wondering question, "What is the grass?," a question that Whitman spends the rest of the poem ruminating about as he discovers the complex in the seemingly simple, the cosmos in himself—an attitude that is possible, he says, on ly when we put "creeds and schools in abeyance." He kept himself alive intellectually by taking an active part in debating societies and in political campaigns: inspired by the Scottish reformist Frances Wright, who came to the United States to support Ma rtin Van Buren in the presidential election of 1836, Whitman became an industrious worker for the Democratic party, campaigning hard for Martin Van Buren’s successful candidacy.
By 1841, Whitman’s second career was at an end. He had interrupted his teaching in 1838 to try his luck at starting his own newspaper, The Long Islander, devoted to covering the towns around Huntington. He bought a press and type and hired his y ounger brother George as an assistant, but, despite his energetic efforts to edit, publish, write for, and deliver the new paper, it folded within a year, and he reluctantly returned to the classroom. Newspaper work made him happy, but teaching did not, a nd two years later, he abruptly quit his job as an itinerant schoolteacher. The reasons for his decision continue to interest biographers. One persistent but unsubstantiated rumor has it that Whitman committed sodomy with one of his students while teachin g in Southold, though it is not possible to prove that Whitman actually even taught there. The rumor suggests he was run out of town in disgrace, never to return and soon to abandon teaching altogether. But in fact Whitman did travel again to Southold, wr iting some remarkably unperturbed journalistic pieces about the place in the late 1840s and early 1860s. It seems far more likely that Whitman gave up schoolteaching because he found himself temperamentally unsuited for it. And, besides, he had a new care er opening up: he decided now to become a fiction writer. Best of all, to nurture that career, he would need to return to New York City and re-establish himself in the world of journalism.
Whitman the Fiction Writer
How ambitious was Whitman as a writer of short fiction? The evidence suggests that he was definitely more than a casual dabbler and that he threw himself energetically into composing stories. Still, he did not give himself over to fiction with the kind of life-changing commitment he would later give to experimental poetry. He was adding to his accomplishments, moving beyond being a respectable journalist and developing literary talents and aspirations. About twenty different newspapers and magazine s printed Whitman’s fiction and early poetry. His best years for fiction were between 1840 and 1845 when he placed his stories in a range of magazines, including the American Review (later called the American Whig Review ) and the Democra tic Review, one of the nation’s most prestigious literary magazines. As a writer of fiction, he lacked the impulse toward innovation and the commitment to self-training that later moved him toward experimental verse, even though we can trace in his fi ction some of the themes that would later flourish in Leaves of Grass.
His early stories are captivating in large part because they address obliquely (not to say crudely) important professional and psychological matters. His first published story, "Death in the School-Room," grew out of his teaching experience and interje cted direct editorializing commentary: the narrator hopes that the "many ingenious methods of child-torture will [soon] be gaz’d upon as a scorned memento of an ignorant, cruel, and exploded doctrine." This tale had a surprise ending: the teacher flogs a student he thinks is sleeping only to make the macabre discovery that he has been beating a corpse. Another story, "The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man’s Soul," offered a barely fictionalized account of Whitman’s own circumstances and attitudes: the h ero, Archibald Dean, left New York because of the great fire to take charge of a small district school, a move that made him feel "as though the last float-plank which buoyed him up on hope and happiness, was sinking, and he with it." Other stories concer n themselves with friendships between older and younger men (especially younger men who are weak or in need of defense since they are misunderstood and at odds with figures of authority).
Whitman’s steady stream of stories in the Democratic Review in 1842—he published five between January and September—must have made Park Benjamin, editor of the New World, conclude that Whitman was the perfect candidate to write a novel th at would speak to the booming temperance movement. Whitman had earlier worked for Benjamin as a printer, and the two had quarreled, leading Whitman to write "Bamboozle and Benjamin," an article attacking this irascible editor whose practice of rapidly pri nting advance copies of novels, typically by English writers, threatened both the development of native writers and the viability of U.S. publishing houses. But now both men were willing to overlook past differences in order to seize a good financial oppo rtunity.
In an extra number in November 1842, Benjamin’s New World published Whitman’s Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate. The novel centers on a country boy who, after falling prey to drink in the big city, eventually causes the death of three women. The plot, which ends in a conventional moralistic way, was typical of temperance literature in allowing sensationalism into literature under a moral guise. Whitman’s treatment of romance and passion here, however, is unpersuasive and seems to confi rm a remark he had made two years earlier that he knew nothing about women either by "experience or observation." The novel stands nonetheless as one of the earliest explorations in American literature of the theme of miscegenation, and its treatment of t he enslaved (white) body, captive to drink, has resonance, as does the novel’s fascination with "fatal pleasure," Evans’s name for the strong attraction most men feel for sinful experience, be it drink or sex.
Interestingly, Franklin Evans sold more copies (approximately 20,000) than anything else Whitman published in his lifetime. The work succeeded despite being a patched-together concoction of new writing and previously composed stories. Whitman cl aimed he completed Franklin Evans in three days and that he composed parts of the novel in the reading room of Tammany Hall, inspired by gin cocktails (another time he claimed he was buoyed by a bottle of port.) He eventually described Franklin Evans as "damned rot—rot of the worst sort." Despite these old-age remarks, Whitman’s original purpose was serious, for he supported temperance consistently in the 1840s, including in two tales—"Wild Frank's Return" and the "The Child’s Champion"—that turn on the consequences of excessive drinking. Moreover, Whitman began another temperance novel (The Madman) within months of finishing Franklin Evans, though he soon abandoned the project. His concern with the temperance issue may have de rived from his father’s drinking habits or even from Whitman’s own drinking tendencies when he was an unhappy schoolteacher. Whatever the source, Whitman’s concern with the issue remained throughout his career, and his poetry records, again and again, the waste of alcoholic abuse, the awful "law of drunkards" that produces "the livid faces of drunkards," "those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations," the "drunkard’s breath," the "drunkard’s stagger," "the old drunkard staggering home."
During the time he was writing temperance fiction, Whitman remained a generally successful journalist. He cultivated a fashionable appearance: William Cauldwell, an apprentice who knew him as lead editor at the New York Aurora, said that Whi tman "usually wore a frock coat and high hat, carried a small cane, and the lapel of his coat was almost invariably ornamented with a boutonniere." In 1842 and 1843 he moved easily in and out of positions (as was then common among journalists) on an array of newspapers, including, in addition to the Aurora, the New York Evening Tattler, the New York Statesman, and the New York Sunday Times. And he wrote on topics ranging from criticizing how the police rounded up prostitutes to denouncing Bishop John Hughes for his effort to use public funds to support parochial schools.
Whitman left New York in 1845, perhaps because of financial uncertainty resulting from his fluctuating income. He returned to Brooklyn and to steadier work in a somewhat less competitive journalistic environment. Often regarded as a New York City write r, his residence and professional career in the city actually ended, then, a full decade before the first appearance of Leaves of Grass. However, even after his move to Brooklyn, he remained connected to New York: he shuttled back and forth via the Fulton ferry, and he drew imaginatively on the city’s rich and varied splendor for his subject matter.
Opera was one of the many attractions that encouraged Whitman’s frequent returns to New York. In 1846 Whitman began attending performances (often with his brother Jeff), a practice that was disrupted only by the onset of the Civil War (and even dur ing the war, he managed to attend operas whenever he got back to New York). Whitman loved the thought of the human body as its own musical instrument, and his fascination with voice would later manifest itself in his desire to be an orator and in his freq uent inclusion of oratorical elements in his poetry. For Whitman, listening to opera had the intensity of a "love-grip." In particular, the great coloratura soprano, Marietta Alboni, sent him into raptures: throughout his life she would remain his standar d for great operatic performance, and his poem "To a Certain Cantatrice" addresses her as the equal of any hero. Whitman once said, after attending an opera, that the experience was powerful enough to initiate a new era in a person’s development. When he later composed a poem describing his dawning sense of vocation ("Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"), opera provided both structure and contextual clues to meaning.
By the mid-1840s, Whitman had a keen awareness of the cultural resources of New York City and probably had more inside knowledge of New York journalism than anyone else in Brooklyn. The Long Island Star recognized his value as a journalist a nd, once he resettled in Brooklyn, quickly arranged to have him compose a series of editorials, two or three a week, from September 1845 to March 1846. With the death of William Marsh, the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, Whitman became chief editor o f that paper (he served from March 5, 1846 to January 18, 1848). He dedicated himself to journalism in these years and published little of his own poetry and fiction. However, he introduced literary reviewing to the Eagle, and he commented, if ofte n superficially, on writers such as Carlyle and Emerson, who in the next decade would have a significant impact on Leaves of Grass. The editor’s role gave Whitman a platform from which to comment on various issues from street lighting to politics, from banking to poetry. But Whitman claimed that what he most valued was not the ability to promote his opinions, but rather something more intimate, the "curious kind of sympathy . . . that arises in the mind of a newspaper conductor with the public he s erves. He gets to love them."
For Whitman, to serve the public was to frame issues in accordance with working class interests—and for Whitman this usually meant white working class interests. He sometimes dreaded slave labor as a "black tide" that could overwhelm white worki ngmen. He was adamant that slavery should not be allowed into the new western territories because he feared whites would not migrate to an area where their own labor was devalued unfairly by the institution of black slavery. Periodically, Whitman expresse d outrage at practices that furthered slavery itself: for example, he was incensed at laws that made possible the importation of slaves by way of Brazil. Like Lincoln, he consistently opposed slavery and its further extension, even while he knew (again li ke Lincoln) that the more extreme abolitionists threatened the Union itself. In a famous incident, Whitman lost his position as editor of the Eagle because the publisher, Isaac Van Anden, as an "Old Hunker," sided with conservative pro-slavery Demo crats and could no longer abide Whitman’s support of free soil and the Wilmot Proviso (a legislative proposal designed to stop the expansion of slavery into the western territories).
New Orleans Sojourn
Fortunately, on February 9, 1846, Whitman met, between acts of a performance at the Broadway Theatre in New York, J. E. McClure, who intended to launch a New Orleans paper, the Crescent, with an associate, A. H. Hayes. In a stunningly short time—reportedly in fifteen minutes—McClure struck a deal with Whitman and provided him with an advance to cover his travel expenses to New Orleans. Whitman’s younger brother Jeff , then only fifteen years old, decided to travel with Walt and work as an of fice boy on the paper. The journey—by train, steamboat, and stagecoach—widened Walt’s sense of the country’s scope and diversity, as he left the New York City and Long Island area for the first time. Once in New Orleans, Walt did not have the famous New O rleans romance with a beautiful Creole woman, a relationship first imagined by the biographer Henry Bryan Binns and further elaborated by others who were charmed by the city’s exoticism and who were eager to identify heterosexual desires in the poet. The published versions of his New Orleans poem called "Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City" seem to recount a romance with a woman, though the original manuscript reveals that he initially wrote with a male lover in mind.
Whatever the nature of his personal attachments in New Orleans, he certainly encountered a city full of color and excitement. He wandered the French quarter and the old French market, attracted by "the Indian and negro hucksters with their wares" and t he "great Creole mulatto woman" who sold him the best coffee he ever tasted. He enjoyed the "splendid and roomy bars" (with "exquisite wines, and the perfect and mild French brandy") that were packed with soldiers who had recently returned from the war wi th Mexico, and his first encounters with young men who had seen battle, many of them recovering from war wounds, occurred in New Orleans, a precursor of his Civil War experiences. He was entranced by the intoxicating mix of languages—French and Spanish an d English—in that cosmopolitan city and began to see the possibilities of a distinctive American culture emerging from the melding of races and backgrounds (his own fondness for using French terms may well have derived from his New Orleans stay). But the exotic nature of the Southern city was not without its horrors: slaves were auctioned within an easy walk of where the Whitman brothers were lodging at the Tremont House, around the corner from Lafayette Square. Whitman never forgot the experience of seei ng humans on the selling block, and he kept a poster of a slave auction hanging in his room for many years as a reminder that such dehumanizing events occurred regularly in the United States. The slave auction was an experience that he would later incorpo rate in his poem "I Sing the Body Electric."
Walt felt wonderfully healthy in New Orleans, concluding that it agreed with him better than New York, but Jeff was often sick with dysentery, and his illness and homesickness contributed to their growing desire to return home. The final decision, thou gh, was taken out of the hands of the brothers, as the Crescent owners exhibited what Whitman called a "singular sort of coldness" toward their new editor. They probably feared that this northern editor would embarrass them because of his unorthodo x ideas, especially about slavery. Whitman’s sojourn in New Orleans lasted only three months.
His trip South produced a few lively sketches of New Orleans life and at least one poem, "Sailing the Mississippi at Midnight," in which the steamboat journey becomes a symbolic journey of life:
Vast and starless, the pall of heaven
Laps on the trailing pall below;
And forward, forward, in solemn darkness,
As if to the sea of the lost we go.
