1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Whitman, Walt

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WHITMAN, WALT (1819-1892), American poet, was born at West Hills, on Long Island, New York, on the 31st of May 1819. His ancestry was mingled English and Holland Dutch, and had flourished upon Long Island more than 150 years — long enough to have taken deep root in the soil and to have developed, in its farmers and seafaring men, many strong family traits. His father, Walter Whitman, was a farmer and carpenter; his mother, Louisa Van Velsor, was the granddaughter of a sea captain. There do not appear to be any men in his line of descent given to scholarly or intellectual pursuits till we get back to the 17th century, when we come to Abijah Whitman, a clergyman, settled in Connecticut. Later this Abijah moved to Long Island, and from him all the Whitmans on the island descended. Walt was the second of a family of nine children. The parents early moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman spent his youth. His career was a chequered one, like that of so many other self-made American men. First he was an errand boy in a lawyer's office; then he was employed in a printing office; next he became a country school teacher; he founded (1836) and till 1839 edited the Long Islander at Huntingdon, and later edited a daily paper in Brooklyn (the Eagle, 1846-1847); then he was found in New Orleans, on the editorial staff of the Crescent (1848-1849); afterwards he passed his time carpentering, building and selling small houses in Brooklyn (1851-1854), in the meanwhile writing for the magazines and reviews and turning out several novels, and finally revolving in his mind the scheme of his Leaves of Grass. This scheme was probably gestating in his mind during the years 1853, 1854 and 1855. He frequently stopped his carpentering to work at his poems. He left voluminous manuscript notes, showing the preparatory studies and reflections that preceded the Leaves; many of them, under the title of Notes and Fragments, were privately printed by his literary executor, Dr Richard Maurice Bucke, in 1899. Finally, in the summer of 1855 the first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared — a small quarto of ninety-four pages. The book did not attract the attention of the critics and the reading public till a letter from Emerson to the poet, in which the volume was characterized as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed,” was published in the New York Tribune. This created a demand for the book, and started it upon a career that has probably had more vicissitudes and called forth more adverse as well as more eulogistic criticism than any other contemporary literary work. In 1856 a second and much enlarged edition of Leaves of Grass appeared. In 1860 a third edition, with much new matter, was published in Boston. In 1862 Whitman went to Washington to look after his brother, Lieutenant-Colonel George W. Whitman, who was wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg. Henceforth, for more than ten years he remained in and about Washington, acting as a volunteer nurse in the army hospitals as long as the war lasted, and longer, and then finding employment as a clerk in the government departments, in the meantime adding to and revising his Leaves and publishing two or three editions of them, himself his own publisher and bookseller. Out of his war experiences came in 1866 his Drum Taps, subsequently incorporated into the main volume. Early in 1873 he suffered a paralytic stroke which partially disabled him. He then went to Camden, New Jersey, to live and continued to reside in that city till his death on the 27th of March 1892. In 1871 appeared his prose volume called Democratic Vistas. In 1876 he published a thin volume, called Two Rivulets, made up of prose and verse. Specimen Days and Collect, also prose, appeared in 1882. New editions of his Leaves continued to appear at intervals as long as he lived. A final and complete edition of his works, including both prose and verse, was published in Philadelphia in 1889.

Whitman never married, never left America, never laid up, or aimed to lay up, riches: he gave his time and his substance freely to others, belonged to no club nor coterie, associated habitually with the common people — mechanics, coach-drivers, working men of all kinds — was always cheerful and optimistic. He was large and picturesque of figure, slow of movement, tolerant, receptive, democratic and full of charity and goodwill towards all. His life was a poet's life from first to last — free, unworldly, unhurried, unconventional, unselfish, and was contentedly and joyously lived. He left many notes that throw light upon his aims and methods in composing Leaves of Grass. “Make no quotations,” he charged himself, “and no reference to any other writers. Lumber the writing with nothing — let it go as lightly as the bird flies in the air or a fish swims in the sea. Avoid all poetical similes; be faithful to the perfect likelihoods of nature healthy, exact, simple, disdaining ornaments. Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all; make full-blooded, rich, flush, natural works. Insert natural things, indestructibles, idioms, characteristics, rivers, states, persons, &c. Be full of strong sensual germs. . . . Poet! beware lest your poems are made in the spirit that comes from the study of pictures of things — and not from the spirit that comes from the contact with real things themselves.” The mother-idea of his poems, he says, is democracy, and democracy “carried far beyond politics into the region of taste, the standards of manners and beauty, and even into philosophy and theology.” His Leaves certainly radiates democracy as no other modern literary work does, and brings the reader into intimate and enlarged relations with fundamental human qualities — with sex, manly love, charity, faith, self-esteem, candour, purity of body, sanity of mind. He was democratic because he was not in any way separated nor detached from the common people by his quality, his culture, or his aspirations. He was bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. Tried by current standards his poems lack form and structure, but they undoubtedly have in full measure the qualities and merits that the poet sought to give them.

(J. Bu.)

See his Complete Writings (10 vols., New York, 1902), with bibliographical and critical matter by O. L. Triggs. His Poems (1902) has a biographical introduction by John Burroughs, whose Whitman: A Study (Boston, 1896) forms the tenth volume of the “New Riverside” edition of the poet's works. See also Walt Whitman's Diary in Canada, with Extracts from other of his Diaries and Literary Notebooks (Boston, 1904) edited by W. S. Kennedy; In re Walt Whitman (Philadelphia, 1893) edited by his literary executors, H. L. Traubel, R. M. Bucke, T. H. Harned; Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Boston, 1907}, a record of talks in 1888, full of material; Bliss Perry, Walt Whitman: His Life and Work (Boston, 1907), with new material and unpublished letters; Calamus, a series of letters (1868-1880) written by Whitman to a “young friend” (Peter Doyle), edited by R. M. Bucke (1897), who also wrote an authorized biography — Walt Whitman (Philadelphia, 1883) — which contains contemporary criticisms of Whitman and W. D. O'Connor's “Good Gray Poet” (1866); Walt Whitman (London, 1893), a study by J. Addington Symonds; Reminiscences of Walt Whitman with Extracts from his Letters (London, 1896) by W. S. Kennedy; H. B. Binns, Life of Walt Whitman (New York, 1906); and critical estimates in R. L. Stevenson's Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882); E. Dowden's Studies in Literature (1892), and in E. C. Stedman's Poets of America, &c. A bibliography of writings on Whitman is appended to Selections (Boston, 1898), edited by O. L. Triggs.