One of America’s most influential writers is Walt Whitman, who emerged during the 19th century as the father of free verse. Free verse is a type of poetry in which there is very little structure or rhyme pattern required, instead of depending upon some other element of the text to provide a sense of wholeness and connection to the piece. However, Whitman didn’t write only this one form of controversial literature, he also engaged in a number of other forms of writing pursuits, including essayist, journalist, and humanist. He lived a widely diverse lifestyle engaging in a number of different trades and in a variety of settings. His unique way of viewing the world was tempered by the metaphysical concepts of transcendentalism that were popular in his youth coupled with an acute sense of realism following his experiences during the Civil War. There are a number of reasons why Whitman’s poetry might have been different from what had been introduced in academic circles to that point – these having to do with the time in which he lived, his own unique experiences and education, and the people he had the privilege to know and exchange ideas with.
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Whitman was born in 1819 in Long Island, New York, and was the son of a middle-class family. Walt was the second of nine children and he adored his mother, who was of Dutch descent and a devotee of the Quaker religion. His father was a carpenter and strict disciplinarian. Neither of Walt’s parents was big reader, his mother was reportedly nearly illiterate while his father’s reading interest is presumed to have been relatively narrow as well, being fed primarily through his friendship with Thomas Paine (Bengtsson, 2008). While his house was full of love as a result of his mother’s doting care, Walt had four brothers and sisters who were handicapped in addition to the five who were healthy, making it difficult for his father to support the family on his own.
By the time he was 11 years old, Walt had been withdrawn from school in order to go to work. His interest in writing blossomed as he worked at a printer’s shop starting at the age of 12 and he began reading everything he could find. “He was mainly self-taught. He read voraciously and became acquainted with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Scott early in life” (Bengtsson, 2008). There is evidence he might have already started publishing some of his own work by the age of 15. However, by 1837, the country was experiencing a general economic collapse, and finding employment in the publishing industry was approaching the impossible. According to Bancroft (2005), “during the first three weeks of April, two hundred and fifty business houses failed in New York. Within two months the failures in that city alone aggregated nearly one hundred millions of dollars.”
Thus, by age 17, Walt had discovered a necessity of returning back to his family’s home, now living in Hempstead, and tried his hand at teaching. His style adopted a relatively natural approach, encouraging his students to refer to him by his first name and working to teach mathematical concepts by playing games. However, Walt was not happy in this profession and soon returned to publishing. By the age of 22, he had again published his own work in the form of essays reflecting upon his experiences as a teacher while he alternately taught for a living and worked for various publications and printing shops. It was through his constant travels seeking work that Whitman experienced first-hand the images of slavery and commerce of the South as he worked for a short time in New Orleans (Bengtsson, 2008). Perhaps his most influential work, Leaves of Grass, had already found publication by 1855 when Walt was 36. This publication signaled the beginning of a different kind of life for Whitman as it brought him to academic attention as a controversial and intriguing character.
Although Whitman continued to experience financial troubles following the publication of his collection of unusual poems, it wasn’t long before he gained the attention of influential writers of his period. This was largely due to the support of Ralph Waldo Emerson, already a well-respected name in the literary world and in spite of the many criticisms Whitman’s work received as a result of its sexual content (Kaplan, 1979: 203). Shortly after publication, however, in 1861, Civil War broke out among the states and Whitman supported the North. Not an abolitionist, per se, he felt that slavery should not be permitted to spread beyond its already established borders (Bengtsson, 2008). His experiences during the war working as a nurse in the Union Army hospitals in Washington changed his writing tone to something darker, with a new focus on the real rather than the ideal. He continued to write and continued to struggle to make a living as the popularity of his book continued to grow, particularly in Europe. Eventually, he was able to make a comfortable living, traveling some and watching over his elderly mother until 1872. Near the beginning of 1873, he had a paralytic stroke reducing his ability to care for himself and his mother died that May, leaving him with little purpose and highly depressed (Miller, 1962: 33). He moved to Camden, New Jersey to be near his brother and, by 1885, was living with Mary Oakes Davis as his housekeeper. He continued to write, revising Leaves of Grass and working on other works, until his death in 1892 as a very popular and respected man.