Throughout much of the 1840s Whitman wrote conventional poems like this one, often echoing Bryant, and, at times, Shelley and Keats. Bryant—and the graveyard school of English poetry—probably had the most important impact on his sensibility, as can be seen in his pre-Leaves of Grass poems "Our Future Lot," "Ambition," "The Winding-Up," "The Love that is Hereafter," and "Death of the Nature-Lover." The poetry of these years is artificial in diction and didactic in purpose; Whitman rarely seems in spired or innovative. Instead, tired language usually renders the poems inert. By the end of the decade, however, Whitman had undertaken serious self-education in the art of poetry, conducted in a typically unorthodox way—he clipped essays and reviews abo ut leading British and American writers, and as he studied them he began to be a more aggressive reader and a more resistant respondent. His marginalia on these articles demonstrate that he was learning to write not in the manner of his predecessors but a gainst them.
The mystery about Whitman in the late 1840s is the speed of his transformation from an unoriginal and conventional poet into one who abruptly abandoned conventional rhyme and meter and, in jottings begun at this time, exploited the odd loveliness of ho mely imagery, finding beauty in the commonplace but expressing it in an uncommon way. What is known as Whitman’s earliest notebook (called "albot Wilson" in the Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts) may have been written as early as 1847, th ough much of the writing probably derives from the early 1850s. This extraordinary document contains early articulations of some of Whitman’s most compelling ideas. Famous passages on "Dilation," on "True noble expanding American character," and on the "s oul enfolding orbs" are memorable prose statements that express the newly expansive sense of self that Whitman was discovering, and we find him here creating the conditions—setting the tone and articulating the ideas—that would allow for the writing of Leaves of Grass.
On July 16, 1849, the publisher, health guru, and social reformer Lorenzo Fowler confirmed Whitman’s growing sense of personal capacity when his phrenological analysis of the poet’s head led to a flattering—and in some ways quite accurate—description o f his character. In addition to bolstering Whitman’s confidence, the reading of the "bumps" on his skull gave him some key vocabulary (like "amativeness" and "adhesiveness," phrenological terms delineating affections between and among the sexes) for Le aves of Grass. Whitman’s association with Lorenzo Fowler and his brother Orson would prove to be of continuing importance well into the 1850s. The Fowler brothers distributed the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published the second anonymousl y, and provided a venue in their firm’s magazine for one of Whitman’s self-reviews.
Racial Politics and the Origins of Leaves of Grass
A pivotal and empowering change came over Whitman at this time of poetic transformation. His politics—and especially his racial attitudes—underwent a profound alteration. As we have noted, Whitman the journalist spoke to the interests of the day and fr om a particular class perspective when he advanced the interests of white workingmen while seeming, at times, unconcerned about the plight of blacks. Perhaps the New Orleans experience had prompted a change in attitude, a change that was intensified by an increasing number of friendships with radical thinkers and writers who led Whitman to rethink his attitudes toward the issue of race. Whatever the cause, in Whitman’s future-oriented poetry blacks become central to his new literary project and central to his understanding of democracy. Notebook passages assert that the poet has the "divine grammar of all tongues, and says indifferently and alike How are you friend? to the President in the midst of his cabinet, and Good day my brother, to Sambo among the hoes of the sugar field."
It appears that Whitman’s increasing frustration with the Democratic party’s compromising approaches to the slavery crisis led him to continue his political efforts through the more subtle and indirect means of experimental poetry, a poetry that he hop ed would be read by masses of average Americans and would transform their way of thinking. In any event, his first notebook lines in the manner of Leaves of Grass focus directly on the fundamental issue dividing the United States. His notebook brea ks into free verse for the first time in lines that seek to bind opposed categories, to link black and white, to join master and slave:
I am the poet of the body
And I am the poet of the soul
And I am
I go with the slaves of the earth equally with he masters
And I will stand between the masters and the slaves,
Entering into both so that both will understand me alike.
The audacity of that final line remains striking. While most people were lining up on one side or another, Whitman placed himself in that space—sometimes violent, sometimes erotic, always volatile—between master and slave. His extreme political despair led him to replace what he now named the "scum" of corrupt American politics in the 1850s with his own persona—a shaman, a culture-healer, an all-encompassing "I."
The American "I"
That "I" became the main character of Leaves of Grass, the explosive book of twelve untitled poems that he wrote in the early years of the 1850s, and for which he set some of the type, designed the cover, and carefully oversaw all the detail s. When Whitman wrote "I, now thirty-six years old, in perfect health, begin," he announced a new identity for himself, and his novitiate came at an age quite advanced for a poet. Keats by that age had been dead for ten years; Byron had died at exactly th at age; Wordsworth and Coleridge produced Lyrical Ballads while both were in their twenties; Bryant had written "Thanatopsis," his best-known poem, at age sixteen; and most other great Romantic poets Whitman admired had done their most memorable wo rk early in their adult lives. Whitman, in contrast, by the time he had reached his mid-thirties, seemed destined, if he were to achieve fame in any field, to do so as a journalist or perhaps as a writer of fiction, but no one could have guessed that this middle-aged writer of sensationalistic fiction and sentimental verse would suddenly begin to produce work that would eventually lead many to view him as America’s greatest and most revolutionary poet.
The mystery that has intrigued biographers and critics over the years has been about what prompted the transformation: did Whitman undergo some sort of spiritual illumination that opened the floodgates of a radical new kind of poetry, or was this poetr y the result of an original and carefully calculated strategy to blend journalism, oratory, popular music, and other cultural forces into an innovative American voice like the one Ralph Waldo Emerson had called for in his essay "The Poet"? "Our log-rollin g, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the Northern trade, the Southern planting, the Western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are y et unsung," wrote Emerson; "Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres." Whitman began writing poetry that seemed, wildly yet systematically, to record every single thing that Emers on called for, and he began his preface to the 1855 Leaves by paraphrasing Emerson: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." The romantic view of Whitman is that he was suddenly inspired to impulsively write the poems that transformed American poetry; the more pragmatic view holds that Whitman devoted himself in the five years before the first publication of Leaves to a disciplined series of experiments that led to the gradual and intricate structuring of his singula r style. Was he truly the intoxicated poet Emerson imagined or was he the architect of a poetic persona that cleverly mimicked Emerson’s description?
There is evidence to support both theories. We know very little about the details of Whitman’s life in the early 1850s; it is as if he retreated from the public world to receive inspiration, and there are relatively few remaining manuscripts of the poe ms in the first edition of Leaves, leading many to believe that they emerged in a fury of inspiration. On the other hand, the manuscripts that do remain indicate that Whitman meticulously worked and reworked passages of his poems, heavily revising entire drafts of the poems, and that he issued detailed instructions to the Rome brothers, the printers who were setting his book in type, carefully overseeing every aspect of the production of his book.
Whitman seems, then, to have been both inspired poet and skilled craftsman, at once under the spell of his newly discovered and intoxicating free verse style while also remaining very much in control of it, adjusting and altering and rearranging. For t he rest of his life, he would add, delete, fuse, separate, and rearrange poems as he issued six very distinct editions of Leaves of Grass. Emerson once described Whitman’s poetry as "a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Her ald," and that odd joining of the scriptural and the vernacular, the transcendent and the mundane, effectively captures the quality of Whitman’s work, work that most readers experience as simultaneously magical and commonplace, sublime and prosaic. It was work produced by a poet who was both sage and huckster, who touched the gods with ink-smudged fingers, and who was concerned as much with the sales and reviews of his book as with the state of the human soul.
The First Edition of Leaves of Grass
Whitman paid out of his own pocket for the production of the first edition of his book and had only 795 copies printed, which he bound at various times as his finances permitted. He always recalled the book as appearing, fittingly, on the Fourth of Jul y, as a kind of literary Independence Day. His joy at getting the book published was quickly diminished by the death of his father within a week of the appearance of Leaves. Walter Sr. had been ill for several years, and though he and Walt had neve r been particularly close, they had only recently traveled together to West Hills, Long Island, to the old Whitman homestead where Walt was born. Now his father’s death along with his older brother Jesse’s absence as a merchant marine (and later Jesse’s g rowing violence and mental instability) meant that Walt would become the father-substitute for the family, the person his mother and siblings would turn to for help and guidance. He had already had some experience enacting that role even while Walter Sr. was alive; perhaps because of Walter Sr.’s drinking habits and growing general depression, young Walt had taken on a number of adult responsibilities—buying boots for his brothers, for instance, and holding the title to the family house as early as 1847. Now, however, he became the only person his mother and siblings could turn to.
But even given these growing family burdens, he managed to concentrate on his new book, and, just as he oversaw all the details of its composition and printing, so now did he supervise its distribution and try to control its reception. Even though Whit man claimed that the first edition sold out, the book in fact had very poor sales. He sent copies to a number of well-known writers (including John Greenleaf Whittier, who, legend has it, threw his copy in the fire), but only one responded, and that, fitt ingly, was Emerson, who recognized in Whitman’s work the very spirit and tone and style he had called for. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," Emerson wrote in his private letter to Whitman, noting that Leaves of Grass "meets the dema nd I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean." Whitman’s was poetry that would literally get the country in shape, Emerson bel ieved, give it shape, and help work off its excess of aristocratic fat.
Whitman’s book was an extraordinary accomplishment: after trying for over a decade to address in journalism and fiction the social issues (such as education, temperance, slavery, prostitution, immigration, democratic representation) that challenged the new nation, Whitman now turned to an unprecedented form, a kind of experimental verse cast in unrhymed long lines with no identifiable meter, the voice an uncanny combination of oratory, journalism, and the Bible—haranguing, mundane, and prophetic—all in the service of identifying a new American democratic attitude, an absorptive and accepting voice that would catalog the diversity of the country and manage to hold it all in a vast, single, unified identity. "Do I contradict myself?" Whitman asked confid ently toward the end of the long poem he would come to call "Song of Myself": "Very well then . . . . I contradict myself; / I am large . . . . I contain multitudes." This new voice spoke confidently of union at a time of incredible division and tension i n the culture, and it spoke with the assurance of one for whom everything, no matter how degraded, could be celebrated as part of itself: " What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me." His work echoed with the lingo of the American urban working class and reached deep into the various corners of the roiling nineteenth-century culture, reverberating with the nation’s stormy politics, its motley music, its new technologies, its fascination with science, and its evolving pride in an America n language that was forming as a tongue distinct from British English.
Though it was no secret who the author of Leaves of Grass was, the fact that Whitman did not put his name on the title page was an unconventional and suggestive act (his name would in fact not appear on a title page of Leaves until the 18 76 "Author’s Edition" of the book, and then only when Whitman signed his name on the title page as each book was sold). The absence of a name indicated, perhaps, that the author of this book believed he spoke not for himself so much as for America. But op posite the title page was a portrait of Whitman, an engraving made from a daguerreotype that the photographer Gabriel Harrison had made during the summer of 1854. It has become the most famous frontispiece in literary history, showing Walt in workman’s cl othes, shirt open, hat on and cocked to the side, standing insouciantly and fixing the reader with a challenging stare. It is a full-body pose that indicates Whitman’s re-calibration of the role of poet as the democratic spokesperson who no longer speaks only from the intellect and with the formality of tradition and education: the new poet pictured in Whitman’s book is a poet who speaks from and with the whole body and who writes outside, in Nature, not in the library. It was what Whitman called " al fresco" poetry, poetry written outside the walls, the bounds, of convention and tradition.
The 1856 Leaves
Within a few months of producing his first edition of Leaves, Whitman was already hard at work on the second edition. While in the first, he had given his long lines room to stretch across the page by printing the book on large paper, in the sec ond edition he sacrificed the spacious pages and produced what he later called his "chunky fat book," his earliest attempt to create a pocket-size edition that would offer the reader what Whitman thought of as the "ideal pleasure"—"to put a book in your p ocket and [go] off to the seashore or the forest." On the cover of this edition, published and distributed by Fowler and Wells (though the firm carefully distanced themselves from the book by proclaiming that "the author is still his own publisher"), Whit man emblazoned one of the first "blurbs" in American publishing history: without asking Emerson’s permission, he printed in gold on the spine of the book the opening words of Emerson’s letter to him: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," follo wed by Emerson’s name. And, to generate publicity for the volume, he appended to the volume a group of reviews of the first edition—including three he wrote himself along with a few negative reviews—and called the gathering Leaves-Droppings. Whitma n was a pioneer of the "any publicity is better than no publicity" strategy. At the back of the book, he printed Emerson’s entire letter (again, without permission) and wrote a long public letter back—a kind of apologia for his poetry—addressing it to "Ma ster." Although he would later downplay the influence of Emerson on his work, at this time, he later recalled, he had "Emerson-on-the-brain."
With four times as many pages as the first edition, the 1856 Leaves added twenty new poems (including the powerful "Sun-Down Poem," later called "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry") to the original twelve in the 1855 edition. Those original twelve had bee n untitled in 1855, but Whitman was doing all he could to make the new edition look and feel different: small pages instead of large, a fat book instead of a thin one, and long titles for his poems instead of none at all. So the untitled introductory poem from the first edition that would eventually be named "Song of Myself" was in 1856 called "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American," and the poem that would become "This Compost" appeared here as "Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of The Wheat." Some titles s eemed to challenge the very bounds of titling by incorporating rolling catalogs like the poems themselves: "To a Foil’d European Revolutionaire" appeared as "Liberty Poem for Asia, Africa, Europe, America, Australia, Cuba, and The Archipelagoes of the Sea ." As if to counter some of the early criticism that he was not really writing poetry at all—the review in Life Illustrated, for example, called Whitman’s work "lines of rhythmical prose, or a series of utterances (we know not what else to c all them)"—Whitman put the word "Poem" in the title of all thirty-two works in the 1856 Leaves. Like them or not, Whitman seemed to be saying, they are poems, and more and more of them were on the way. But, despite his efforts to re-make his book, the results were depressingly the same: sales of the thousand copies that were printed were even poorer than for the first edition.
