Essay Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman 1819–1892
American poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, journalist, and editor.
Although commonly and critically regarded as one of America's premier poets, Whitman remains in some ways a controversial figure. Leaves of Grass, his masterpiece, was revolutionary in both its style and content, praising the divinity of the self, of the common individual. The volume was directed at those Americans who, in Whitman's opinion, had been ignored by their country's literature, a literature which had typically targeted the upper echelons of society. Throughout his life and work, Whitman promoted himself as the poet of American democracy and of the common man. Yet the focus of his poetry on the sanctity and divinity of the self has been criticized as being more egotistical than spiritual, and his exploration and exaltation of sexuality and homosexuality has been both deplored and downplayed. Additionally, critics have analyzed how the Civil War changed Whitman's poetry, and have studied his ambivalent views on the subject of the treatment of Native Americans during his lifetime.
Born on Long Island and raised and educated on Long Island and in Brooklyn, Whitman was the second of nine children. Leaving school at age eleven, he worked as a law office clerk, and later, as a typesetter's apprentice. After teaching school and starting his own newspaper, he began editing various papers. He also published poems and short stories in periodicals. In 1842, Whitman published a temperance novel entitled Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate; he later dismissed the work as "damned rot." The first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855 at Whitman's own expense. Nine editions would eventually be published. During the Civil War, Whitman cared for wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1862 and later worked as a copyist in the army paymaster's office from 1863 to 1864. After the war, he worked for a short time for the Department of the Interior but was fired when it was discovered that he was the author of the allegedly obscene Leaves of Grass. Rehired as a Justice Department clerk, Whitman remained in this position until he suffered a paralytic
stroke in 1873, which left him partially disabled. He had recently published a philosophical essay, Democratic Vistas (1871) and the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass. While he lived for nearly twenty more years, Whitman produced little new work of significance, focusing instead on revising and rearranging Leaves of Grass.
Leaves of Grass, in its final version, contains poems Whitman wrote between 1855 and 1892. The major themes of the work include democracy, sexuality, death, and immortality; universality and the divine nature of the self are also concepts that thread their way through much of his work. The first edition contained twelve poems, which shocked the public with their realistic imagery and candid discussions of sexuality. The volume received little praise from critics, with Ralph Waldo Emerson being the notable exception. In later editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman created new poems, revised existing ones, added and changed titles, and thematically grouped the poems. In Drum-Taps (1865) and Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-66), Whitman recorded many of his war experiences and mourned the loss of nation and lives. Drum-Taps was later incorporated into Leaves of Grass.
While many critics concede that Whitman's concept of the self is of major significance in his work, V. K. Chari maintains that it is the "organizing principle" of Whitman's poetry. In analyzing Whitman's notion of the self, Chari maintains that to Whitman, the self was the true meaning and center of all existence, and that reality was not separate or different from the self. Chari demonstrates both the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson's writing on Whitman and identifies the similarities between Whitman's views and Hindu philosophy. Additionally, while many critics observe a duality in Whitman's concept of the self (the body versus the spirit, the individual versus the universal), Chari emphasizes the unified, monistic nature of Whitman's self. E. Fred Carlisle concentrates on the relationship in Whitman's poetry between the self and both death and spirit. Carlisle argues that Whitman portrays death in a variety of ways: as a passage into a new life or into oblivion, as an end to suffering, as a threat, and as completion and fulfillment. Throughout Leaves of Grass, Carlisle states, Whitman attempts to comprehend how death serves or links the self and the spirit. Like Chari and Carlisle, David Kuebrich is concerned with Whitman's spirituality and argues that, contrary to the conviction of numerous critics, Whitman intended to begin a "new religion" and promoted his readers' spiritual development by offering them an orderly vision linking religion with contemporary ideas on American culture. Kuebrich outlines the way in which many modern critics address Whitman's spirituality, showing that they dismiss his religious language as "the symbolic manifestation of the distorted desires of the id," and that his spirituality is disregarded as his attempt, later in life, to fashion his earlier work as religious and prophetic. For M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Whitman's notion of the self is one that contains elements of the individual and the universal. Unlike Chari, Killingsworth highlights the duality of Whitman's concept of self, focusing on an apparent tension between singularity and diversity. Similarly, Mitchell Robert Breitwieser identifies in Whitman's poetry two distinct "I's" or "selves," the first "I" being a small, timid, individual, voice and the second "I" being a large, universal, affirming voice.
Just as the nature and significance of Whitman's concept of the self is a battleground for many critics, so is the issue of the centrality and importance of the sexual, and homosexual, themes in his poetry. Kenneth M. Price maintains that sexual themes—such as voyeurism, nonprocreative sexuality, and female sexuality—and the way Whitman treats such topics, influenced writers of narrative fiction. Price analyzes the way in which the approaches to sexual themes in the works of Hamlin Garland, Kate Chopin, and E. M. Forster are indebted to Whitman. Byrne R. S. Fone surveys the manner in which the homoeroticism in Whitman's text has been addressed by early and modern critics. Byrne argues that, in many cases, the homophobia inherent in the discourse of these Whitman scholars has detracted from the quality of textual and biographical analyses. Similarly, Betsy Erkkila notes that there is a critical tradition which has been responsible for "silencing, spiritualizing, heterosexualizing, or marginalizing Whitman's sexual feeling for men." Erkkila states that when critics do recognize the centrality of homosexuality to Whitman's work, often they maintain a distinction between the private Whitman and the public Whitman, as "the poet of democracy." In challenging this distinction, Erkkila contends that Whitman's "sexual love of men" is central to his "democratic vision and experimental poetics" in Leaves of Grass.
