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Walt Whitman(1819-1892) Image Courtesy Library of Congress

Walt Whitman(1819-1892) Image Courtesy Library of Congress

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Walt Whitman(1819-1892) Image Courtesy Library of Congress

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  1. Walt Whitman(1819-1892)Image Courtesy Library of Congress

  2. Key Facts about Whitman • Walt Whitman was born on Long Island on May 31, 1819. His father was a carpenter and a farmer. • In 1823, the Whitmans moved to Brooklyn. • Whitman attended public schools for five years and then worked as an office boy. • In 1836, he returned to Long Island to teach school for two years, after which he headed back to New York to work as a journalist and editor. • In 1842, he published a temperance novel, Franklin Evans. Previously, he had published a few short stories. About this time he started to frequent the opera. • For the next two decades, Whitman worked as a printer and journalist. He was appointed editor of the Brooklyn Eagle from 1846-1848. He was dismissed for his pro Free-Soil views.

  3. Key Facts about Whitman • In 1848, he moved with his brother Jeff to New Orleans where he remained for about three months and worked on the New Orleans Crescent. He returned to Brooklyn via St. Louis, Chicago, and upstate New York. • In 1855, he issued his first edition of Leaves of Grass, the dramatic moment in American literary history received only slight attention. He would reissue expanded and revised versions of Leaves in nine editions throughout his life. • Over the next few years, he edited various papers, including the Brooklyn Times.

  4. Key Facts about Whitman • During the Civil War, he tended to the injured (including his wounded brother George) and dying first in hospitals and then on battlefields. His nursing inspired Drum-Taps (1865), his Civil War poems. • In 1865, he worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, until it was discovered that he was the author of the “indecent” Leaves of Grass. He was, however, hired by the attorney general’s office, where he worked in Washington, D.C until 1873 when he suffered a stroke and had to live with his brother George in Camden, NJ. He lived the last nineteen years of his life in Camden. • By the late 1860s, Whitman’s reputation began to spread. In recognition of Whitman’s poetry, his friend William Douglas O’Connor published The Good Gray Poet (1866). In the 1870s German critics discussed his work, and in the 1880s, his poems were translated into German and French.

  5. Key Facts about Whitman • Recovered sufficiently from his stroke, Whitman embarked on a serious of lecture tours from 1877 to 1879. He traveled as far West as Nevada and he visited a friend in Canada in 1880. • In 1881, Leaves of Grass was published by a Boston firm, but was soon classified by the Massachusetts district attorney as obscene. Whitman refused to edit the work and moved it to a Philadelphia publisher. • In 1882, he published Specimen Days and Collect. • In 1883, with the proceeds of his publications, he bought a small house on Mickle Street in Camden, NJ. His home became a place of pilgrimage for many American and British authors. • In 1888, he suffered a second more severe stroke. • He issued his ninth edition of Leaves, often called the “Deathbed Edition,” first in 1891 and then again in 1892. • Whitman died on March 26, 1892.

  6. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Emerson’s Influence Whitman once said, I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil. Consider Emerson’s statements in “The Poet”: [The poet] stands among partial men for the complete man … He is isolated among his contemporaries by truth and by his art, but with this consolation in his pursuits, that they will draw all men sooner or later. For it is not meters, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem, a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. … For the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.

  7. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Critical Reaction to Leaves of Grass As the introduction in the text states, in its “frankness” and “revolutionary form” Leaves of Grass provoked strong reactions: • Rufus Griswold called it “a mass of stupid filth.” • John Greenleaf Whittier reportedly burned his copy. • One London review said that Leaves of Grass proves that the fields of American literature need weeding. • Another London review said that Whitman should be publicly flogged.

  8. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Critical Reaction to Leaves of Grass Of course, not all reviews were negative: • Putnam’s read, “It is a mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism, and, what must be surprising to both these elements, they here seem to fuse and combine with the most perfect harmony.” • Whitman used his print contacts to write laudatory reviews of his own work: “An American bard at last!” read one.

  9. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Critical Reaction to Leaves of Grass I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. … I give you joy of your free & brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment, which so delights me, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career… I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best of merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging. --Letter from Emerson to Whitman, July 21, 1855

  10. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Critical Reaction to Leaves of Grass About Emerson’s letter to Whitman, David Reynolds wrote: In its simple elegance, this is the Gettysburg Address of American literary commentary. If Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address remade America as Garry Wills says, Emerson’s letter came close to making Whitman. Just as the Gettysburg Address soared above the details of battles or political squabbles and made an eloquent generalization about the goals of the nation, so Emerson’s letter made a holistic, transcendental statement about Whitman’s poetry. The first edition of Leaves of Grass had brought together all aspects of cultural experience into an organic whole, and its wholeness was matched by Emerson’s response, which moved beyond details straight to the health-affirming, fortifying effects Whitman had tried to achieve. --Walt Whitman’s America (1995)

  11. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Whitman’s Poetics Free Verse • While Whitman did not invent free verse, the lack of meter and rhyme in his poetry is a major technical innovation. • By throwing off the restrictions of iambic meter, with its regular rising and falling pattern, Whitman liberated himself and created a more personal rhythm, something that corresponded with the ebb and flow of his own emotional vibrancy. • Whitman emancipated American poetry from the iamb. William Carlos Williams said that all Americans who write in iambs have to show cause as to why it is the proper form for them.

