Books, Arts & Manners

Walt Whitman, an American

Walt Whitman in 1870 (Library of Congress)
An exhibit in New York traces the life and work of the 'bard of Democracy.'

When Walt Whitman was born, in 1819, democracy had existed in America for less than 50 years—it was still a new experiment. During the time that he was growing up and developing as a poet, he witnessed a tremendous amount of change in the country —industrialization, the development of steamships, factories, railroads, telegraphs, and telegrams; the rise of cities, rapid population growth, significant territorial expansion; the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, and the emergence of the United States as a world power. “Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy,” an exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York (through September 15), tracks Whitman’s life and work through the immense changes that would shape the course of American democracy for decades to come.

Walt Whitman was born in a small town in Long Island and moved with his family at the age of four to Brooklyn. His father, who appears to have been an alcoholic and who struggled financially, pulled him out of school at age eleven so that Walt could get a job and help the family, but Walt continued to educate himself. He read voraciously, and by the time he became a published poet, he was a mostly self-educated man who knew a great amount about a variety of subjects. His father got him a job as a printer’s apprentice, and Walt fell even more deeply in love with the written word.

Whitman’s life as a writer began when he sent a few poems to the newspaper Brother Jonathan (“Brother Jonathan” was the original symbolic figure of America before “Uncle Sam”), and the exhibit contains an excerpt of one of these poems. Alongside it, before the entrance to the exhibit’s main gallery, is an excerpt from Whitman’s novella Franklin Evans. This novella, incredibly (considering how popular Leaves of Grass would later become), was the most money-making piece of writing that Whitman would produce — something he was not particularly proud of.

Nowhere else in the world would be as fitting a locale for this exhibit as New York, given Whitman’s abiding adoration of this city of “crowded streets—high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies.” New York (as well as Brooklyn, which was still an independent city during Whitman’s lifetime, not being incorporated into New York City until 1898) was the place that formed him most as a person and as a writer. Even though he called New York “my city” in a poem, he didn’t like the name “New York.” Whitman, like many other Americans of his time, was trying to break away from English culture, and “New York” was the English name for the city. He preferred the name “Manhattan” — one of his poems in Leaves of Grass is titled “Manhatta,” and the exhibit showcases the original copy of the poem.

Whitman was a revolutionary writer. He developed free verse, a form of poetry that doesn’t rhyme and that does not follow a poetic meter, and his poetry didn’t tell a story, which was also unusual for 19th-century poetry. Also unconventional was his frequent use of the words “I” and “you,” which created a greater sense of intimacy with his readers and which helped them to identify with him. And Whitman, the self-proclaimed “bard of democracy,” attempted to make his poetry more democratic and more accessible by using fewer traditional poetic devices and more colloquial expressions and simpler idiomatic speech.

Leaves of Grass is the centerpiece of Whitman’s writerly endeavors — and the centerpiece of the American poetic canon as well — and it fittingly occupies a central location in the exhibit. The walls of the gallery are shaded green and painted with blades of grass, mimicking the design and color palette of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and display cases contain original copies of many of the poems from that work. Whitman chose the title “Leaves of Grass” (not “blades,” because blades are too sharp) in order to signify that each of us is like a blade of grass: We are one amongst billions of others — but nonetheless an individual in our own right who deserves to be honored, because without our individual blades there would be no common entity of grass.

Leaves of Grass was revolutionary not only in its structure but in its major themes: the celebration of nature, of the individual, and of the body. Whitman believed that nature was divine and that the body was as sacred as the soul: “Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from. . . . This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.” He believed that any bodily act between two consenting adults was a communion between two individual souls.

Whitman worked on Leaves of Grass for over 30 years. Six editions were published in his lifetime — the first in 1855 and the final one in 1891 — because he kept adding to it. (The Morgan has five of the six editions in its holdings.) The first edition was published in Brooklyn, and only 795 copies were issued. The title page, displayed at the Morgan, contains a lithograph based on a daguerreotype of Whitman dressed in “roughs,” 19th-century workingmen’s dress. This was a costume — Whitman never dressed like this. It was a carefully calculated pose chosen to affect a poetic persona that would be less stuffy and aristocratic and more appealing to the common man.

Whitman, still a mostly unknown poet, had to self-publish the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and it’s possible that he might have remained obscure during his lifetime were it not for his encounter with Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s first great literary critic. Emerson, already an established writer, had written a widely circulated essay about the importance of self-reliance. He believed that institutions had a deleterious effect upon individuals—people should rely on themselves, he thought. Promoting this ideology of anti-institutionalism and radical individualism was another way in which American intellectuals were attempting to break Americans away from European culture.