Whitman's interest in democracy and American political events and issues is revealed in his poetry and is a major focus of criticism. In particular, critics observe how the Civil War and Whitman's experience in it greatly influenced his poetry. James Dougherty investigates this influence, as demonstrated in Drum-Taps. Dougherty states that "Drum-Taps represents Whitman's bid to be 'absorbed' by America not as a radically democratic visionary but as the inheritor and master of a tradition according to which poems were like pictures." In his analysis of the strong visual images in Drum-Taps, Dougherty argues that while at first glance such "photographic" poems seem to be a new element in Whitman's work and seem to characterize Drum-Taps, in fact, such poems were presaged by Whitman's earlier work and are not the only type of poem in the volume. fürthermore, Dougherty identifies a conflict in the book between different styles and different points of view. This conflict, Dougherty argues, represents a tension not only between Whitman's pre-war faith in "physical and spiritual regeneration" and his post-war loss of that faith; the conflict also points to Whitman's doubts regarding his "original poetic." Another American political issue to fascinate Whitman was the treatment of Native Americans. Noting that Whitman's professional life was "framed" beginning in the late 1830s by the Great Removal of Native Americans to what would become Oklahoma, and fifty years later by the Wounded Knee massacre, Ed Folsom observes in Whitman's poetry and short stories a deeply ambivalent attitude toward Native Americans. Folsom asserts that "Whitman's plan to absorb the Indian via his poetry was … double-edged: his project admitted the inevitable loss of Indian cultures, but it simultaneously argued for the significance of those cultures and for the necessity of preserving them—as a warning, lesson, inspiration—at the heart of our memories, deep in the lines of authentic American poems."
1. Describe Whitman’s conceptions of the soul and the body, and the relationship between the two. Which is more important, in his view?
The soul and the body are inextricably linked for Whitman. While the soul is the ultimate repository of the self, and connection between souls is the highest order of relating, the body is the vessel that allows the soul to experience the world. Therefore the body is just as important. This is why he says in “Starting from Paumanok” that he will make his poems from the body and from material things, for the soul will follow from those. The body is also the source of identity in the world and the means for connection to others. Thus in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he speaks of the body as one’s identity: it is the means by which different generations can experience the same thing (in this case the ferry crossing). Whitman values both the soul and the body, but the body is much easier to work with.
2. How do you account for the eroticism in Whitman’s poetry? Does he use homosexual eroticism differently from heterosexual eroticism?
Eroticism, in Whitman’s poetry, symbolizes the profound but always incomplete communion between people. Sex is as close as two people can get to becoming one, but the physical body, while it enables this closeness, is also a barrier to complete connection. Heterosexual eroticism is often used to discuss childbearing, which comes out of the same generative process that creates poetry. Homoeroticism, since it is purely about the connection between two people and has no biological function, can be used to talk about a broader range of ideas. In particular, homoeroticism comes to symbolize the kind of valorization of the body and the kind of sympathetic connection between people that Whitman values most.
3. What kinds of structures does Whitman use in his poetry? Why might he be using these rather than traditional structures like rhyme?
Two of the most important structures in Whitman’s poetry are the list and the anecdote. The list enables Whitman to present a great number of disparate items without having to make any claims as to their relative worth; this is a truly democratic way of presenting material. It is also an easy way for him to go about cataloguing America, a nation that is raw material for poetry. Anecdotes, on the other hand, are a way for him to demonstrate the kind of sympathetic experience he hopes his poetry will be. When he presents a story he’s heard from another, he presents it as something that has become so real to him that he feels he has experienced it himself. This kind of intense connection between people is the goal of Whitman’s poetry. He avoids traditional structures like rhyme because he wants to show that his is a truly American poetry, one that is fresh and new, and not indebted to previous poets from other countries.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Describe Whitman’s diction. What kind of language does he use? Does this have implications politically? Poetically?
2. Discuss the relationship of the poems in Leaves of Grass to one another. Are they intended to be read together or separately? Do they form one larger document? What about the different editions of Leaves of Grass? Why did Whitman keep revising this work?
3. How does Whitman handle modernity and technological change? What kinds of landscapes do we see in his poetry? What role does the city play? What role does nature play?
4. What is uniquely American about Whitman’s poetry? Consider both substance and style.
5. How does Whitman incorporate current events into his poetry? What about the Civil War?
6. What, in Whitman’s view, is the function of poetry? Does it have a public or ceremonial role?
7. Describe Whitman’s account of his development as a poet. What experiences were important, and why?