  12. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Whitman’s Poetics • Long, rolling lines. Each line in Whitman is a rhythmic unit and usually end stopped. These lines have their source in the King James Bible. • Parallelisms, anaphora, alliteration, assonance. Whitman uses all these devices to create rhythm. • Bold language combining colloquialisms with archaisms. Whitman uses words that the Fireside Poets would avoid: “yawp,” “arm-pits,” “bowels,” e.g. He did not eliminate archaic poetic expressions, however. • Roughness. Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” gives his poetry an edge. • Cataloging. Whitman’s lists create rhythm while giving him a largeness.

  13. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Whitman’s Poetic Personae Whitman as Narcissus Whitman’s favorite subject is himself: • Leaves of Grass has extraordinary passages of boastfulness, self-absorption, self-love, and self-aggrandizement: • Consider Song of Myself (pp. 915–55): I celebrate myself, and sing myself … (sec. 1) Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, Turbulent, fleshly, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them, No more modest than immodest. (sec. 24) I am large, I contain multitudes. (sec. 51)

  14. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Whitman’s Poetic Personae Whitman as Adam • There is a childlike innocence, enthusiasm, and optimism throughout Whitman. • In The American Adam, R.W.B. Lewis writes that “the fullest portrayal of the new world’s representative man as a new, American Adam was given by Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass – in the liberated, innocent, solitary, forward-thrusting personality that animates the whole of that long poem.” • In his cataloging, Whitman seems to delight in naming whatever his eye or mind alights. • See “As Adam Early in the Morning” (pp. 956), “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (pp. 961–66), and “There Was a Child Went Forth” (pp. 976–77).

  15. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Whitman’s Poetic Personae The Ultimate Democrat • Thoreau said, “Whitman is the greatest democrat of all time.” • Whitman saw himself as a symbol of the “divine average.” • He embraced and celebrated all peoples and occupations in his poetry. He was a friend to all. • See “Once I Pass’d through a Populous City” (p. 956) “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (pp. 957–61), selections from Drum-Taps (pp. 966–70), and “The Sleepers” (pp. 978–84).

  16. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Whitman’s Poetic Personae Whitman as Social Activist • Whitman took action from principle. An ardent abolitionist, he professed freedom for all. • During the Civil War, he aided the Northern cause by volunteering as a nurse. • See selections from Drum-Taps (pp. 966–70) and section 10 of Song of Myself (p. 921).

  17. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Whitman’s Poetic Personae Poet of the City & Nature • “Remember,” said Whitman, “the book arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for fifteen years, with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equalled.” • In Walt Whitman Reconsidered, Richard Chase said that Whitman “is peculiarly urban in his mentality and he looks at nature as a city man.” • See Song of Myself, sections 24 and 42 (pp. 931–32, 946–47).

  18. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Whitman’s Poetic Personae Poet of the City & Nature • Just as Whitman is the “poet of the Body and … poet of the Soul” (Song of Myself, section 21, pp. 928–29), he can be both poet of the city and of nature. • Whitman is very comfortable in nature. He draws on natural imagery for the title of his collection. • He sees nature as do other Romantics: i.e., as a teacher, comforter, and spiritual resource. • See Song of Myself (sections 6, 31, 39, pp. 918–19, 935–36, 944).

  19. Key Issues in Whitman’s Poetry: Whitman’s Poetic Personae Poet of the City & Nature Consider how Whitman reconciles nature and the city in “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun”: Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows, Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape, Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals teaching content … Give me solitude, give me Nature … These to procure incessantly asking, rising in cries from my heart, While yet incessantly asking still I adhere to my city.

  20. Reading The American Tradition in Literature 11/e • Read the heading and selections for Walt Whitman (pp. 898–986) • Read Emily Dickinson’s letter of 25 April 1862 to T. W. Higginson in which she mentions Whitman (pp. 1017–18). Ariel American • Visit the Ariel American CD-ROM and explore the resources available there on Whitman, including an electronic version of sections 1-6 of “Song of Myself,” with hyperlinked notes; a reading of “ Oh Captain! My Captain!”; and a recording of “An Artillery Man’s Vision,” with images of a Civil War battlefield.

  21. Writing Topics • Consider Whitman in light of Emerson’s “The American Scholar” (pp. 395–408). Would Emerson consider Whitman an American scholar? • Compare Whitman’s poetic style and diction to Longfellow’s (pp. 799–831), Whittier’s (pp. 831–38), and Holmes’s (pp. 838–44). • Compare the Civil War poetries of Whitman and Melville, including selections from Melville’s Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (pp. 724–25) and selections from Whitman’s Drum Taps (pp. 966–70).