Whitman read Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” and was electrified: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman later wrote, “and Emerson brought me to a boil.” Following the anti-institutionalist lead of this paean to American individualism, Whitman included a strikingly subversive, highly Emersonian line in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass: “Re-examine all you have been told / in school or church or in any book,” and he sent a copy of the collection to Emerson himself — which, considering that Whitman was almost entirely unknown, was a rather bold act.

Emerson, who had been calling for a new, non-European, uniquely American form of literary writing, instantly knew that Whitman’s poetry was precisely that. Emerson wrote him back a glowing letter: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” adding that he found Leaves of Grass to be “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Whitman, emboldened by the praise, followed up with an even more brazen act and published the letter in the next edition of Leaves of Grass without Emerson’s permission. Emerson understandably took issue with this, but Whitman did not feel the need to abide by conventions. Whitman even sent fake reviews of Leaves of Grass to newspapers. He was a shameless self-promoter, but he needed to be, because Leaves of Grass didn’t really sell.

Whitman was too old to serve in the Civil War — he was 41 when the fighting broke out — but he was nonetheless intimately involved in America’s bloodiest military affair. His brother George served and was wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg. Walt went down to visit him at the Washington, D.C., hospital where he was recuperating and, even after his brother was discharged, decided to stay there. In a feat of compassion and service unmatched before or since in American letters, Whitman volunteered in a hospital for the duration of the war, tending day and night to his “poor boys with pale faces,” as he described them. He became a beloved figure for these soldiers, bringing them letters (some of which are displayed in this exhibit) and sweets and cakes, writing letters home for the wounded who were incapable of writing, and spending countless hours at their bedsides talking to them. In Whitman’s wartime diaries, which were later published, he claimed that the war affected him and his poetry to such an extent that “my book [Leaves of Grass] and the war are one.”

Whitman, like many, was profoundly affected by Lincoln’s assassination. The traumatic event inspired two of his most famous poems, “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” both elegies for Lincoln. He went on a speaking tour in which he gave public readings of these poems, and the exhibit contains a ticket to such an event in Madison Square Garden, as well as an original handwritten copy of “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman, who never earned much from his writing and consequently was always in need of money, sold the copy for a hundred dollars.

Part of the popularity of “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” stems from the fact that they, unlike the other poems in Leaves of Grass, are not written in free verse — they rhyme — and they also tell a story. Whitman likely wrote them in this more conventional fashion precisely to make them more accessible and popular. And yet, for a man who strove so ardently for recognition all his life, he was embarrassed by the success that “O Captain! My Captain!” achieved, almost even regretting having written it; Whitman, who famously wrote “I contain multitudes,” was a man of contradictions, a matter which did not concern him in the least: “Do I contradict myself?” he wrote in Leaves of Grass. “Very well, then I contradict myself.”

For many, including Whitman, the period after the Civil War was a disillusioning time in American civic life. With the assassination of the president who saved the union, the collapse of Reconstruction in the South, and the corruption of politicians and civic institutions, Whitman felt that the country was adrift. “Never perhaps was there more hollowness at heart than at the present,” Whitman wrote. “There is a pervasive meanness [in American life]. What Americans need are not new politicians but new men.” (Plus ça change . . .)

Whitman, one of America’s first literary celebrities, was probably one of the most photographed people in the country in the 19th century. With his long, scraggly white beard and his angled, broad-brimmed hat, he was very distinctive-looking. The exhibit displays several original photographs of him, including a large one in the center of the gallery showing him with a butterfly at the tip of his fingers.

A core component of both Whitman’s life and his poetry was the celebration of oneself as a sensual, embodied being. Leaves of Grass is, among other things, an unabashed extolling of sexual love. Though Emerson was otherwise a champion of Whitman’s, he was far from supportive of Whitman’s penchant for including erotic elements in his poetry. He advised Whitman to delete these sections of Leaves of Grass, but Whitman vigorously rejected this suggestion, telling Emerson,, “If I delete sex, I delete life.” As Whitman told a friend near the end of his life, “sex, sex, sex: sex is the root of it all.”

Whitman was even more radical for his times for being one of the first writers to overtly rhapsodize about same-sex love, as seen perhaps most conspicuously in his “Calamus” cluster, the publication of which, in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, bankrupted his publisher and caused the book to be banned in Boston in 1882. Whitman himself got into trouble over Leaves of Grass — he was fired from a number of jobs because of it — but he never deleted the sexual sections, preferring to stay true to who he was. He never openly divulged his homosexuality, but it is a near certainty that he was gay. The exhibit contains a series of love letters between him and a man named Peter Doyle, an Irish immigrant and a former Confederate soldier who by all accounts was the love of Whitman’s life.

