I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to read Walt Whitman without experiencing nausea (thank you to my yoga practice for teaching me acceptance and patience). And though I didn’t necessarily appreciate the flow of his language, or the content (or the style, or his over-inflated sense of self), his message and vision of America was quite profound.
Walt Whitman was raised as part of a very Patriotic family. His younger brothers’ names were George Washington Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, and Andrew Jackson Whitman.
In his early adult life he worked in the printing and journalism fields in Long Island, Brooklyn, and then New Orleans in 1848. His time in Louisiana introduced him to the horrors of the slave trade and when he returned to New York he founded the “free soil newspaper” called The Brooklyn Freeman.
In 1885, Whitman self-published the 12-poems of Leaves of Grass. It was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “extraordinary” due to its departure from the traditional poetic form and its representation of the American voice. However many others believed the work to be informal, overly sexual, and something to be avoided.
Further publishing was interrupted by the Civil War. During this time, Whitman moved to Washington DC in 1862 and spent his later years visiting wounded Civil War soldiers and adding additional poems to Leaves of Grass.
Finally in 1882, Whitman released a new edition of Leaves of Grass which gets significant press coverage. By the time of Whitman’s death in 1892, seven editions of Leaves of Grass had been published with a total of over 300 poems.
Biographical Information from: http://www.biography.com/people/walt-whitman-9530126
Cool link! A book review written in The Atlantic about Leaves of Grass from 1882: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1882/01/leaves-of-grass-by-walt-whitman/306166/
Whenever we read books written before 1980, we have a certain expectation of how not P.C. the language will be. And while we can usually agree that people back then didn’t know better, or that it’s a sign of how much progress we have made as a society ever since…we can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable in our literary skin.But much to my surprise, Walt Whitman’s poetry is astonishingly progressive. While he certain uses the all-inclusive “man” on occasion, he mentions women and their hard-work and strength throughout his work.
In fact, he mentions a lot of people and nations and creatures being proactive and powerful throughout all his poetry. He seems to be drawing on the Transcendentalist tradition, as we all know, but also infusing it with a message of general social equality. If one believes humans to equal to nature, then one must also see all humans as equal to each other. Take, for example, this poem:
TO A STRANGER. PASSING
Stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to
me as of a dream,
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we ﬂit by each other, ﬂuid, affectionate, chaste,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours
Only nor left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass,
you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone
or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
Upon first reading for us modern-day folks, this is terrifying and Whitman is certainly an evil stalker and we must get a restraining order. No, Walt, we did not sleep together! But once the literally walls come down and the pepper spray is safely tucked back into our handbags…this poem actually speaks loudly of Whitman’s conception of humanity. This stranger knows Walt Whitman from the womb of the earth from which we all come. Simply be being another human, this “stranger” has likely experienced as least some parts of his or her life the same as we have.
Whitman solidifies this perspective in his lengthy ballad-like poem, “Salut Au Mondei”. In this poem Whitman basically discusses with his own conscience the many peoples and nations and cultures all around the world. We are not separate as humans from each other, nor are we separate as life on this planet from the Earth. In fact if we listen and feel enough, we can experience all the rhythms and sounds and textures of the world. Here’s an exerpt:
Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens,
Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east—America is provided for in
Banding the bulge of the earth winds the hot equator,
Curiously north and south turn the axis-ends,
Within me is the longest day, the sun wheels in slanting rings, it
does not set for months,
Stretch’d in due time within me the midnight-sun just rises above
the horizon and sinks again,
Within me zones, seas, cataracts, forests, volcanoes, groups,
Malaysia, Polynesia, and the great West Indian islands.
Throughout my reading these hundreds of poems, I could see how publishers at the same were reluctant to print such high-sensory, overtly sexual work. Many times Whitman almost seems to be physically making love to the natural world around him, revelling in every sensation, sight, smell, and sound. But it wasn’t promiscuity or even Free Love that he was advocating: it was attention. He wanted people to be aware of natural processes and the heartbeat of the rest of the living world. Plants, animals, the ocean, the dirt…everything was alive and constantly, unceasingly working and moving and creating!
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and
increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
– Except from “Song of Myself”
After a while, I began to feel as if I had heard his message before. The idea of all humanity being equal…the value of work and workmanship…a general call to action…frequent references to Industry and relationships between workers and society…not to mention, a fabulous beard!
Does this sound like Marxism to anyone else?
“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
“Working men of all countries, unite!
“For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.”
– Frederick Engels in The End of Classical German Philosophy
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…I happen to believe in free speech. I had just never thought of Walt Whitman being a harbinger of the Communist Revolution.
Finally, perhaps no poem in the book made more of an impression on me than this: http://www.bartleby.com/142/130.html”>http://www.bartleby.com/142/130.html
“Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun”, in vivid brightly colored language, explores humans’ inability to decide what they want. The speaker opens saying how happy he/she would be in a country home, surrounded by nature and lush greenery. But then rejects this claim and begs for the exciting, ever-changing diversity of city life.
It’s a lesson we all can learn: Moderation. Balance. We do not always need to choose between two opposite ideas. The world, at least through Walt Whitman’s eyes, is filled to the brim with sensations and emotions and life that we can only hope to experience in our time. Rather than resigning ourselves to one, unchanging environment, however much we love it, there is true reward in exploration, compassion, and change.