Posted by: atowhee | May 31, 2020


May 31, 1819, Walter Whitman was born in West Hills, New York. Now–201 years ago. At that time it was a small town on rural Long Island.  He would become the most influential voice in American poetry after self-publication of Leaves of Grass (1855) , and still Whitman’s influence, his example, his enthusiasm, his broad reach is felt by writers today.  He was a writer, a military hospital nurse during the Civil War, and a gay man more than a century before that became openly accepted in American society.

Whitman met two other important American writers of his time—Emerson and Thoreau.  As a young man Whitman had been strongly influenced by hearing Emerson speak in New York City.

Both Emerson and Thoreay came down from the Boston area to meet this newly erupted poet after his first poetry book.  At that time Whitman was living with his mother in Brooklyn. Emerson got a copy of Leaves mailed by the author.  He soon wrote in admiration: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start.”
Later that year, 1855, Emerson went to meet the other poet and took him out to a restaurant for dinner.  

The other great poet Emerson admired was Emily Dickinson.

Thoreau first met Whitman by seeking him out in 1856.

The 1850s was a time of ferment across the Anglo-American intellectual plane:
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (1851)
House of Seven Gables   (1851)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853)
Melville,  Bartleby the Scrivener   (1853)
Dickens,  Bleak House  (1853); Tale of Two Cities   (1859)
Thoreau,  Walden  (1854)
Leaves of Grass  (1855)
Darwin,  On the Origin of Species (1859)

Even in conversation as an elderly man Whitman evinced energy and joy and sightfulness beyond most of us could ever manage, medicated or not:



On page 74 of the June 24th, 2019, New Yorker there’s a bicentennial piece on Walt Whitman.  It was written by Peter Schjeldahl.  Peter was ahead of me in college and when I arrived he was already the main film and theatre reviewer for the college newspaper.  A born critic, blessed with sense, sensitivity and insight. This piece on Whitman is a fine example.

“Reading Whitman silently enriches, but hearing your own or a partner’s voice luxuriate in the verse’s unhurried, insinuating cadences, drawn along on waves of alternately rough and delicate feeling, can quite overwhelm. That’s because your voice, if you are fluent in American, is anticipated, pre-wired into the declarative but intimate, easy-flowing lines. It’s as if you were a phonograph needle dropped into a vinyl groove.”

Back when I was studying history with the intention of doing graduate work in the history of ideas, I wrote a paper on Whitman and democracy. Whitman: “Without enough wilderness America will change. Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication, must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths – animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies – or it will dwindle and pale.”

Glad that Whitman did not live to see a nation addicted to smart phones and shopping, streaming video and heating the planet beyond survivability.

I know of no other American writer whose work is so encompassing that some of his poems feels like they were written this week:

“I SIT and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband—I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid—I see these sights on the earth;          5
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and prisoners;
I observe a famine at sea—I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d, to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.”

 Or this one:
“Who goes there? Hankering, gross, mystical, nude;
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?
What is man anyhow? What am I? What are you?…”

Poet Mary Oliver found Whitman to be a spiritual guide and the my brother she never had.

Perhaps this year more than ever since the Civil War we need Whitman’s call to life.  So said one piece published earlier in 2020, click here to see it.

To end with a bit of birdiness, from Whitman’s eulogy for the recently assassinated President Lincoln:
“In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

“Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

“Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)…”
                                                      –“When Lilacs Last…”


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