The Bohemian Years
In these years, Whitman was in fact working hard at becoming a poet by forging literary connections: he entered the literary world in a way he never had as a fiction writer or journalist, meeting some of the nation’s best-known writers, beginning t o socialize with a literary and artistic crowd, and cultivating an image as an artist. Emerson had come to visit Whitman at the end of 1855 (they went back to Emerson’s room at the elegant Astor Hotel, where Whitman—dressed as informally as he was in his frontispiece portrait—was denied admission); this was the first of many meetings the two would have over the next twenty-five years, as their relationship turned into one of grudging respect for each other mixed with mutual suspicion. The next year, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott visited Whitman’s home (Alcott described Thoreau and Whitman as each "surveying the other curiously, like two beasts, each wondering what the other would do"). Whitman also came to befriend a number of visual artists, li ke the sculptor Henry Kirke Brown, the painter Elihu Vedder, and the photographer Gabriel Harrison. And he came to know a number of women’s rights activists and writers, some of whom became ardent readers and supporters of Leaves of Grass. He becam e particularly close to Abby Price, Paulina Wright Davis, Sarah Tyndale, and Sara Payson Willis (who, under the pseudonym Fanny Fern wrote a popular newspaper column and many popular books, including Fern Leaves from Fanny’ s Portfolio , the cover of which Whitman imitated for his first edition of Leaves). These women’s radical ideas about sexual equality had a growing impact on Whitman’s poetry. He knew a number of abolitionist writers at this time, including Moncure Conway, and Whitm an wrote some vitriolic attacks on the fugitive slave law and the moral bankruptcy of American politics, but these pieces (notably "The Eighteenth Presidency!") were never published and remain vestiges of yet another career—stump speaker, political pundit —that Whitman flirted with but never pursued.
Whitman also began in the late 1850s to become a regular at Pfaff’s saloon, a favorite hangout for bohemian artists in New York. Whitman had worked for a couple of years for the Brooklyn Daily Times, a Free Soil newspaper, until the middle of 18 59, when, once again, a disagreement with the newspaper’s owner led to his dismissal. At Pfaff’s, Whitman the former temperance writer began a couple of years of unemployed carousing; he was clearly remaking his image, going to bars more often than he had since he left New Orleans a decade earlier. At Pfaff’s, he mingled with figures like Henry Clapp, the influential editor of the anti-establishment Saturday Press who would help publicize Whitman’s work in many ways, including publishing in 1859 an early version of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." Whitman also became friends at Pfaff’s with many writers, some well known at the time: Ada Clare, Fitz-James O’Brien, George Arnold, and Edmund Clarence Stedman. It was here, too, that a young Willia m Dean Howells met Whitman; Howells recalled this meeting many years later, when he made it clear that Whitman had already by the time of their meeting become something of a celebrity, even if his fame was largely the infamy resulting from what many consi dered to be his obscene writings ("foul work" filled with "libidinousness," scolded The Christian Examiner). Whitman and Ada Clare, known as the "queen of Bohemia" (she had an illegitimate child and proudly proclaimed herself an unmarried mo ther), became two of the most notorious figures at the beer hall, flouting convention and decorum.
It was at Pfaff’s, too, that Whitman joined the "Fred Gray Association," a loose confederation of young men who seemed anxious to explore new possibilities of male-male affection. It may have been at Pfaff’s that Whitman met Fred Vaughan, an intriguing mystery-figure in Whitman biography. Whitman and Vaughan, a young Irish stage driver, clearly had an intense relationship at this time, perhaps inspiring the sequence of homoerotic love poems Whitman called "Live Oak, with Moss," poems that would become the heart of his Calamus cluster, which appeared in the 1860 edition of Leaves. These poems record a despair about the failure of the relationship, and the loss of Whitman’s bond with Vaughan—who soon married, had four children, and would on ly sporadically keep in touch with Whitman—was clearly the source of some deep unhappiness for the poet.
1860 Edition of Leaves
Whitman’s re-made self-image is evident on the frontispiece of the new edition of Leaves that appeared in 1860. It would be the only time Whitman used this portrait, an engraving based on a painting done by Whitman’s artist friend Charles Hine. Whitman’s friends called it the "Byronic portrait," and Whitman does look more like the conventional image of a poet—with coiffure and cravat—than he ever did before or after. This is the portrait of an artist who has devoted significant time to his image and one who has also clearly enjoyed his growing notoriety among the arty crowd at Pfaff’s.
Ever since the 1856 edition appeared, Whitman had been writing poems at a furious pace; within a year of the 1856 edition’s appearance, he wrote nearly seventy new poems. He continued to have them set in type by the Rome brothers and other printer frie nds, as if he assumed that he would inevitably be publishing them himself, since no commercial publisher had indicated an interest in his book. But there was another reason Whitman set his poems in type: he always preferred to deal with his poems in print ed form instead of in manuscript. He often would revise directly on printed versions of his poetry; for him, poetry was very much a public act, and until the poem was in print he did not truly consider it a poem. Poetic manuscripts were never sacre d objects for Whitman, who often simply discarded them; getting the poem set in type was the most important step in allowing it to begin to do its cultural work.
In 1860, while the nation seemed to be moving inexorably toward a major crisis between the slaveholding and free states, Whitman’s poetic fortunes took a positive turn. In February, he received a letter from the Boston publishers William Thayer and Cha rles Eldridge, whose aggressive new publishing house specialized in abolitionist literature; they wanted to become the publishers of the new edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman, feeling confirmed as an authentic poet now that he had been offered ac tual royalties, readily agreed, and Thayer and Eldridge invested heavily in the stereotype plates for Whitman’s idiosyncratic book—over 450 pages of varied typeface and odd decorative motifs, a visually chaotic volume all carefully tended to by Whitman, w ho traveled to Boston to oversee the printing.
This was Whitman’s first trip to Boston, then considered the literary capital of the nation. Whitman is a major part of the reason that America’s literary center moved from Boston to New York in the second half of the nineteenth century, but in 1860 th e superior power of Boston was still evident in its influential publishing houses, its important journals (including the new Atlantic Monthly), and its venerable authors (including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom Whitman met briefly while in town) . And, of course, Boston was the city of Emerson, who came to see Whitman shortly after his arrival in the city in March. In one of the most celebrated meetings of major American writers, the Boston Brahmin and the Yankee rowdy strolled together on the Bo ston Common, while Emerson tried to convince Whitman to remove from his Boston edition the new Enfans d’Adam cluster of poems (after 1860, Whitman dropped the French version of the name and called the cluster Children of Adam), works that po rtrayed the human body more explicitly and in more direct sexual terms than any previous American poems. Whitman argued, as he later recalled, "that the sexual passion in itself, while normal and unperverted, is inherently legitimate, creditable, not nece ssarily an improper theme for poet." "That," insisted Whitman, "is what I felt in my inmost brain and heart, when I only answer’d Emerson’s vehement arguments with silence, under the old elms of Boston Common." Emerson’s caution notwithstanding, th e body—the entire body—would be Whitman’s theme, and he would not shy away from any part of it, not discriminate or marginalize or form hierarchies of bodily parts any more than he would of the diverse people making up the American nation. His demo cratic belief in the importance of all the parts of any whole, was central to his vision: the genitals and the arm-pits were as essential to the fullness of identity as the brain and the soul, just as, in a democracy, the poorest and most despised citizen s were as important as the rich and famous. This, at any rate, was the theory of radical union and equality that generated Whitman’ s work.
So he ignored Emerson’s advice and published the Children of Adam poems in the 1860 edition along with his Calamus cluster; the first cluster celebrated male-female sexual relations, and the second celebrated the love of men for men. The body remained very much Whitman’s subject, but it was never separate from the body of the text, and he always set out not just to write about sensual embrace but also to enact the physical embrace of poet and reader. Whitman became a master of sexu al politics, but his sexual politics were always intertwined with his textual politics. Leaves of Grass was not a book that set out to shock the reader so much as to merge with the reader and make him or her more aware of the body each reade r inhabited, to convince us that the body and soul were conjoined and inseparable, just as Whitman’s ideas were embodied in words that had physical body in the ink and paper that readers held physically in their hands. Ideas, Whitman’s poems insist, pass from one person to another not in some ethereal process, but through the bodies of texts, through the muscular operations of tongues and hands and eyes, through the material objects of books.
Whitman was already well along on his radical program of delineating just what democratic affection would entail. He called his Calamus poems his most political work—"The special meaning of the Calamus cluster," Whitman wrote, "mainly res ides in its Political significance"—since in those poems he was articulating a new kind of intense affection between males who, in the developing democratic society and emerging capitalistic system, were being encouraged to become fiercely competitive. Wh itman countered this movement with a call for manly love, embrace, and affection. In giving voice to this new camaraderie, Whitman was also inventing a language of homosexuality, and the Calamus poems became very influential poems in the developmen t of gay literature. In the nineteenth century, however, the Calamus poems did not cause as much sensation as Children of Adam because, even though they portrayed same-sex affection, they were only mildly sensual, evoking handholding, huggin g, and kissing, while the Children of Adam poems evoked a more explicit genital sexuality. Emerson and others were apparently unfazed by Calamus and focused their disapprobation on Children of Adam. Only later in the century, when hom osexuality began to be formulated in medical and psychological circles as an aberrant personality type, did the Calamus poems begin to be read by some as dangerous and "abnormal" and by others as brave early expressions of gay identity.
With the 1860 edition of Leaves, Whitman began the incessant rearrangement of his poems in various clusters and groupings. Whitman settled on cluster arrangements as the most effective way to organize his work, but his notion of particular clust ers changed from edition to edition as he added, deleted, and rearranged his poems in patterns that often alter their meaning and recontextualize their significance. In addition to Calamus and Children of Adam, this edition contained cluster s called Chants Democratic and Native American, Messenger Leaves, and another named the same as the book, Leaves of Grass. This edition also contained the first book printings of "Starting from Paumanok" (here called "Proto-Leaf") and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (here called "A Word Out of the Sea"), along with over 120 other new poems. He also revised many of his other poems, including "Song of Myself" (here called simply "Walt Whitman"), and throughout the book he numbered hi s poetic verses, creating a Biblical effect. This was no accident, since Whitman now conceived of his project as involving the construction of what he called a "New Bible," a new covenant that would convert America into a true democracy.
The 1860 edition sold fairly well, with the first printing of a thousand copies quickly exhausted and an additional printing (totaling at least a thousand and perhaps as many as three or four thousand more copies) promptly ordered by Thayer and Eldridg e. The 1860 edition received many reviews, most of them positive, particularly those by women readers who, it seems, were more exhilarated than offended by Whitman’s candid images of sex and the body, and who welcomed his language of equality between the sexes, his attempts to sing "The Female equally with the Male."
Whitman’s time in Boston—the first extended period he had been away from New York since his trip to New Orleans twelve years earlier—was a transforming experience. He was surprised by the way African Americans were treated much more fairly and more as equals than was the case in New York, sharing tables with whites at eating houses, working next to whites in printing offices, and serving on juries. He also met a number of abolitionist writers who would soon become close friends and supporters, includin g William Douglas O’Connor and John Townsend Trowbridge, both of whom would later write at length about Whitman. When he returned to New York at the end of May, his mood was ebullient. He was now a recognized author; the Boston papers had run feature stor ies about his visit to the city, and photographers had asked to photograph him (not only did he have a growing notoriety, he was a striking physical specimen at over six feet in height—especially tall for the time—with long, already graying hair and beard ). All summer long he read reviews of his work in prominent newspapers and journals. And in November, Whitman’s young publishers announced that Whitman’s new project, a book of poems he called Banner at Day-Break, would be forthcoming.
The Beginning of the Civil War
But just as suddenly as Whitman’s fortunes had turned so unexpectedly good early in 1860, they now turned unexpectedly bad. The deteriorating national situation made any business investment risky, and Thayer and Eldridge compounded the problem by m aking a number of bad business decisions. At the beginning of 1861, they declared bankruptcy and sold the plates of Leaves to Boston publisher Richard Worthington, who would continue to publish pirated copies of this edition for decades, creating r eal problems for Whitman every time he tried to market a new edition. Because of the large number of copies that Thayer and Eldridge initially printed, combined with Worthington’s ongoing piracy, the 1860 edition became the most commonly available version of Leaves for the next twenty years and diluted the impact (as well as depressing the sales) of Whitman’s new editions.
