Walt Whitman - Prophet In His Shirt-sleeves
( Originally Published 1916 )
MOST ORIGINAL OF ALL AMERICAN WRITERS HE DEFIED CONVENTIONALITY AND PAID THE FULL PENALTY.
WALT WHITMAN is the most original of American authors in form, in thought, and in expression. Yet he is a fine instance of the prophet who is not without honor save in his own country. From the time that Whitman issued his Leaves of Grass he had far more readers and admirers in England than in this country. It is only within the last few years that interest in Whitman and his work has extended in America beyond mere curiosity. Even now it is rare to find well-read Americans who have any close acquaintance with Whitman's work, especially with the prose sketches which he wrote in his later years and which contain some of his best thought. Most Americans seem content to read articles about Whitman instead of reading his verse and prose.
Walt Whitman could have developed in no other country than this. With small school education, he labored for many years to gather the curious information which may be found scattered through his works. He never could lay any claim to scholarship, but he certainly gained as thorough a knowledge of the great writers of classical and modern times as any reader of English alone could secure. And he appraised all these writers in his own way, uninfluenced by the opinions of critics or admirers. From each he drew some measure of stimulus or inspiration, and his criticism of their literary value is always well worth reading.
The development of Walt Whitman's genius is one of the curiosities of literature. Here was a stolid, lymphatic boy, of more than ordinary physical strength, yet of great deliberation of movement, who was endowed with a high-strung nervous system. The result was that in early youth he was swept by desires and sensations which he could not understand. Often the presence of others could not be endured. Then he would make trips to the woods or the seashore, where in undisturbed solitude he was able to read and enjoy the world's great masterpieces. Constant brooding over the desire to produce a book in which a real man's passion and thought should be mirrored, induced a kind of mystic state in which the body remained inert, while the mind seemed to gain absolute freedom and to work in space. Some-thing of the same result is achieved by the East Indian mystics after long cultivation of the power of self-hypnosis. That much of Whitman's first work was produced under these conditions seems certain. In no other way can one explain the sense of exaltation that carries him along and that gives to his long resounding lines some-thing of the rhythmical sweep of waves on the seashore.
Nothing in Whitman's early life can explain his curious mental development or the first fruits of it Leaves of Grass, Whitman was of mixed English and Dutch stock; he spent most of his early years in a peaceful village of Long Island; his early impressions were of rural sights and sounds and of the seashore, which always profoundly appealed to him. After a common school education he became a printer and for ten years either worked at the case or wrote for various publications. In these formative years he wrote many stories and sketches which were merely imitations of work that he had read. He varied his literary occupations with teaching and with work at his father's trade of carpentering; but through all these apprentice years he was an eager devourer of books, a constant attendant at the theater and. the opera, and a close student of the life of New York streets, of which he never tired.
At the mature age of thirty-five years, he suddenly dropped all other activities and devoted himself to writing his great work, which was to be unique in the fact that it included the cosmic life of man. But Whitman did not don singing robes and produce his poem out of the fulness of thought and emotion. He labored over it with painstaking care, rewriting most of it no less than five times before it satisfied him. He also wrote a long preface in which he tried to demonstrate the principles of a national literature. He could have rewritten this preface with profit, as many passages are so filled with the spirit of a vague transcendentalism that it is difficult to grasp their meaning.
Whitman wrought on additional poems to his Leaves of Grass until the second year of the war. Then the news that his younger brother, who had volunteered, was wounded, took him to Washington. He found his brother only slightly hurt, but the spectacle of the thousands of wounded borne to improvised hospitals at the capital profoundly moved Whitman. He deter-mined to stay in Washington and do some-thing to help these wounded soldier boys. Many he found suffering from homesickness: these he cheered. Every day he carried into the hospitals in a haversack little necessaries and comforts, letter paper, envelopes and stamps. When a man could not write, Whitman wrote letters for him. This service he continued for months, and the testimony of many who witnessed his work was that his mere presence, his magnetic speech and touch, were far more effective than medicines. Out of this work came his truest book Drum Taps in which was afterwards included his splendid tributes to Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed and O Captain, My Captain!
A desk in the Indian Bureau Whitman secured early in 1865, and the salary allowed him to carry on his work among the soldiers. The unspeakable bigotry of James Harlan, then Secretary of the Interior, cost Whitman his position, as the Secretary declared he would not keep in office the author of an indecent book. But the poet was immediately transferred to the United States Attorney's department, and the incident would have been forgotten but for the championship of W. D. O'Connor, a warm friend, who in a pamphlet entitled The Good Gray Poet defended Whitman and held Harlan up to public scorn. The result was unfortunate for Whitman, as it revived the discussion of what was merely an incidental feature of his poem.
His excessive work in the hospitals broke down Whitman's health and a paralytic stroke made him almost helpless for several months. But his insistence upon living in the open air and his sane methods of daily exercise finally worked a cure. Out of his close communion with Nature came a collection of prose sketches, called Specimen Days and Collect, which contains some of his best work.
Whitman's last years, when he was kept indoors by a recurrence of paralysis, were made memorable by the homage paid to him by many famous men. His home in Camden, New jersey, was visited by hundreds, some of whom have left records of the wonderful effect produced by the simple inspiring presence of the aged poet. Whitman retained his faculties to the end, his death was serene, befitting the blame-less life he had led for years.
Whitman's own definition of his purpose in writing Leaves of Grass was "to articulate and faithfully express in literary or poetic form, and uncompromisingly, my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual and esthetic Personality, in the midst of, and tallying, the momentous spirit and facts of its immediate days and of Current America." He also declares that he decided to omit all "stock poetical touches," all references to other poems, all allusions to the classics. He would admit any good expressive slang if it fitted his meaning. In a word, he proposed to write a poem which should be absolutely original, vitally American, and devoted to exploiting the nature, the hopes and the ambitions of a real man.
Judged by this standard, Leaves of Grass was a success. But the American public would have nothing of it and most of the critics condemned it utterly. Only Emerson, Edward Everett Hale, and a few other wise critics saw the great merits of the poem shining through its many defects. Undismayed by lack of public appreciation, Whitman soon got out a second and much enlarged edition of the book. He refused to soften or omit any of the passages filled with sexual imagery which offended Emerson and many of his friends. He declared that these objections were prudish and that he would rest his claim to fame on the work as he had written it — the full-blooded, declamatory expression of a Man's ideas of the universe. It is difficult to give a few lines that will convey the sense of the power of Love with which Whitman has flooded this poem, but these verses reveal him at his best as a lover of the earth:
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
But Walt Whitman revealed himself more truly in two minor books than in Leaves of Grass. One is Drum-raps, of which Bliss Perry says it embodies "the very spirit of the civil conflict, picturing war with a poignant realism, a terrible and tender beauty, such as only the great masters of literature have been able to compass." The other, Speciman Days and Collect, is a collection of prose sketches which reveal the lover of man and nature without any rhetorical posing.