Other than his relationship with Emerson, Whitman’s most significant literary bond may have been his friendship with Oscar Wilde. Wilde, an ardent admirer of Whitman’s, came to America on a speaking tour and met him. They became great friends and were photographed on one occasion together by Napoleon Sarony, perhaps the first celebrity photographer; some of Sarony’s original photos of Wilde and Whitman are displayed in this exhibit, as well as a few copies of flattering letters that Wilde and Whitman exchanged. Wilde, however, did not spare Whitman from his characteristic wit; in what may or may not have been a backhanded compliment, Wilde said that his mother read him Leaves of Grass when he was a child.

Whitman had a stroke at age 54 but lived many years after that. Physically weakened, he moved to Camden, N.J., to be closer to his family. In Camden, Whitman continued to add to Leaves of Grass. Toward the end of the gallery, an etching of his modest Camden house can be seen — it was the only home he ever owned. His status as the bard of democracy and the unofficial poet laureate of America was not rewarded with economic success; Whitman never ascended financially beyond the middle class (or perhaps the lower-middle class), but he never compromised his poetic vision, and, though it may have cost him at times, he never kept his mouth shut — which is probably one of the reasons he’s still beloved today.

The final, complete edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1891. A perennial question in the arts concerns how much of the artist’s persona is embedded in his work and whether we can separate the art from the artist, but with Whitman it’s clear: Leaves of Grass is Whitman — there is no separating the two of them. As he wrote in the first edition of the volume: “This is no book. Who touches this touches a man.”

The national outpouring of affection for Whitman after his death in 1892 was overwhelming. He had wanted to be known as a poet, but at the time of his death he was regarded more as a celebrity than as an artist. At his funeral, the streets were lined with people, the human throng of mourners stretching from his house all the way to the cemetery. It was not exactly a dignified scene — his wake and burial were circus-like — but it did reflect Whitman’s astounding success in achieving the task he set out for himself: A self-educated writer from humble origins, he became the poet par excellence for the common man, and wrote and lived on his own terms

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks — paraphrasing Kierkegaard — likes to say, when a king dies, his power ends, but when a prophet dies, his influence begins; never perhaps was this apothegm more true than it was with Whitman, whose reputation as an influential poetic prophet began in earnest after his death. Whitman not only influenced generations of poets in his wake — from Hart Crane to Allen Ginsberg, D. H. Lawrence, Langston Hughes, John Updike, Federico García Lorca, and André Gide — but influenced visual artists as well. David Hockney — an openly gay painter who also struggled with ways to express his sexuality artistically — based many of his paintings on Whitman’s poetry. Frank Stella, an Italian immigrant who was dazzled by the technology and wonders he found in the New World, and who set out to depict them in painting, wrote that when he was painting the Brooklyn Bridge (a study for which is displayed at the end of the exhibit), “the verse of Walt Whitman” — Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — was “soaring above” him. The exhibit, unfortunately, does not mention Whitman’s influence on Van Gogh, who praised Whitman enthusiastically in letters to friends and family; in fact, it is likely that Van Gogh took the title of his masterpiece Starry Night from Whitman’s poem cluster “From Noon to Starry Night,” which was published in France just before Van Gogh began work upon his chef-d’oeuvre.

The exhibit also makes no mention of Whitman’s immense influence on Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Fernando Pessoa, and Pablo Neruda, nor does it mention how Whitman served as a source of inspiration for Jorge Luis Borges, Willa Cather, E. M. Forster, Ray Bradbury, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Neither does it discuss Whitman’s love of music (he was a great lover of opera in particular) and his influence on composers such as Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Kurt Weill, and Charles Ives, or on folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

Two hundred years after Walt Whitman’s birth, why does he still resonate so? Why do we continue to give our sprigs of lilac to the white-bearded bard? It is on account of more than just his being the bard of democracy, though that aspect of his writerly ethos is certainly significant. We continue to love Whitman because, like the butterflies he so loved, he represents the ever-present possibility of self-transformation — that we too, though we may be encased in stultifying cocoons, can rise out of them and become beautiful, recreated, resplendent new beings. Just as America emerged out of feudal, autocratic Europe to become a free nation, the world’s first democratic republic since ancient Athens and classical Rome, and just as Walter Whitman, Jr., the son of an alcoholic Quaker carpenter, emerged out of obscurity to become Walt Whitman — “America’s poet,” as Ezra Pound regarded him — we too, if we strive for it with all our might, can become new beings; we too can live life on our own terms. Whitman represents the infinite possibilities of self-discovery and self-expansion that are open to us if only we heed their call. His life, like his poetry, continues to stand for us as an example of the unbounded freedom and the actualization of our infinitely valuable selves that we all deeply yearn to achieve.

Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer and a Ph.D. candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) of America in New York, and is studying English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written for The Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, and Harvard Divinity Bulletin, among other publications.

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