Whitman had dated the title page of his 1860 Leaves "1860-61," as if he anticipated the liminal nature of that moment in American history—the fragile moment, between a year of peace and a year of war. In February 1861 he saw Abraham Lincoln pass through New York on the way to his inauguration, and in April he was walking home from an opera performance when he bought a newspaper and read the headlines about Southern forces firing on Fort Sumter. He remembers a group gathering in the New York stre ets that night as those with newspapers read the story aloud to the others in the crowd. Even though no one was aware of the full extent of what was to come—Whitman, like many others, thought the struggle would be over in sixty days or so—the nation was i n fact slipping into four years of the bloodiest fighting it would ever know. A few days after the firing on Fort Sumter, Whitman recorded in his journal his resolution "to inaugurate for myself a pure perfect sweet, cleanblooded robust body by ignoring a ll drinks but water and pure milk—and all fat meats late suppers—a great body—a purged, cleansed, spiritualised invigorated body." It was as if he sensed at some level the need to break out of his newfound complacency, to cease his Pfaff’s beerhall habits and bohemian ways, and to prepare himself for the challenges that now faced the divided nation. But it would take Whitman some time before he was able to discern the form his war sacrifice would take.
Whitman’s brother George immediately enlisted in the Union Army and would serve for the duration of the war, fighting in many of the major battles; he eventually was incarcerated as a prisoner-of-war in Danville, Virginia. George had a distinguished ca reer as a soldier and left the service as a lieutenant colonel; his descriptions of his war experiences provided Walt with many of his insights into the nature of the war and of soldiers’ feelings. Whitman’s chronically ill brother Andrew would also enlis t but would serve only three months in 1862 before dying, probably of tuberculosis, in 1863. Walt’s other brothers—the hot-tempered Jesse (whom Whitman had to have committed to an insane asylum in 1864 after he physically attacked his mother), the recentl y-married Jeff (on whom fell the burden of caring for the extended family, including his own infant daughter), and the mentally-enfeebled Eddy—did not enlist, and neither did Walt, who was already in his early forties when the war began.
One of the haziest periods of Whitman’s life, in fact, is the first year and a half of the war. He stayed in New York and Brooklyn, writing some extended newspaper pieces about the history of Brooklyn for the Brooklyn Daily Standard; these piece s, called "Brooklyniana" and consisting of twenty-five lengthy installments, form a book-length anecdotal history of the city Whitman knew so well but was now about to leave—he would return only occasionally for brief visits. It was during this period tha t Whitman first encountered casualties of the war that was already lasting far longer than anyone had anticipated. He began visiting wounded soldiers who were moved to New York hospitals, and he wrote about them in a series called "City Photographs" that he published in the New York Leader in 1862.
Whitman had in fact been visiting Broadway Hospital for several years, comforting injured stage drivers and ferryboat workers (serious injuries in the chaotic transportation industry in New York at the time were common). While he was enamoured with the idea of having literary figures as friends, Whitman’s true preference for companions had always been and would continue to be working class men, especially those who worked on the omnibuses and the ferries ("all my ferry friends," as he called them), whe re he enjoyed the endless rhythms of movement, the open road, the back-and-forth journeys, with good companions. He reveled in the energy and pleasure of travel instead of worrying about destinations: "I cross’d and recross’d, merely for pleasure," he wro te of his trips on the ferry. He remembered fondly the "immense qualities, largely animal" of the colorful omnibus drivers, whom he said he enjoyed "for comradeship, and sometimes affection" as he would ride "the whole length of Broadway," listening to th e stories of the driver and conductor, or "declaiming some stormy passage" from one of his favorite Shakespeare plays.
So his hospital visits began with a kind of obligation of friendship to the injured transportation workers, and, as the Civil War began taking its toll, wounded soldiers joined the transportation workers on Whitman’s frequent rounds. These soldiers cam e from all over the country, and their reminiscences of home taught Whitman about the breadth and diversity of the growing nation. He developed an idiosyncratic style of informal personal nursing, writing down stories the patients told him, giving them sm all gifts, writing letters for them, holding them, comforting them, and kissing them. His purpose, he wrote, was "just to help cheer and change a little the monotony of their sickness and confinement," though he found that their effect on him was every bi t as rewarding as his on them, for the wounded and maimed young men aroused in him "friendly interest and sympathy," and he said some of "the most agreeable evenings of my life" were spent in hospitals. By 1861, his New York hospital visits had prepared h im for the draining ordeal he was about to face when he went to Washington, D.C., where he would nurse thousands of injured soldiers in the makeshift hospitals there. Whitman once said that, had he not become a writer, he would have become a doctor, and a t Broadway Hospital he developed close friendships with many of the physicians, even occasionally assisting them in surgery. His fascination with the body, so evident in his poetry, was intricately bound to his attraction to medicine and to the hospitals, where he learned to face bodily disfigurations and gained the ability to see beyond wounds and illness to the human personalities that persisted through the pain and humiliation. It was a skill he would need in abundance over the next three years as he b egan yet another career.
To the Battlefield
With the nation now locked in an extended war, all of Whitman’s deepest concerns and beliefs were under attack. Leaves of Grass had been built on a faith in union, wholeness, the ability of a self and a nation to contain contradictions and a bsorb diversity; now the United States had come apart, and Whitman’s very project was now in danger of becoming an anachronism as the Southern states sought to divide the country in two. Leaves had been built, too, on a belief in the power of affec tion to overcome division and competition; his Calamus vision was of a "continent indissoluble" with "inseparable cities" all joined by "the life-long love of comrades." But now the young men of America were killing each other in bloody battles; fa thers were killing sons, sons fathers, brothers brothers. Whitman’s prospects for his "new Bible" that would bind a nation, build an affectionate democracy, and guide a citizenry to celebrate its unified diversity, were shattered in the fratricidal confli ct that engulfed America.
Like many Americans, Whitman and his family daily checked the lists of wounded in the newspapers, and one day in December 1862 the family was jolted by the appearance of the name of " G. W. Whitmore" on the casualty roster from Fredericksburg. Fearful that the name was a garbled version of George Washington Whitman’s, Walt immediately headed to Virginia to seek out his brother. Changing trains in Philadelphia, Whitman’s pocket was picked on the crowded platform, and, penniless, he continued his journey to Washington, where, fortunately, he ran into William Douglas O’Connor, the writer and abolitionist he had met in Boston, who loaned him money. Futilely searching for George in the nearly forty Washington hospitals, he finally decided to take a governme nt boat and army-controlled train to the battlefield at Fredericksburg to see if George was still there. After finding George’s unit and discovering that his brother had received only a superficial facial wound, Whitman’s relief turned to horror as he enc ountered a sight he would never forget: outside of a mansion converted into a field hospital, he came upon "a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart." They were, he wrote in his journal, "human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening." Nearby were "several dead bodies . . . each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket." The sight would continue to haunt this poet who had so confidently celebrated the physical body, who had claimed that the soul existed only in the body, that the arms and legs were extensions of the soul, the legs moving the soul through the world and the hands allowing the soul to express itself. Now a generation of young American males, the very males on which he ha d staked the future of democracy, were literally being disarmed, amputated, killed. It was this amputation, this fragmenting of the Union—in both a literal and figurative sense—that Whitman would address for the next few years, as he devoted himself to be coming the arms and legs of the wounded and maimed soldiers in the Civil War hospitals. By running errands for them, writing letters for them, encircling them in his arms, Whitman tried, the best he could, to make them whole again.
This extraordinary hospital service, which took a tremendous toll on Whitman’s own health as he spent countless long nights in the poorly ventilated wards, began spontaneously during his mission to George. He had fully anticipated that he would return to New York after determining that George was safe, but, after telegraphing his mother and the rest of the family that he had found George, he decided to stay with his brother for a few days. During this time he got to know the young soldiers, both Union and Confederate (he talked to a number of Southern prisoners of war). He assisted in the burial of the dead still lying on the bloody battlefield, where on December 13 there had been 18,000 Northern and Southern troops killed or wounded (and where, the ne xt day, Robert E. Lee, sickened by the carnage, declined to attack General Ambrose Burnside’s Union troops, even though they were in a vulnerable position).
Although Whitman had already written some of the poems that he would eventually publish in his Civil War book Drum-Taps (notably the "recruitment" poems like "Beat! Beat! Drums!" or "First O Songs for Prelude" that evoked the frightening yet exh ilarating energy of cities arming for battle), it was only now, encountering the horrifying aftereffects of a real battle, that the powerful Civil War poems began to emerge. In the journal he kept while at George’s camp, Whitman noted a "sight at daybreak —in a camp in front of the hospital tent on a stretcher, (three dead men lying,) each with a blanket spread over him—I lift up one and look at the young man’s face, calm and yellow,—’tis strange! (Young man: I think this face of yours the face of my dead Christ!)" As would be the case with many of the poems in Drum-Taps, this journal sketch gradually was transformed into a poem:
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near
Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm,
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the
The journal entry and poem offer a glimpse into how Whitman began restructuring his poetic project after the Civil War began. He was still writing a "new Bible" here, re-experiencing the Crucifixion in Fredericksburg. But this crucifixion does not rede em sinners and create an atonement with God so much as it posits divinity in everyone and mourns senseless loss: this one young man’s death amidst the thousands is as significant as any in history. And, for Whitman, the massive slaughter of young soldier- Christs would create for all those who survived the war an obligation to construct a nation worthy of their great sacrifice. The America that Whitman would write of after the Civil War would be a more chastened, less innocent nation, a nation that had gon e through its baptism in blood and one that would from now on be tested against the stern measure of this bloodshed.
During the days he spent with George’s unit, Whitman often went into the makeshift hospital outside of which he had seen the pile of amputated limbs. "I do not see that I do much good to these wounded and dying," he wrote; "but I cannot leave them." As if to underscore his own attempts to hold the Union together, to reconcile rather than punish, to help love triumph over revenge, Whitman found himself particularly attracted to a nineteen-year-old Confederate soldier from Mississippi, who had had a leg amputated. Whitman visited him regularly in the battlefield hospital and then continued to visit him when the soldier was transferred to a Washington hospital. "Our affection is an affair quite romantic," he wrote. It wouldn’t be the last intimacy he woul d experience with a Confederate soldier; at the end of the war, Whitman would enter the longest affectional relationship of his life with a former Confederate soldier named Peter Doyle. Something surprising—and perhaps unexpected even to Whitman—was happe ning to the Calamus emotions that he had described in 1860; the intimate expressions of manly friendship now became generalized, perhaps sublimated, in the poet’s many close relationships with injured soldiers over the next three years. Extant lett ers from these soldiers clearly indicate the intensity of the love that these young men felt for Whitman, and Whitman’s letters to them demonstrate that the affection was reciprocated. The language of this correspondence is difficult to categorize—it is p artly that of lovers, partly that of friends, partly that of son to father and father to son (many of the letters to Whitman are addressed to "Dear Father"), and partly that of calm, wise, old counselor to confused, scared, and half-literate young men.
To Washington, D.C.
We cannot be certain when Whitman made his decision to stay in Washington, D.C. Like virtually all of the abrupt changes in his life, this one came with no planning, no advance notice, no preparation. He had gone to New Orleans on a similar spur-of -the-moment decision, just as he had suddenly quit teaching, just as he had packed up and gone to Boston, and just as he would years later decide overnight to settle in Camden, New Jersey. He was a profoundly unsettled person, who seemed able to sh uck expected obligations and even relationships without much regret: he existed, as he said, on a kind of "Open Road": "The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. . . . I will scatter myself among men and women as I go":
Allons! We must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however
One day Whitman simply left Brooklyn and New York and his family home to find his brother, and he never really came back.
Perhaps the decision was made while he was in the field hospital, nursing the wounded and developing his relationship with the young Mississippi soldier; it was then that he wrote to his mother and told her he might seek employment for awhile in Washin gton, and it was then that he wrote to Emerson to ask for letters of recommendation to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury, who were both acquaintances of Emerson. But perhaps his decision was conclusively made on his trip back from F redericksburg to Washington, right after a somber New Year’s Day 1863, when Whitman—quickly earning the trust and respect of the doctors at the battlefield—was put in charge of a trainload of casualties who had to be transferred to hospitals in the capita l. While the wounded were being moved from a train to a steamboat for the trip up the Potomac, Whitman wandered among them, writing down their messages to their families, promising to send them, comforting the soldiers with his calm and concern. Perhaps b y the time he got to Washington, determined to stay a few days in order to visit wounded soldiers from Brooklyn, he already knew at some level that he would have to remain there for the duration of the war.
His Boston connections were serving him well now; not only did he get letters of introduction from Emerson, but he got a room in the boarding house of William Douglas O’Connor and, through the efforts of Charles Eldridge—the publisher of the 1860 Le aves who was now assistant to the Army Paymaster—he got a part-time job as a copyist in the Paymaster’s office. O’Connor and his wife Nellie provided Whitman his meals, and the poet began receiving contributions from his brother Jeff and others in Bro oklyn who heard of his work in the hospitals. Whitman used what funds he had to buy small gifts for the wounded soldiers—candy and tobacco and flavored syrup and books—and he soon became a familiar figure in the hospitals. Prematurely gray and looking a d ecade or two older than his forty-three years, Whitman must have seemed to the soldiers—many of whom were still in their teens—some sort of tattered Saint Nick, handing out treats and bringing good cheer. Many referred to Whitman as "Old Man," and his pre sence was for some of the young men avuncular, for some paternal, and, for almost all, magical. Though he admired the Christian Commission, an agency organized by several churches that recruited volunteers to help in the hospitals, Whitman acted independe ntly. He had nothing but contempt for the United States Sanitary Commission, the governmental body charged with nursing the soldiers and repairing them so they could return to battle: to Whitman, these agents kept their distance from the soldiers and work ed primarily for pay. Whitman’s mission was different, as eccentric as his poetry: he was, in the act of nursing the wounded, trying to define and demonstrate a new kind of affection, a democratic camaraderie. He always insisted that he gained more from t he soldiers than they received from him; he considered those years of hospital service "the greatest privilege and satisfaction . . . and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life."
