It’s Walt Whitman’s birthday, a day that one fan predicted would be celebrated much like Christmas.
We aren’t quite there yet, but for a guy who only wrote one book, he’s made a lasting impression. He was the poet of the Transcendentalists – Emerson, Alcott and Thoreau all thought highly of him. The British treated him as a serious poet before his fellow-countrymen did and it took the death of a president to earn him acceptance here.
His poems, by mid-19th century standards, were considered obscene, shockingly sensual, but of course are laughably tame by today’s standards.
His only book – Leaves of Grass – was 30 years in the making, beginning with the first edition in 1855 and going through nine editions right up until two months before his death in 1892. He added poems, deleted or changed others all along the way, but declared it done at last while on his deathbed.
Whitman was born in 1819 in West Hills NY. He was the second of nine children, had to leave school at 11 to help support the family – things were pretty sketchy for the Whitmans and they moved frequently, winding up at one point in Brooklyn. When the family moved again, Walt stayed in Brooklyn to work, learning journalism first from a printer’s viewpoint. He stayed in the newspaper business, on and off, most of his life, except for a government job in Washington during the Civil War, which gave him time to volunteer as a nurse in a military hospital.
If you don’t know the poems well, chances are you nonetheless encountered ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ – his elegy on the death of Lincoln – at some point in school. But probably more of us are familiar with Ray Bradbury’s version of ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ than Whitman’s and ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ was co-opted pretty successfully by D.W. Griffith.
Here’s a brief, fairly readable sample from Leaves of Grass – IMO Whitman is kind of stilted and not very interesting:
Full of Life Now
Full of life now, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the eighty-third year of the States,
To one a century hence or any number of centuries hence,
To you yet unborn these, seeking you.
When you read these I that was visible am become invisible,
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me,
Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)
Leaves of Grass, btw, means Pages of Trivial Stuff, ‘ grass’ being newspaper slang at the time for unimportant filler material. All of it is available at Project Gutenberg. A good biography is Whitman:The Song of Himself by Jerome Loving.