Walt Whitman witnessed a great deal of the on-the-ground occurrences of the Civil War, which he terms the War of Secession. Through his collected prose, primarily diary entries he wrote during the years 1862-1864, Whitman engages his reader primarily through his choice of terms for description. An analysis of the preface to Leaves of Grass manages to convey a sense of the author’s more developed philosophy regarding his life and his art and how this might impact the rest of human society. Unlike the remainder of the book, the preface is written in prose as a means of explaining to the reader what the author was attempting to accomplish in publishing these poems and poetry in general. He makes the bold claim that poetry provides the soul with the means of transcending the boundaries of the common world and asserts that America needs to develop its own literary corpus. In making this assertion, he claims that America is unique on earth in its greatness, vastness, and focus on the common people.
“Other states indicate themselves in their deputies … but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always more in the common people” (Whitman, 1990). The American people are unique in and of themselves and as such require a new form of expression that is able to meet the challenge of expressing this poetry of motion. In order to address these concepts of America appropriately, without suggesting one is somehow less than or subservient to another as a matter of natural course, Whitman indicates “the expression of the American poet is to be transcendent and new. It is to be indirect and not direct or descriptive or epic. Its quality goes through these to much more … Here the theme is creative and has vista” (Whitman, 1990). The importance of this is brought forward in the next paragraph as Whitman outlines the vision of the poet. This is one in which “nothing out of its place is good and nothing in its place is bad” (Whitman, 1990). By providing an in-depth examination of what is found as it exists, it is the poet who helps to determine whether things are in their proper place or not and, by writing about this, helps to set things right.
For Whitman, the origin of his poems is found within his life and within the everyday environments in which he finds himself. He takes a transcendental approach to life as he relates his common experiences to the connecting forces of love as a means of transcending the self and coming to an understanding that concepts of death and life are one as can be seen in his poem, “Song of the Open Road.” This poem is largely concerned with the imagery and events that might occur in everyday life. He starts from a point in which his narrator, making his way along the open road, is merely mingling with the common scenes of everyday life, “the black man with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person … the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics / the escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple / the early market man, the hearse” (Whitman, 1990: 121).
In depicting all of these various individuals, though, he illustrates how they are all connected in their acceptability to the rules of the road, which will accept all without judgment or rejection. As he discovers his transcendent connection with these other people who use the road, he discovers a new sense of love that connects them all while still being grounded in reality: “There are divine things well envelop’d / I swear to you there are diving things more beautiful than words can tell” (Whitman, 1990: 125). He expresses highly transcendent ideas in his instructions about how to take the best of the farmer’s fields, the orchard’s fruits, the city’s treasures, without ever having spent a dime or deprived anyone of their own sense of worth in the form of a memory that cannot be taken back or removed except by his own will. Yet in this shared love among strangers, he recognizes the forces of death and departure as the primary motivation for this connection. “All religion, all solid things, arts, governments – all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe” (Whitman, 1990: 127). In other words, all things and connections will die, but the experience of having enjoyed them once lives on in the soul forever.
Through his life, his influences, and his writing, one can see Whitman continuously attempting to encourage his readers to take a more transcendent view of life. Through his poems, the speaker continues to learn more about himself through his experiences, but they are intended to assist the reader also in coming of age spiritually. Whitman’s comments regarding the fields and orchards in “Song of the Open Road” are actually very similar to comments made by Thoreau in his own book Walden. However, they are modified by the realization of the realities of the world around him, the ugliness, and the poverty that mark society. In examining these ideas, Whitman does not condemn them as the ultimate justifiable punishment of the evil individual but merely accepts them as they are and attempts to discover their value and richness.
Bancroft, Hubert H. “The Financial Panic of 1837.” The Great Republic by the Master Historians. (2005). Web.
Bengtsson, Gunnar. “Biography of Walt Whitman.” American Poems. (2008). Web.
Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1962
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Whitman, Walt. “Song of the Open Road.” Leaves of Grass. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990: 120-129.