To better support his hospital work, Whitman began seeking more remunerative employment and pounded the pavement in Washington, trying to exploit every connection he had in order to find a good job. The nation’s capital was in a chaotic—even surrea l—state in 1863, with unpaved, muddy streets and many half-built governmental edifices, including the Capitol building itself, with its vast new dome rising above the city, but still in only skeletal form. President Lincoln insisted that construction of t he capital’s buildings proceed at full pace, so, while the nation was tearing itself apart in civil war, the nation’s capital was continuing to erect a unified and elegant governmental center, designed by the French architect Pierre L’Enfant. It was as if the capital had become a metaphor of the nation itself, half-built and in a struggle to determine whether it would end in fulfillment or destruction. Some of the newly constructed buildings almost immediately became hospitals, and when Whitman described the Civil War as turning the nation into a ward of casualties—America, "though only in her early youth," Whitman wrote, was "already to hospital brought"—he no doubt had in mind the way the emerging governmental center of the country was being transformed into a vast hospital. The U. S. Patent Office became a hospital in 1863, and Whitman noted the irony of the "rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers" surrounding the "glass cases" displaying American inventions—guns and machines and other signs of progress. The wrecked bodies dispersed among the displays were what "progress" had brought, the result of new inventions that had created modern warfare. Washington was a noisy city during these years: the noise in the city was of construction; th e noise just outside the city was of destruction, and the two activities conjoined in the dozens of makeshift Washington hospitals that held the shattered bodies of America’s young men.
These were active and intense times for Whitman. In addition to his exhausting daily hospital rounds, he continued his job in the Paymaster’s office. This work usually took up only a few hours a day, though occasionally Whitman had to go on trips to vi sit troops, as when he traveled to Analostan Island in July of 1863 to help issue paychecks to the First Regiment U.S. Colored Troops and was "well pleas’d" with their professional conduct and strong demeanor, as well as struck by the names of the black s oldiers as the role was called—George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, James Madison, John Brown. The heritage of the nation, Whitman realized, was now being carried forward and fought for by a much more diverse citizenry; the African Americ an soldiers, like Whitman’s own brothers, bore the names of the nation’s proud past. The war, for all of its destruction, was clearing the space for a broader American identity.
Meanwhile, the news from Whitman’s family was not good. His brother Andrew was extremely ill; his brother Jesse was increasingly violent (and even threatened his brother Jeff’s young daughter); his sister Hannah was miserable in a disastrous marriage t o an abusive husband; and Whitman’s mother wanted Walt home to help sort things out. Whitman did go back to New York for a visit toward the end of 1863 and saw Andrew for the last time; Andrew died at age 36, leaving behind two children and a pregnant alc oholic wife, who later became a prostitute. The proliferating family problems were a deep concern to Whitman, but he nonetheless felt compelled to return to Washington and his soldier-friends there, to whom he wrote regularly during the weeks he was in Ne w York.
Whitman came to know many people in Washington who would be important to him in the future: at the O’Connors’ home, he met powerful Washington figures from political, literary, and social circles. One day while heading to the hospitals, Whitman met Joh n Burroughs, an aspiring young writer who, a couple of years previously, had started frequenting Pfaff’s beerhall in New York in the hope of meeting Whitman, whose work he greatly admired. Now this chance encounter in Washington led to one of the most end uring friendships of Whitman’s life; he spent most Sundays at the home of Burroughs and his wife Ursula, who also became one of Whitman’s closest friends. Burroughs and O’Connor would both end up writing (with a good deal of help from Whitman himself) som e of the earliest lengthy treatments of the poet, and, despite some arguments with Whitman over the years, both would remain unwavering supporters.
Whitman also met artists in Washington like the photographer Alexander Gardner, who admired Leaves of Grass and who photographed Whitman frequently during the war years, recording the striking toll the war was taking on Whitman’s appearance. The Gardner photographs show a tired, somber, yet very determined Whitman, who seemed to be absorbing not only soldiers’ stories but their pain also. The war was taking a similar toll on many faces: often Whitman would watch Lincoln’s carriage pass by, and h e noted how the president "looks more careworn even than usual—his face with deep cut lines." One day Whitman ran into another Boston acquaintance, the publisher James Redpath, who, impressed with the work Whitman was doing, organized a fund-raising campa ign for the poet’s hospital work. Redpath also considered (but finally decided against) publishing the sketches Whitman was writing about his war experiences, a book Whitman called Memoranda During the War. Redpath had published Louisa May Alcott’s account of her Civil War nursing, Hospital Sketches, and Whitman was anxious to offer his own alternative version of nursing during the war. Whitman’s book was composed of numerous short articles, many of which he published in Brooklyn newspapers and in the New York Times, for whom he served as a kind of occasional Washington correspondent. These pieces would eventually form the heart of Whitman’s autobiographical work, Specimen Days.
It is not possible to know how many soldiers Whitman actually nursed during his years in Washington, but the number was certainly in the tens of thousands (Whitman estimated he visited "from eighty thousand to a hundred thousand of the wounded and sick"). Walking the wards was for him like walking America: every bed contained a representative of a different region, a different city or town, a different way of life. He loved the varied accents and the diverse physiognomies. "While I was with wounded and sick in thousands of cases from the New England States, and from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and from Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and all the Western States, I was with more or less from all the States, North and South, without exception." His trip to New Orleans had taken him across a good part of the nation, but it was in the hospital wards that he really traveled the United States and crossed boundaries otherwise not easily crossed: "I was with many rebel offic ers and men among our wounded, and gave them always what I had, and tried to cheer them the same as any. . . . Among the black soldiers, wounded or sick, and in the contraband camps, I also took my way whenever in their neighborhood, and did what I could for them." And with all those he met, he both sought and offered love: "What an attachment grows up between us, started from hospital cots, where pale young faces lie & wounded or sick bodies," he wrote; "The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield." He had become a physician after all, dispensing the medicine of hope and affection, the same medicine he hoped would heal a country, suture its wounds, repair its fractu re. And he sought to dispense this medicine not only to soldiers on his hospital visits but to all Americans through his books.
Drum-Taps and the End of the War
During all the time of his hospital service, Whitman was writing poems, a new kind of poem for him, poems about the war experience, but almost never about battles—rather about the aftereffects of warfare: the moonlight illuminating the dead on the batt lefields, the churches turned into hospitals, the experience of dressing wounds, the encounter with a dead enemy in a coffin, the trauma of battle nightmares for soldiers who had returned home. He gathered these poems along with the few he had written jus t before the war (the ones that Thayer and Eldridge has originally planned to publish as Banner at Day-Break) and worked on combining them in a book called Drum-Taps, the title evoking both the beating of the drums that accompanied soldiers into battle as well as the beating out of "Taps," the death march sounded at the burial of soldiers (originally played on the drums instead of the trumpet). After the burst of creativity in the mid- and late-1850s that resulted in the vastly expanded 1860 Leaves, Whitman had not written many poems until he got to Washington, where the daily encounters with soldiers opened a fresh vein of creativity, resulting in a poetry more modest in ambition and more muted in its claims, a poetry in which death was no longer something indistinguishable from life ("Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?," Whitman had written in "Song of Myself"; "I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it") but rather now revealed itself as somethi ng horrifying, grotesque, and omnipresent. The poems were so different from any that had appeared in Leaves, in fact, that Whitman originally assumed they could not be joined in the same book with those earlier poems. It would be a long, slow proce ss that would eventually allow the absorption of Drum-Taps into Leaves of Grass.
As the war entered its final year, Whitman was facing physical and emotional exhaustion. 1864 began with one of his closest soldier-friends, Lewis Brown (with whom he had imagined living after the war was over), having his leg amputated; Whitman watche d the operation through a window at Armory Square Hospital. In February and March, he traveled to the Virginia battlefront to nurse soldiers in field hospitals, then in April he stood for three hours watching General Burnside’s troops march through Washin gton until he could pick out his brother George. He marched with him and gave him news from home. It would be the last time Whitman would see his brother before George was captured by Confederate troops after a battle in the fall. During the early summer, Whitman began to complain of a sore throat, dizziness, and a "bad feeling" in his head. Physician friends urged him to check into one of the hospitals he had been visiting, and they finally convinced him to go back to New York for a rest. Whitman took hi s manuscript of Drum-Taps with him to Brooklyn, hoping to publish it himself while he was there. Soon after he left Washington, the capital was attacked by the Confederates and many thought it was about to be captured; Whitman missed the most terri fying months of the war in the District of Columbia.
In Brooklyn, Whitman could not stop doing what had now become both a routine and a reason for his existence: he visited wounded soldiers in New York-area hospitals. But he also re-established contacts with old friends from the Pfaff’s beerhall days, an d he explored some new beer saloons with them. He wrote some more articles for the New York Times and other papers, and he took care of pressing family matters, including the commitment of his increasingly unstable brother Jesse to the Kings County Lunatic Asylum (where he would die six years later). The year ended with the arrival at the Whitman family home of George’s personal items, including his war diary, which Whitman presumably read at this time. Though Whitman did not then know it, George h ad been sent to the Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, and would also serve time in military prisons in Salisbury, North Carolina, and finally in Danville, Virginia. In the hope of effecting George’s release, Whitman began a campaign, in both newspaper a rticles and in letters to government officials, to support a general exchange of prisoners between the Confederacy and the Union, something Union generals were generally against because they believed such an exchange would benefit the South by returning t roops to an army in desperate need of more men.
By the beginning of 1865, Whitman was very anxious to return to Washington, which he now considered to be his home. Friends there had been working on getting him a better government position, and O’Connor helped arrange a clerkship in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. Whitman carried his Drum-Taps manuscript back to Washington, hoping that his increased income might allow him to publish the book. He moved to a new apartment, run by what he called a "secesh" landlady, and he be gan work in the Indian Bureau; his desk was in the U.S. Patent Office Building, which he had been visiting when it was used as a temporary hospital. As a clerk there, he met delegations of various Indian tribes from the West, and, just as he had come to k now the geographical range of America through his hospital visits, so now he came to experience Native Americans. He had included Indians in his poems of America, cataloguing "the red aborigines" in "Starting from Paumanok," for example, celebrating the w ay they "charg[ed] the water and the land with names" (thus Whitman always preferred the name "Paumanok" to "Long Island" and often argued that aboriginal names for American places were always superior to names imported from Europe). The impact of Whitman ’s experiences at the Indian Bureau is apparent in such later poems as "Osceola" and "Yonnondio," memorializing what had come to seem to him the inevitable loss of native cultures.
George Whitman was released from Danville prison in February and returned to the Whitman home in Brooklyn in March. Whitman got a furlough from the Indian Bureau so that he could go see George, and, while in Brooklyn, he arranged with a New York printe r for the publication of Drum-Taps. He signed a contract on April 1, and then, eight days later, while he was still in Brooklyn, the Civil War ended, with General Lee surrendering at Appomattox; five days after that, President Lincoln was assassina ted at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. It is ironic that Whitman, who spent most of the final two years of the war in the capital, was not there for its most traumatic and memorable events: he was back in New York during the main Confederate assault on Wash ington, and he was in New York again when the capital celebrated the end of the war and then mourned the loss of the president.
But the fact that Whitman was at his mother’s home in Brooklyn led to one of his greatest poems, because he heard the news about Lincoln that April morning when the lilac bushes were blooming in his mother’s dooryard, where he went to console himself a nd where he inhaled the scent of the lilacs, which became for him viscerally bound to the memory of Lincoln’s death. He began writing his powerful elegy to Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d," after Drum-Taps had already been delive red to the printer. He was able quickly to add to Drum-Taps, before the book was set in type, a brief poem about Lincoln’s death, "Hush’d Be the Camps To-day," but his "Lilacs" elegy and his uncharacteristically rhymed and metered elegy for Lincoln , "O Captain! My Captain!," were written after the book was in press. Whitman therefore compiled a Sequel to Drum-Taps and had it printed up when he went back to Washington. In October he returned to Brooklyn to oversee the collating and binding of Sequel with Drum-Taps. He subtitled Sequel "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d and Other Pieces," and the very title registered the fragmentation that now characterized his poetry and his nation, very much shattered and in pie ces (in "Lilacs," he described the "debris and debris" of the war’s casualties and of the nation’s current condition). He dated the Sequel 1865-66, offering another significantly hyphenated moment. Just as his 1860-61 Leaves marked the divis ion between a nation at peace and a nation rent by war, so now did the sequel mark the reunification, a country moving from a year of war to the difficult first year of its reunified peace, from the horror of disintegration to the challenge of reconstruction.
