Walt Whitman, and his contemporary Emily Dickinson, were the seminal poets of their era, and had influence on American poetry far beyond their lifetimes. Which, of course, means they get studied in English classes, and that’s where I first encountered this book, during my master’s degree studies.
These classes naturally focus on bits and pieces of his multi-edition collection, Leaves of Grass, and especially his “Song of Myself,” but I wanted to read this entire book, not only to get the full measure of Whitman’s poetry, but to read his prose writing, which gets far less attention. I’m glad I did.
The hallmarks of Whitman’s early work are not just how he abandoned the stiff formalism of the poetry that came before, but how he would pile up lists of the characteristics and qualities of whatever or whoever he was writing about. By reading more of his work, it’s possible to see how his writing evolved, how he moved away from the lists in his later work, especially after the Civil War.
Another aspect that comes out in a wider reading is his transcendentalist views: the unity and essential goodness of all things. He clearly took a lot of this from Ralph Waldo Emerson. That comes through in spades in his sometimes-fawning 1856 letter to Emerson, accompanying a copy of the latest version of Leaves, in which he calls the philosopher “Master” several times. This transcendentalism seems to get little attention in academic circles.
Something that does get a lot of attention there is Whitman’s supposed homosexuality. Certainly, he does frequently mention love between men, but this seems more consistent with his transcendentalism. In his introductory essay, Professor Michael Warner notes that displays of affection between men, including kissing on the lips, was far more common, and far less sexual, in pre-Civil War America than it is today. Further, homosexuality fails to explain poems like “From Pent-Up Aching Rivers” from the 1860 edition of Leaves, and “A Woman Waits for Me” from the 1856 edition. Nor does it explain his predictions of the future equality of women with men. His transcendentalism provides a better explanation, and a less agenda-driven basis from which to see his love (including, perhaps, sexual love) of both men and women.
Perhaps the most interesting of his prose work, and certainly the most readable, are his diary entries from the time he spent in Washington, D. C., during the Civil War. While his poem collections “Drum Taps” and “Sequel to Drum Taps” showed the war from a poet’s perspective, the diaries are far more personal. Whitman visited the many hospitals set up in and around the city almost daily, and spent hours, even whole nights, with the soldiers (Confederate as well as Union) being cared for there. These short pieces were apparently published in city newspapers because he reported people sending him money to give to the hospitalized soldiers, which he did. He also gave them fruit, candy, tobacco, and paper and envelopes to write letters home. Sometimes he wrote a dying soldier’s farewell letter to his family.
These entries stand in contrast to Whitman’s earlier poems in their simplicity and directness. And they give a stark insight into the aftermath of the many bloody battles the two sides fought, and the state of medical care available to the wounded at the time. Whitman comments repeatedly on the stoicism and toughness of the soldiers, often in the face of isolation from friends and family, extreme pain, and even impending death.
The only parts of this book that I simply could not get through were his introductions to the various editions of Leaves. The long, flowing sentences of his poetry simply didn’t translate well into prose, where I often completely lost track of what he was trying to say in his lists and digressions. Instead of flowing and lyrical, the sentences were too often turgid and incomprehensible.
Finally, Whitman is unabashed and unapologetic for his love of America. His expressions of its superiority over any other nation may be a bit over the top at times but lack the mean-spiritedness of jingoism. Even in the face of the reality of slavery, which he opposed as a moral wrong, he nevertheless found plenty to love and celebrate in this nation. This too is something that seems to go ignored, if not derided, in academic circles.
If you’ve only ever studied bits and pieces of Whitman’s poetry, that kind of “Whitman Sampler” doesn’t do the poet full justice. Take the time to read it all to get the full measure of his art, how it evolved over time, and how it influenced the generations of poets who followed.