The Later Historians
Read More Articles About: American Literature
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The most startling and debatable contribution to American literature is that made by Walt Whitman (1819-1892). It claimed to be the true voice of Democratic America, and while the claim has been admitted by a scholarly few here, and acknowledged by an equal number of scholarly poets in Europe, there is no evidence that it has been so accepted anywhere by the people. Longfellow and Whittier they know and respect, Whitcomb Riley and -Will Carleton they quote, but Whitman they care nothing for. Nor does there seem any likelihood that the few enthusiastic admirers will be able to infuse their warm feeling into the apathetic masses. Yet respect must be paid to the high endorsement which this singular poet has obtained from critics of high rank.
Walt Whitman was born at West Hills, Long Island, in May, 1819. His father was an English carpenter, his mother Dutch, and there was a strain of Quaker blood in him. While he was a boy the family moved to Brooklyn, where he attended the common schools and became a compositor. He began to write for newspapers and in 1838 to publish a weekly paper at Huntington, Long Island, but after two years' experience returned to the printer's case. He cultivated familiarity with working-men of all classes in New York city. In 1846 he was editor of the "Brooklyn Eagle" and afterward set out on a long tour through the Western and Southern States, until he reached New Orleans, getting employment as compositor or editor in various places. Then he returned in the same way to Brooklyn and engaged in building small houses. In 1855 he published his "Leaves of Grass," having set most of the type himself. Rhyme and the old regular forms of verse were discarded. Lines of various lengths were joined in stanzas quite as abnormal. Slang and uncouth phrases were used, and a bold egotism was everywhere manifested. "Toward all" exclaimed the author, "I raise high the perpendicular hand —I make the signal, to remain after me in sight for-ever, for all the haunts and homes of men." The book met with little but ridicule until Emerson, ever generous and alert for new genius, wrote the author a letter of praise. This letter was published in an enlarged edition of the "Leaves," containing matter much more objection-able than anything in the first. Whitman's thought was a singular outgrowth of the strong individualism of the Transcendental School, but Emerson was repelled by its later manifestations. The Pre-Raphaelites in England hailed the author as the type of the new American. In New York city Whitman became the hero of a Bohemian club of young "cameradoes." Then came the Civil War and Whitman went to Washington, where for a time he had employment as a clerk in the Department of the Interior, and afterward devoted himself to visiting the wounded in hospitals. The war experiences inspired his volume of. lyrics, "Drum-Taps" (1866), mournful rather than exhilarating. From 1865 to 1873 Whitman was a clerk in the Treasury Department, then, having had a stroke of paralysis, he removed to Camden, New Jersey, where in a whitewashed cottage he was supported by the generosity of a few friends. His tastes were simple, his wants few. The evening of his life was passed in cheerful serenity. Most of his poems were gathered in late editions of his "Leaves of Grass," but he added "November Boughs," "Specimen Days and Collect," and "Good Bye, My Fancy." Whitman's aim was to set forth in poetic spirit, if not recognized poetic form, American manhood. At times he presents himself without conventional disguise, "hankering, gross, mystical, nude;" at times he calls attention to the swarming multitude around him, with all their various movements and desires, and refuses to pronounce any common or unclean; at times, he describes as the goal of American progress a grand personification of free and pure Humanity.