In joining Drum-Taps and Sequel, Whitman created a book whose physical form echoed the challenges the postwar nation was facing as it entered the stormy period of Reconstruction. Whitman, too, was entering a period of poetic reconstructio n, searching for ways to absorb the personal and national trauma of the Civil War into Leaves of Grass. As soon as the war ended, Whitman began to realize that the nation’s hopes and history had to be reunified and that his original goals for Le aves of Grass—to project an optimistic democratic future for America—should not be abandoned but rather had to be integrated with the trauma of the Civil War. He faced the difficult task now of re-opening Leaves of Grass to find a way to absorb into his growing book the horror of the nation’s fratricidal war.
Whitman’s life was undergoing many changes in the weeks and months following the end of the war. One major event happened unexpectedly: on a stormy night, while riding the streetcar home after dinner at John and Ursula Burroughs’ apartment, Whitman began talking with the conductor, a twenty-one-year-old Irish immigrant and former Confederate soldier named Peter Doyle. Doyle later recalled that Whitman was the only passenger, and "we were familiar at once—I put my hand on his knee—we understood." "F rom that time on," Doyle recalled, "we were the biggest sort of friends." It would be a friendship that would last for the rest of Whitman’s life, and it was the most intense and romantic friendship the poet would have. Like Whitman, Doyle came from a lar ge family, and Walt got to know Doyle’s widowed mother and his siblings well; they came to be a second family for him. Whitman continued visiting soldiers in Washington hospitals during the first years following the war, as the number of hospitals gradual ly decreased and only the most difficult cases remained, but he now focused his attention increasingly on this single young former artilleryman from the South. Like so many of Whitman’s closest friends, Doyle had only a rudimentary education and was from the working class. These young men were reflections of Whitman’s own youthful self, and he saw his poetry as speaking for them, putting into words what they could not, becoming the vocalization of the common man, without aristocratic airs, without elite s chooling, without the weary formalities of tradition. For Whitman, then, Doyle represented America’s future: healthy, witty, handsome, good-humored, hard-working, enamored of good times, he gave Whitman’s life some energy and hope during an otherwise blea k time. They rode the streetcars together, drank at the Union Hotel bar, took long walks outside the city, and quoted poetry to each other (Whitman recited Shakespeare, Doyle limericks). As Whitman’s health continued to deteriorate in the late 1860s and e arly 1870s, the young former soldier nursed the aging former nurse and offered comfort to the poet just as Walt had to so many sick soldiers. And just as Whitman had picked up the germs of many of his poems from the stories soldiers had told him, so now h e picked up from Doyle—who had been at Ford’s Theatre the night John Wilkes Booth shot the president—the narrative of the assassination of Lincoln that he would use for his Lincoln lectures that he would deliver regularly in his later years.
Only in 1870 did the Doyle-Whitman relationship encounter severe problems. In some of the most intriguing and often-discussed entries in all of Whitman’s notebooks, the poet records a cryptic resolution: "TO GIVE UP ABSOLUTELY & for good, from the present hour, this FEVERISH, FLUCTUATING, useless UNDIGNIFIED PURSUIT of 16.4—too long, (much too long) persevered in,--so humiliating." Critics eventually broke Whitman’s numeric/alphabetic code (16 = P; 4 =D) and realized that Whitman was writing about his relationship with Doyle. Whitman goes on to urge himself to "Depress the adhesive nature/ It is in excess—making life a torment/ Ah this diseased, feverish disproportionate adhesiveness/ Remember Fred Vaughan." Vaughan, the close friend who probably i nspired Whitman’s Calamus poems, shared many traits with Doyle, and Whitman came to be jealous of both men when they did not return his love with the fervor he demanded. Soon after Whitman had met Doyle, he revised his Calamus sequence and r emoved the darker poems that expressed despair at being abandoned. But in 1870, those same dark emotions reappeared, though somehow this time Whitman and his partner managed to work their way through the trouble. They never lived together, though Walt dre amed of doing so, and, while their relationship would never regain the intensity it had in the mid-1860s, Doyle and Whitman continued to correspond and Doyle visited Whitman regularly for the next two decades after the poet moved to Camden, New Jersey. P>
The Good Gray Poet
Just when Whitman was feeling secure in his government employment, all hell broke loose. In May, 1865, a new Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan of Iowa, was sworn in and immediately set out to clean up his department, issuing a directive to ab olish non-essential positions and to dismiss any employee whose "moral character" was questionable. Harlan was a formidable figure—a former U. S. Senator, Methodist minister, and president of Iowa Wesleyan College—and, when he saw Whitman’s working copy o f the 1860 Leaves of Grass (which the poet kept in his desk so that he could revise his poems during slow times at the office)—he was appalled. On June 20, Whitman (along with a number of other Interior Department employees) received a dismissal no tice. Whitman quickly turned to his fiery friend O’Connor, who at that time worked in the Treasury Department. O’Connor, at some risk to his own career, took immediate action: he contacted the Assistant Attorney General, J. Hubley Ashton, who in turn talk ed with Harlan, only to find that not only was Harlan dead set against rescinding the dismissal order, he was ready to prevent Whitman from getting work in any other governmental agency. Ashton talked Harlan out of interfering with Whitman’s appointment o utside of Interior, and then he convinced Attorney General James Speed to hire Whitman in his office. Whitman became a clerk in the Attorney General’s Office the next day, liked the work better (he aided in the preparation of requests for pardons from Con federates and later copied documents for delivery to the President and Cabinet members), and held the job until 1874, when he forfeited it because of ill health.
The whole flap over Whitman’s firing seemed to be over in a day, but O’Connor, a highly regarded editor, novelist, and journalist in addition to a governmental servant, could not control his rage at Harlan and began to write a diatribe against the mora listic Secretary of the Interior and his "commission of an outrage"—the unceremonious dumping of Walt Whitman, "the Kosmical man—. . . the ADAMUS of the nineteenth century—not an individual, but MANKIND." O’Connor went on for nearly f ifty pages, excoriating Harlan and sanctifying Whitman, offering a ringing endorsement of the poet’s work and his life, emphasizing his hospital work and his love of country, and locating any indecency in Harlan’s "horrible inanity of prudery," not in the poetry itself. Whitman offered O’Connor advice and suggestions on the piece, which O’Connor titled "The Good Gray Poet," creating an epithet that would attach itself to Whitman from then on. The pamphlet was published at the beginning of 1866 and had a m ajor impact on the changing public perception of Whitman: though O’Connor did not downplay Whitman’s frankness about the body, in his hands the transformation had begun from outrageous, immoral, indiscriminate, and radical poet of sex to saint-like, impov erished, aging poet of strong American values.
Around this time, Whitman visited George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, perhaps looking for some stable point in a national history that now seemed to be spinning out of control. Everywhere, America was being redefined, and Whitman was now searchin g for hints, answers, suggestions, about America’s future. He attended some of the rancorous Congressional debates on Reconstruction but remained evasive about his positions on the burning questions of citizenship and suffrage for the newly freed slaves; opposed to the extension of slavery before the war, he was now confused by the role of the freed slaves in the reconstituted America after the war. He attended baseball games; the new sport was quickly becoming the national game after returning Civil War soldiers, who had learned to play it in military camps, began organizing teams in various parts of the country. Whitman would be the first to call it "America’s game," with the "snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere." Maybe this unifying sport could help give the country a single identity again: he said the game was as important to "the sum total of our historic life" as our laws and Constitution. And he worked on Leaves of Grass, revising his 1860 edition incessantly (he still had the marked -up copy that Harlan had found in his desk), looking for a way that his book could continue to develop as an organizing force of American identity.
Reconstructing Leaves of Grass
In August and September of 1866, he took a leave from his job to go to New York and arrange for the printing of a new edition of Leaves . While there, he experienced the quickly changing and vastly expanding New York City—he wandered Central Park, took boat rides, and rekindled friendships with his stage-driver and ferry-boat-worker friends, and he oversaw the typesetting of Leaves, which finally appeared near the end of the year, even though the title page dated the book 1867.
The 1867 Leaves of Grass is the most carelessly printed and the most chaotic of all the editions. Whitman had problems with the typesetters, whose work was filled with errors. He bound the book in five distinct formats, some with only the new ed ition of Leaves of Grass, some with Leaves plus Drum-Taps, some with Leaves, Drum-Taps, and Sequel, some with all of these along with another new cluster called Songs Before Parting, and some with only L eaves and Songs Before Parting. He was obviously confused about what form his book should take. He always believed that the history of Leaves paralleled the history of himself, and that both histories embodied the history of America in t he nineteenth century, so we can read the 1867 edition as Whitman’s first tentative attempt to absorb the Civil War into his book. By literally sewing the printed pages of Drum-Taps and Sequel into the back of some of the issues, he creates a jarring textual effect, as pagination and font fracture while he adds his poems of war and division to his poems of absorption and nondiscrimination. The Union has been preserved, but this stripped and undecorated volume—the only edition of Leaves to contain no portrait of the poet—manifests a kind of forced reconciliation, a recognition that everything now has to be reconfigured. Leaves of Grass, like the nation, was now entering a long period of reconstruction.
Whitman would keep rearranging, pruning, and adding to Leaves in order to try to solve the structural problems so evident in the 1867 edition. By 1870, Leaves took a radically new shape when the fifth edition appeared (known as the 1871-7 2 edition because of the varying dates on the title page, but actually first printed in 1870). This complex edition, which, like the 1867, appeared in several versions, reveals Whitman’s attempt to fully absorb the Civil War and its aftermath into his boo k, as the Drum-Taps poems are given their own "cluster" but also are scattered into other parts of Leaves, as the war experience bleeds out into the rest of the poems in sometimes subtle small additions and changes. This edition contains som e revealing clusters of poems that appear here and then disappear in the much better known 1881 arrangement; in the 1871-72 edition, "Marches now the War is Over" and "Songs of Insurrection" are two clusters that capture the charged historical moment of R econstruction that this edition responds to.
In the development from the 1867 Leaves to the better integrated 1871-1872 Leaves, Whitman was aided by the intervening efforts of the English writer William Michael Rossetti who edited Poems by Walt Whitman (1868), the first Briti sh edition of Whitman’s work. Rossetti’s arrangement of the poems helped Whitman see new possibilities in his work, specifically how Drum-Taps could be integrated into the larger project of Leaves of Grass. Rossetti believed, however, that W hitman’s work had to be expurgated for the sensibilities of British readers, and, as the English edition progressed, Whitman took various positions on Rossetti’s suggestions for censoring, once seeming to grant permission (through his friend Moncure Conwa y) to substitute words for "father-stuff" and "onanist," but later telling Rossetti that "I cannot and will not consent, of my own volition, to countenance an expurgated edition of my pieces." Rossetti’s diplomatic approach was to alter no words in Whitma n’s poems (though he often changed titles). Instead, if a poem might offend too many readers or provoke censors, he omitted it altogether. Rossetti regarded Whitman as one the great poets of the English language and hoped that this selection of poems woul d augur a complete printing in England. Poems by Walt Whitman, reprinting approximately half of the 1867 Leaves of Grass, was critical for Whitman since it made him English friends who later would help sustain him financially and who would a dvance his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Democratic Vistas and Other New Projects
In 1870 Whitman published Democratic Vistas and Passage to India (both works carried the date 1871 on their title pages). Passage to India, a volume of seventy-five poems with one-third of them new, was intended as a follow-up volume to Leaves of Grass, one that would inaugurate a new emphasis in Whitman’s poetry on the "Unseen soul" and would thus complement his earlier songs of the "Body and existence." (Poor health eventually made Whitman curtail the plan.) The title poem moves from the material to the spiritual. Much of "Passage to India" celebrates the highly publicized work of engineers, especially the suggestive global linking accomplished by the transcontinental railroad, the Suez Canal, and the Atlantic cable. ( Whitman’s enthusiasm for engineering accomplishments was magnified because of his pride in his brother Jeff who had moved west in 1867 to become chief engineer charged with building and overseeing waterworks for St. Louis--a "great work–a noble position," Walt exclaimed). For Whitman, modern material accomplishments were most important as means to better understand the "aged fierce enigmas" at the heart of spiritual questions. "Passage to India" is grand in conception and has had many admirers, but the po em’s rhetorical excesses–apparent even in its heavy reliance on exclamation marks–reveal a poet not so much at odds with his subject matter as flagging in inspiration.
Whitman’s celebration of engineers, architects, and machinists in "Passage to India" no doubt prompted the organizers of the 1871 exposition of the American Institute (a large industrial fair) to invite him to deliver the opening poem. Whitman accepted , glad of the $100 payment and the publicity that would follow from distribution of a pamphlet through Roberts Brothers, a Boston publisher. Assured publicity was welcome because his recent work had garnered few reviews. He hoped to benefit fully, and he prepared copies of his poem, "After All Not to Create Only" (later called "Song of the Exposition"), for release to the New York dailies. Reports on the effectiveness of Whitman’s reading were mixed: some accounts indicated that the poet could not be hear d over the workmen constructing exhibits, while other reports described a "good elocutionist" greeted by long applause. However, there was enough sarcasm in the press reports to make the event less than a thoroughgoing success.
