Walt Whitman, greatest of American poets, was born on a farm owned by his father near West Hills, Long Island, New York, on the last day of May, 1819. He died in a tiny old house of his own on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, at the end of March, 1892. The span of his life ran from American slavery through the Civil War to American freedom and the approaching dawn of the twentieth century.
Whitman did not fight in the War Between the States. He hated war and killing, but he devoted much of his time to nursing and caring for the wounded, both Northern and Southern, white or Negro, Yankee or Rebel. At Culpeper, Virginia, a staging area, he saw enough of combat to sicken him against war. But on errands of mercy, he went out to the battlefields and into field hospitals. From his friends he solicited money to buy cookies, candies, ice cream, magazines, and papers for the wounded. He tended them, read to them, wrote letters home for those who could not write, and cheered them with stories. He helped those with leg injuries to learn to walk again.
In 1864, assisting a surgeon in an amputation, Walt Whitman was accidentally cut with a gangrenous scalpel. An infection set in which caused him complications in later life. While carrying on this voluntary nursing among the wounded in and near Washington, Whitman held a job as a clerk in the Indian Office. The attacks of narrow-minded readers on his poetry caused him to lose this job. But, through the help of friends, he secured a place in the Attorney General’s office. In the late night hours, he continued to write his poems of democracy, articles, and letters for the papers.
His position in the Indian Office was not the first that Whitman had lost because of his liberal views. He had been an editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, but was fired there in 1848 because he refused to support Governor Cass of Michigan who advocated the continuation of slavery. Whitman called people like Cass “Dough Faces,” because of their condonance of Southern slavery.
Whitman abhorred slave catchers and those who gave them aid or supported their political beliefs. In the New York Evening Post, Whitman wrote:
We are all docile dough-faces,
They knead us with the fist,
They, the dashing Southern Lords,
We labor as they list.
For them we speak—or hold our tongue,
For them we turn and twist.
There had been a half-dozen or so slaves on the ancestral Whitman Farm, and young Walt had played with them as a child. Perhaps that is where he acquired his sympathy for the Negro People, and his early belief that all men should be free—a belief that grew to embrace the peoples of the whole world, expressed over and over throughout his poems, encompassing not only America but the colonial peoples, the serfs of tsarist Russia, the suppressed classes everywhere. His spiritual self roamed the earth wherever the winds of freedom blow however faintly, keeping company with the foiled revolutionaries of Europe or the suppressed coolies of Asia.
Because the vast sweep of democracy is still incomplete even in America today, because revolutionaries seeking to break old fetters are still foiled in Europe and Asia, because the physical life of the Brooklyn ferries and the Broadway street cars and the Mississippi river banks and the still fresh battlefields of World War II continue to pulse with the same heartbeats of humanity as in Whitman’s time, his poetry strikes us now with the same immediacy it must have awakened in its earliest readers in the 1850s.
The good gray poet of democracy is one of literature’s great faithholders in human freedom. Speaking simply for people everywhere and most of all for the believers in our basic American dream, he is constantly growing in stature as the twentieth century advances and edition after edition of his poems appears.
Walt Whitman wrote without the frills, furbelows, and decorations of conventional poetry, usually without rhyme or measured pettiness. Perhaps because of his simplicity, timid poetry lovers over the years have been frightened away from his Leaves of Grass, poems as firmly rooted and as brightly growing as the grass itself. Perhaps, too, because his all-embracing words lock arms with workers and farmers, Negroes and whites, Asiatics and Europeans, serfs and free men, beaming democracy to all, many academic-minded intellectual isolationists in America have had little use for Whitman, and so have impeded his handclasp with today by keeping him imprisoned in silence on library shelves. Still his words leap from their pages and their spirit grows steadily stronger everywhere.
The best indication of the scope of Whitman’s poems might be found in his own “Song of the Answerer” where he writes about poetry:
… I give the sign of democracy.
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart
of on the same terms…
So there is no keeping Whitman imprisoned in silence. He proclaims:
I ordain myself loosed of limits…
Going where I list….
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
One of the greatest “I” poets of all time, Whitman’s “I” is not the “I” of the introspective versifiers who write always and only about themselves. Rather it is the comic “I” of all the peoples who seek freedom, decency, and dignity, friendship and equality between individuals and races all over the world.
The words of true poems give you more than poems,
They give you to form for yourself poems, religions, politics, war, peace,
behavior, histories, essays, daily life and everything else,
They balance ranks, colors, races, creeds, and the sexes…
They bring none to his or her terminus or to be content and full,
Whom they take they take into space to behold the birth of stars, to learn
one of the meanings,
To launch off with absolute faith, to sweep through the ceaseless rings
and never be quiet again.
In this atomic age of ours, when the ceaseless rings are multiplied a million fold, the Whitman spiral is upward and outward toward a freer, better life for all, not narrowing downward toward death and destruction. Singing the greatness of the individual, Whitman also sings the greatness of unity, cooperation, and understanding:
… all men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my
As an after-thought, he adds:
(I am large, I contain multitudes).
Certainly, his poems contain us all. The reader cannot help but see his own better self therein.
From The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1991). Used with the permission of Teachers & Writers.