If "Passage to India" and "After All Not to Create Only" were celebratory (perhaps at times naively so), Democratic Vistas mounted sustained criticism of Reconstruction era failures. Based in part on essays that had appeared in The Galaxy in 1867 and 1868, Democratic Vistas responds most immediately to a racist diatribe by Thomas Carlyle, "Shooting Niagara: And After?" Carlyle’s "great man" view of history left him impatient with democracy and opposed to efforts to expand the franc hise in either the U.S. or England. For Carlyle, the folly of giving the vote to blacks was akin to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Whitman grants Carlyle some general points, acknowledging, for example, the "appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the U.S." because of the "people’s crudeness, vices, caprices." In fact, Whitman gazes piercingly at a society "canker’d crude, superstitious and rotten," in which the "depravity of our business classes . . . is not less than has been supposed, but inf initely greater." Yet he contrasts these current problems with "democracy’s convictions [and] aspirations" and ultimately provides a ringing endorsement of democracy as the safest and only legitimate course for the U.S. His thought on the intertwined fate s of the U.S. and democracy, his "convertible terms," is future-oriented. He preceded John Dewey in arguing that the United States are not yet made and thus cannot be categorically assessed, just as the history of democracy is yet to be written because th at history is yet to be enacted. Crucial to Whitman’s program for strengthening democracy are what he calls "personalism" (a form of individualism) and the nurturance of an appropriate "New World literature."
Whitman’s Stroke and Move to Camden
Whitman’s steady routine of life–mixing work as a Washington clerk with his ongoing literary projects–was fundamentally altered when a series of blows turned 1873 into one of the worst years in his life. On January 23, he suffered a stroke; in Febr uary his sister-in-law Mattie (wife of his brother Jeff) died of cancer; in May his beloved mother began to fail. Whitman—partially paralyzed, with weakness in his left leg and arm—managed to travel to Camden, New Jersey, arriving three days before his mo ther’s death. He returned to Washington at the beginning of June, hoping to resume his job. But by the middle of the month he was back in Camden to stay, moving into a working-class neighborhood with his brother George (a pipe inspector) and his wife Lou.
One can glimpse Whitman’s emotional state in "Prayer of Columbus" (Harper’s Magazine, March 1874), which depicts Columbus—a mask of Whitman himself—as a battered, wrecked, paralyzed, old man, misunderstood in his own time. Gradually, however, th e poet’s spirits improved as he warmed to Camden and found ways to turn a struggling town into a supportive social environment. Among Camden’s advantages was its proximity to Philadelphia, a city with a thriving intellectual and artistic community. Thomas Eakins, from his base at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, made Whitman the subject of a memorable portrait and numerous photographs, and he produced other work, including The Swimmers, informed by Whitman’s vision. Whitman’s interest in photography found a supportive milieu in Philadelphia, home of the country’s oldest photographic society and host city for the journal Philadelphia Photographer. In addition, the University of Pennsylvania was quick to invite Eadward Muybridge to c ontinue his locomotion studies shortly after his first successful experiments in cinematic photography in 1884. Whitman absorbed the air of this excitement, even as he was extending his own experiment of incorporating photography directly into his literar y project by including photos of himself in his new editions of Leaves of Grass.
Acts of Memory
Throughout the Camden years, despite his physical decline, the poet published steadily. Not long after his stroke, for example, he expanded and reworked journalism and notebook entries in composing Memoranda During the War (1875-1876). The b ook was published at the end of Reconstruction when a rise in immigration and racial conflict strained national cohesion, and, to Whitman’s mind, lent urgency to his argument that affectionate bonds between men constituted the vital core of American democ racy. The prose in this volume is taut, concise, detailed, and unflinching. Although the Civil War received more press coverage than any previous war, Whitman worried that its true import would be lost, that what he called "the real war" would never be re membered. He lamented the lack of attention to the common soldiers and to the fortitude and love he had seen in his many visits with soldiers in the hospitals.
Memoranda and other centennial publications constitute a remarkable recovery from Whitman’s most demoralized state. Whitman had hoped to be asked to write the national hymn by the Centennial Commission (five others were asked before Bayard Taylo r accepted), but the nation’s centennial passed by with little recognition of him. He did not spend much time at the centennial fair held in Philadelphia just across the river from Camden. But Whitman celebrated the centennial by bringing forth the variou sly labeled "Author’s Edition" or "Centennial Edition" of Leaves of Grass. (The 1876 "edition" was technically a reissue of the 1871-1872 Leaves with intercalations; he pasted four new poems on blank sections of pages, and he included two "p ortraits," the old Hollyer engraving he had used as his 1855 frontispiece and a new engraving by William Linton of a recently taken photograph.) The companion volume to this issue of Leaves of Grass, Two Rivulets (1876), gathers his Reconstr uction writings and presents them in a highly experimental way: in one section he printed poetry and prose on the top and bottom half of pages. Whitman’s three publications—Memoranda, Leaves of Grass, and Two Rivulets—made up a comple x, multi-faceted Centennial offering that provided trenchant commentary on the century-old country, mixing indictment and praise, offsetting despair at failures with hope for the future.
Whitman’s centennial publications were more successful financially than his previous work in part because of a transatlantic debate that increased his visibility dramatically. Whitman helped spark the controversy when he wrote "Walt Whitman’s Actua l American Position," a third-person contribution to the West Jersey Press in 1876, which offered an exaggerated account of his neglect and argued that he was systematically excluded from American magazines while leading poets snubbed him when comp iling anthologies of poetry. Whitman sent this article to William Michael Rossetti in England, Rudolph Schmidt in Denmark, and Edward Dowden in Ireland, among others. The debate heated up when Robert Buchanan (famous for his essay on the pre-Raphaelites e ntitled "The Fleshly School of Poetry") entered the fray, sharply criticizing the treatment of Whitman on the American side of the Atlantic. Bayard Taylor led the other side, defending the American literati’s treatment of Whitman. The editor of Appleto n’s commented astutely that the whole thing smacked of an "advertising trick" by Whitman and his allies to market his works. In fact, this debate did have the practical benefit of increasing sales (Whitman said that English subscribers to the 1876 Leaves and Two Rivulets "pluck’d me like a brand from the burning, and gave me life again").
Anne Gilchrist and Harry Stafford
The English support of Whitman marked a culmination of interest that had been building since the publication of Rossetti’s Poems by Walt Whitman. Of the many readers drawn to Whitman through this book, Anne Burrows Gilchrist was among the mo st important. Married for ten years to Alexander Gilchrist until his death in 1861, Anne Gilchrist raised their four children alone and completed her husband’s biography of William Blake. Mrs. Gilchrist wrote a series of letters to Rossetti which eventual ly contributed to her insightful essay, "A Woman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman" (1870). Mrs. Gilchrist and Whitman corresponded for six years, with ardor on her side and caution on his. Then, surprisingly, the poet sent her a ring. Whitman’s gift was not cas ual, but neither did it signify in a conventional way. Whitman employed a time-honored symbol and strove to make new meaning with it, in this case signaling not romantic love but the loving friendship he was ready to share with Mrs. Gilchrist. Even tually, Mrs. Gilchrist crossed the Atlantic convinced that she was destined to bear the children of the "tenderest lover." After her arrival in Philadelphia in September 1876, to their mutual credit, they overcame initial awkwardness and developed a warm friendship. She remained in the U.S. for eighteen months, during which time Whitman visited almost daily and sometimes lived at the Gilchrist house, where he became part of the family and developed close ties to Anne’s children, particularly her son Herbe rt, a painter who would complete several portraits of Whitman.
In addition to his literary friends, Whitman continued to maintain key emotional ties with working-class men, often substantially younger men. Whitman’s relationship with Doyle gradually dwindled as the two men saw less and less of one another. Harry S tafford displaced Doyle as his boy, his "darling son." Stafford, an emotionally unstable young man of eighteen when Whitman first met him in 1876, did odd jobs at the Camden New Republic. The Stafford family regarded Whitman as a type of mentor and were pleased with the poet’s interest in the young man. Stafford’s mother was especially solicitous of Whitman as he strove to nurse himself back to health after his stroke through the restorative powers of the natural scene at the Stafford’s farm near Ti mber Creek, approximately ten miles from Camden. The nature of Whitman’s relationship with Stafford remains mysterious. We know that the poet and Harry wrestled together (leaving John Burroughs dismayed at the way they "cut up like two boys"); that a frie ndship ring given by Whitman to Stafford went back and forth numerous times (with anguished rhetoric) as the relationship developed; and that they shared a room together when traveling. Whitman and Stafford also discussed attractive women (as the poet had with Peter Doyle). After Stafford married in 1884, the two men maintained a friendly relationship.
A group of English men—an array of writers, intellectuals, shopkeepers, and laborers—also regarded Whitman as a figure of pivotal importance. These men were struggling to establish a positive identity based on same-sex love (what was beginning to b e called "homosexuality") within a culture which increasingly categorized such love as morbid and criminal. Edward Carpenter, a major interpreter of Whitman in England, first came to Camden to visit Whitman in 1877 and returned again in 1884. Carpenter in fluenced various artists, intellectuals, and sex radicals through the example of his life (notable for his decades-long relationship with a working-class man, George Merrill), and through his writings, including his Whitman-inspired poetry Towards Demo cracy (1883-1902), his many essays, and later his Days with Walt Whitman (1906), a memoir of his association with Whitman and an analysis of Whitman’s work and influence. Carpenter helped spread word of Whitman to the labor movement in England where the poet’s language of comradeship was employed by English followers eager to advance a more egalitarian society. Many other people made pilgrimages to Camden in these years, with Oscar Wilde being among the most famous. In 1882 Wilde drank elderber ry wine with the poet, enthused over his Greek qualities, and declared that there is "no one in this great wide world of America whom I love and honor so much."
The 1881-1882 edition
Whitman’s work, repeatedly endorsed by English readers and by other European admirers, especially in France and Germany, received a further boost in 1881 when a mainstream Boston publisher, James R. Osgood & Co., decided to issue Leaves of G rass under its imprint. As was the case over twenty years earlier when Thayer and Eldridge offered him respectable Boston publication, Whitman could now anticipate the benefits of high visibility, good distribution, and institutional validation (a par adoxical idea, of course, for a renegade poet). Once again, however, things soon went awry. Oliver Stevens, the Boston district attorney, wrote to Osgood on March 1, 1882: "We are of the opinion that this book is such a book as brings it within the provis ions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature and suggest the propriety of withdrawing the same from circulation and suppressing the editions thereof." The New England Society for the Suppression of Vice encouraged this proceeding, but numerou s reviews had also predicted trouble for the book.
Osgood attempted to strike a compromise, and Whitman, too, thinking that the changes might involve only ten lines "& half a dozen words or phrases," worked to find a way around the ban. But Whitman’s position stiffened once he realized how extensiv e the changes would have to be. The offending passages appeared in "Song of Myself," "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers," "I Sing the Body Electric," "A Woman Waits for Me," "Spontaneous Me," "Native Moments," "The Dalliance of the Eagles," "By Blue Ontario’s Sh ore," "To a Common Prostitute," "Unfolded Out of the Folds," "The Sleepers," and "Faces." For most poems, particular passages or words were found offensive, but the district attorney insisted that "A Woman Waits for Me" and "To a Common Prostitute" had to be removed altogether. Intriguingly, the "Calamus" section and other poems treating male-male love raised no concern, perhaps because the male-male poems infrequently venture beyond hand-holding and hugging while the male-female poems are frank about cop ulation. Whitman wrote to Osgood: "The list whole & several is rejected by me, & will not be thought of under any circumstances." Osgood ceased selling Leaves and gave the plates to Whitman, who took them to Philadelphia publisher Rees Wels h. Rees Welsh printed around 6,000 copies of the book, and sales, initially at least, were brisk. Within the Rees Welsh company, David McKay in particular was supportive of Whitman; soon McKay began publishing Whitman through his own firm. The suppression controversy had another benefit as well: it helped restore an important friendship with O’Connor, who came to Whitman’s defense once again after a period of estrangement.
In the year Leaves was banned in Boston, Whitman wrote "Memorandum at a Venture," which argues that the "current prurient, conventional treatment of sex is the main formidable obstacle" to the advancement of women in politics, business, and soci al life. Whitman’s depictions of women have received a fair amount of criticism (D. H. Lawrence, for one, claimed that Whitman reduced women to wombs). Leaves of Grass clearly emphasized motherhood, but Whitman valued other roles for women as well. In fact, the women he most celebrated were those who challenged traditional ways, including Margaret Fuller, Frances Wright, George Sand, Delia Bacon, and others. Some nineteenth-century women criticized Whitman: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, was understandably troubled by the skewed understanding of women’s sexuality suggested by "A Woman Waits for Me," even as she endorsed the freedom and assertiveness Whitman insisted on when he said, in the same poem, that women must "know how to swim, row, r ide, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves." Most women of his day looked beyond his occasional lapses. Many wrote him letters of appreciation for the liberating value of his poetry. In addition, notable writers ranging from Kate Chopin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Edith Wharton admired his work both because of what he said about women and because his vision of comradeship–ideally based on mutuality and equality, whatever the reality of his own relationships–lent itsel f readily to a critique of hierarchical relations between men and women.
Specimen Days was issued as a prose counterpart to the 1881-1882 Leaves of Grass. Whitman described it as the "most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed," and, as an autobiography, the book is anomalous. Whitman sheds little l ight on what remains a central mystery: the development of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. After a brief section on family background, Whitman moves rapidly past his "long foreground" to focus instead on the war (relying heavily on material u sed in Memoranda). Aware that no other major writer could match his direct and extensive connection to the war, he continues to argue that the hospitals were central to the war just as the war was definitional for American experience. Following thi s section, Whitman shifts to nature reflections evoked by the Stafford farm setting at Timber Creek where Whitman underwent a self-imposed, idiosyncratic, but effective regimen of physical therapy (including wrestling with saplings and taking mud baths) t o restore his body from the ravages of stroke. He also describes his 1879 trip to attend the quarter-centennial celebration of the Kansas settlement and to visit his brother Jeff in St. Louis. Whitman journeyed as far as Denver and the Rockies, finding in the landscape a grandeur that matched his earlier imaginings of it and a ruggedness that justified his approach to American poetry. Consistently in Specimen Days, Whitman kept his standing in the national pantheon in mind. In sections such as "My Tribute to Four Poets" and the accounts of the deaths of Emerson, Longfellow, and Carlyle, Whitman seeks to establish a newly magnanimous position in relation to his key predecessors. Showing a generosity rarely displayed in his criticism before, he now p raises fellow poets he once derided as "jinglers, and snivellers, and fops." Specimen Days has only recently begun to get much critical attention, and it is now being read as an eccentric and experimental work, a prose counterpart to Whitman’s radi cally new poetry.
Whitman seized another opportunity to formulate his life story when the Canadian Richard Maurice Bucke began to plan the first full-length biography of the poet, eventually published as Walt Whitman in 1883. Bucke first read Whitman in 1867 and was immediately enthralled, though his initial overtures toward the poet went nowhere when Whitman failed to answer his letters. Once the two men met in the late 1870s, however, they began an important friendship and literary relationship. Bucke’s own lif e blended science and mysticism: he was superintendent of the largest mental asylum in North America and the author of Man’s Moral Nature and Cosmic Consciousness. For Bucke, Whitman’s achievement of illumination put him near the head of a g roup including Buddha, Moses, Socrates, Jesus, and Wordsworth. Whitman visited Bucke in Ontario for four months in the summer of 1880, providing information for the biography. Nonetheless–and even after Whitman drafted parts of this study and edited much that Bucke wrote–he did not think the book created a truthful portrait. Interestingly, he contributed to distortions by excising some of Bucke’s better insights, for example his recognition of Whitman’s motherly nature and his observations of the intimate friendship the poet struck up with a Canadian soldier while traveling with Bucke.
Whitman’s life story was also bound up with Lincoln’s, to the extent that he could make it so. Beginning in the late 1870s and continuing for about a decade, Whitman offered lectures regularly on Lincoln. These lectures, complementing his famous elegie s, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d" and "O Captain! My Captain!," brought Whitman much-needed income, while underscoring again his connection with the war and the martyred President. These Lincoln lectures were the closest Whitman came to fulfil ling his early dream of being a wandering lecturer. He usually closed with "O Captain!" signaling his willingness to serve the role of popular elegist despite his personal misgivings about the conventionality of the poem.
328 Mickle Street
In the 1880s, as Whitman was compiling authoritative versions of his writings and overseeing various accounts of his life, he was also putting his domestic arrangements in better order. He had been living with his brother George’s family, but when George retired and moved the family to a farm outside of town, Walt refused to leave Camden. With money saved from royalties from the 1881-1882 edition of Leaves combined with a loan from publisher George W. Childs, the poet bought "a little old sh anty of my own." In March 1884 he moved into the only home he ever owned. Lacking a furnace and in need of repairs, the two-story frame house at 328 Mickle Street suited Whitman well, he said. His personal room quickly took on a distinctive aura: many vis itors noted how the poet resided in a sea of chaotic papers.
With Whitman becoming decreasingly mobile, Thomas Donaldson, a Philadelphia lawyer, devised a plan in 1885 to procure a horse and buggy for the poet by asking thirty-five men to donate ten dollars each. Bill Duckett, a teenage boy who boarded briefly w ith Whitman and his housekeeper Mrs. Davis, often accompanied Whitman on his drives. As a carriage driver and companion, Duckett held a role in some ways similar to Peter Doyle and Fred Vaughan. Yet it is doubtful that Duckett meant anything like what Doy le or Vaughan meant to Whitman. Whitman was, however, photographed with the youth in one of those noteworthy pictures (akin to wedding poses) in which he appears with various younger men–Doyle, Stafford, and Duckett himself–creating an iconography for rel ationships based on calamus friendship. Eventually, the friendship with Duckett soured. Mrs. Davis, Whitman’s housekeeper, took Duckett to court for nonpayment of his boarding bill, though the young man claimed he owed nothing since the poet invited him i nto his house.
After the suppression controversy, Whitman retained the structure of Leaves of Grass, relegating the poetry written after 1881 to appendices—or, as the poet called them, annexes—to the main book. Typically, new material appeared in separate publications first, as, for example, was the case with November Boughs (1888), a volume containing sixty-four new poems gathered under the title "Sands at Seventy" and various prose works previously published in periodicals. These prose writings ar e effective, especially "Father Taylor (and Oratory)," "Robert Burns as Poet and Person," and "Slang in America." Good-Bye My Fancy (1891) was published initially as a miscellany of prose and verse. Whitman later printed thirty-one poems from the b ook in "Good-Bye my Fancy . . . 2d Annex" to Leaves of Grass (1891-1892). Whitman lacked the poetic power of his early years, but he was still capable of writing engaging poems such as "Osceola," "A Twilight Song," and "To the Sun-Set Breeze."
A crucial development of Whitman’s final years was the growth of his friendship with Horace Traubel. Traubel had known Whitman since the poet first moved to Camden, but starting in the late 1880s he became a daily visitor and recorder of Whitman’s conversation. Later he would become one of the three executors of the estate and a staunch defender of the poet’s reputation. Traubel was unmatched in his dedication to the poet and in his belief that all that Whitman said was memorable: he kept meticulou s notes of his daily conversations with Whitman and published three large volumes of them as With Walt Whitman in Camden (six more volumes were published after Traubel’s death). He felt that his hybrid identity—one of his parents was a Jew, the oth er a Christian—left him especially suited to interpret Whitman, a poet of inclusiveness. Traubel, who worked in a bank until he had to resign because of his socialist views, frequently urged Whitman to affirm a faith in socialism. After Whitman’s death, T raubel became editor of the Conservator, a journal dedicated to continuing Whitman’s message. Traubel was the key figure among Whitman’s American disciples, a group sometimes disparagingly referred to as the "hot little prophets." Although Traubel— married and with a child—had at least one intense love affair with a man, he was characteristic of Whitman’s American followers in resisting association of Whitman’s reputation with homosexuality. In fact, he was uneasy about same-sex love in general, whi ch he once characterized as "muck and rot."
The American disciples had counterparts in England. J. W. Wallace was the indefatigable leader of a group of socialists (sometimes known as "Bolton College") in Lancashire, England, who ardently admired Whitman. Wallace came to Camden in the autumn of 1891 to see the "prophet" of a new religion of socialism. Wallace’s group was confident of its place in history: "We stand in closest relation to Walt Whitman–the divinely inspired prophet of world democracy." Other notable members of the group wer e Fred Wild, a cotton waste merchant, and Dr. John Johnston, a general practitioner. Johnston corresponded with the poet, photographed him, and, with Wallace, wrote about him in Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890-1891 by Two Lancashire Friends.
Whitman looked for his most enthusiastic audience to come from the U.S., though he welcomed the unexpected and continuing support he received from English readers. Still, at times he found some support ill-advised and trying. John Addington Symonds, th e poet, student of sexuality, and classical scholar, began in the 1870s a decades-long questioning of Whitman about the meaning of the "Calamus" cluster. Did it authorize carnal relations between men? Fascinated by the powerful same-sex attachment depicte d in Leaves of Grass, Symonds was hesitant to explicate the poems without reassurance from Whitman, something the poet refused to provide. (Symonds’s hesitancy can be explained as an aftereffect of his earlier disastrous "outing"—to use an anachron istic term—of Dr. Charles Vaughan, headmaster of Harrow, who had an affair with a student, Symonds’s friend Alfred Pretor.) Symonds eventually pressed Whitman so much that in 1890 the poet concocted a lie of grand proportions: "Tho’ always unmarried I hav e had six children—two are dead—One living southern grandchild, fine boy, who writes to me occasionally. Circumstances connected with their benefit and fortune have separated me from intimate relations." The sheer outrageousness of Whitman’s claim–the fla mboyance of his story–signaled something different and more complex than a simple denial. Whitman was similarly coy with Traubel, repeatedly sugggesting that he had a great secret to divulge, and repeatedly deferring the telling of it. Whitman was more in terested in cultivating sexual mystery than clarity, and he was not going to reduce his life or thought to narrow and distorting labels or answers, especially on anyone else’s terms.
Whitman continued writing, "garrulous" to the very end, but he worried that, because of his relative longevity, "Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering ennui, / May filter in my daily songs." The Deathbed edition, technical ly a reissue of the 1881-1882 Leaves with supplemental material, appeared in Whitman’s final year of life. In this volume, Leaves took its final shape as authorized by the poet. The first printing was a paperback copy to make sure it reached the poet before his death. He closed the book with an expanded version of "A Backward Glance O’er Travell’d Roads," an essay that had appeared earlier, in parts, in The Critic and in The New York Star.
Final Illness and Death
Whitman seemed to endure his final months through sheer force of will. He was in fact very sick, beset by an array of ailments. For some time, he had been making preparations for the end. He had a large mausoleum built in Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery , on a plot given to him in 1885, shortly after the cemetery was opened. The large tomb was paid for in part by Whitman with money donated to him so that he could buy a house in the country and in part by Thomas Harned, one of his literary executors. (Eve ntually, several family members–Hannah, George, Louisa, Edward, and his parents—were reinterred in the same tomb, on which the inscription reads simply "Walt Whitman.") On December 24, 1891, the poet composed his last will and testament. In an earlier wil l of 1873 he had bequeathed his silver watch to Peter Doyle, but now, with Doyle largely absent from his life, he made changes, giving his gold watch to Traubel and a silver one to Harry Stafford.
Whitman was nursed in his final illness by Frederick Warren Fritzinger ("Warry"), a former sailor. Whitman liked Warry’s touch, which blended masculine strength and feminine tenderness. The poet’s last words–a request to be moved in bed, "Shift, Warry" –were addressed to Fritzinger. The poet died on March 26, 1892, his hand resting in that of Traubel. The cause of death was miliary tuberculosis, with other contributing factors. The autopsy revealed that one lung had completely collapsed and the other wa s working only at one-eighth capacity; his heart was "surrounded by a large number of small abscesses and about two and half quarts of water." Daniel Longaker, Whitman’s physician in the final year, noted that the autopsy showed Whitman to be free of alco holism or syphilis. He emphatically rejected the "slanderous accusations that debauchery and excesses of various kinds caused or contributed to his break-down."
Talking Back to Whitman
In "Poets to Come" Whitman claimed: "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." That casual look has had an uncanny impact as countless writers have sought to complete Whitman’s project and thereby to better know themselves. The responses have been varied, ranging from indictments to accolades. Poetic responses to Whitman sometimes fall into his cad ences and in other ways mimic his style, but many poets have understood, with William Carlos Williams, that the only way to write like Whitman is to write unlike Whitman. To an unusual degree, however, his legacy has not been limited to the genre in which he made his fame. Beyond poetry, Whitman has had an extensive and unpredictable impact on fiction, film, architecture, music, painting, dance, and other arts.
Whitman has enjoyed great international renown. Perhaps William Faulkner can match Whitman’s impact on South America, but no U.S. writer, including Faulkner, has had a comparable influence in as many parts of the world. Leaves of Grass has been translated in complete editions in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, China, and Japan, and partial translations have appeared in all major languages but Arabic. Whitman’s importance stems not only from his literary qualities but also from his standing as a prophet of liberty and revolution: he has served as a major icon for socialists and communists. On the other hand, he has also been invoked on occasion by writers and politicians on the far right, including the National Socialists in Germany. In general, Whitman’s influence internationally has been most felt in liberal circles as a writer who articulated the beauty, power, and always incompletely fulfilled promise of democracy.
"My book and the war are one," Whitman once said. He might have said as well that his book and the U.S. are one. Whitman has been of crucial importance to minority writers who have talked back to him–extending, refining, rewriting, battling, endorsing, and sometimes rejecting the work of a writer who strove so insistently to define national identity and to imagine an inclusive society. Recent critics sometimes decry Whitman’s shortcomings and occasional failure to live up to his own finest ideals. But minority writers from Langston Hughes to June Jordan and Yusef Komunyakaa have, with rare exceptions, warmed to an outlook extraordinary for its sympathy, generosity, and capaciousness. Whitman’s absorption by people from all walks of life justifies his b old claim of 1855 that "the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." Over a century after his death, Whitman is a vital presence in American cultural memory. Television shows depict him. Musicians allude to him. Schools and bridges are named after him. Truck stops, apartment complexes, parks, think tanks, summer camps, corporate centers, and shopping malls bear his name. Look for him, just as he said you should, under your bootsoles.
Ed Folsom, The University of Iowa
Kenneth M. Price, The College of William and Mary