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The New International Encyclopædia/Whitman, Walt

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WHITMAN, Walt (originally Walter) (1819-92). An American poet, born at Westhills, L. I., and educated in the public schools of Brooklyn and New York. He learned his father's trade, carpentry, and also printing, forming in the composition room associations with printers and journalists that continued through life. At the age of seventeen he was teaching in Long Island and writing occasionally for newspapers and magazines. Two years later (1839) he was editor and publisher of a weekly at Huntington, L. I. This enterprise failing, he spent some years in various printing offices, contributing to periodicals, making long pedestrian tours, generally following the lines of the great Western rivers, and extending his journeys to Canada. That he wrote fiction we know only by the preservation of a title, Frank Evans, a temperance tale. For a year he edited the Brooklyn Eagle. This varied life brought him in contact with all sorts and conditions of men, and he seems to have fraternized gladly with what he calls ‘powerful uneducated persons’ of every kind, being by instinct a democrat, and entering heartily into the life and feelings of the people. It is said that he drove an omnibus for a time, though more from charity than liking, and he achieved some local success as a political stump speaker. In 1850, returning from wanderings that had carried him to New Orleans, he started in Brooklyn The Freeman, a very short-lived organ of the Free-Soil Party. Then for three years he tried carpentry, building and selling workingmen's houses, and gradually accumulated the materials that made up the first collection of Leaves of Grass (1855). This was a modest little book of 94 pages, and, so far as it attracted attention, seems to have provoked mirth, until Emerson made it the occasion of glowing praise and challenged for it the attention of the thoughtful public, which it has since held increasingly throughout the English-speaking world, in editions that grew to several times the bulk of its humble beginning. The remainder of Whitman's uneventful life was given to the elaboration of this book. The incidents and date-marks of the remaining thirty-seven years of the poet's life are these: During the second year of the Civil War the wounding of his brother in the battle of Fredericksburg led him to volunteer as an army nurse, in which capacity he served until the close of the war, in Washington and Virginia. The immediate literary result of this experiment is Drum Taps (1865), best described in his own words as “a little book containing life's darkness and blood-dripping wounds and psalms of the dead.” This is now incorporated in the Leaves of Grass. In 1867 he published Memoranda During the War, made up chiefly of letters written at the time to the New York Times, from which he drew his chief support. His letters to his mother during the war were posthumously printed as The Wound Dresser (1897). His labors in the field brought on a serious illness in 1864, from which it is believed he never recovered completely. In recognition of his services, he was given a clerkship in the Treasury Department (1865-73), after having been dismissed by the Interior Department, on account of his Leaves of Grass. His Washington life was terminated by a slight paralytic stroke (1873). He moved to Camden, N. J., the residence of his brother George, and remained there until his death, in honorable poverty and serene cheerfulness, much sought by literary pilgrims, especially Europeans who discerned in him a distinctively American quality. He was never married. The works of this period, many of them incorporated in successive editions of the Leaves, were: Passage to India (1870); Democratic Vistas (1870), prose; After All Not to Create Only (1871); As Strong as a Bird on Pinions Free (1872); Two Rivulets (1873); Specimen Days and Collect (1883), prose; November Boughs (1888); Sands at Seventy (1888); and Goodly My Fancy (1891). William Rossetti published in England a selection of his poems in 1868, which began his influence there, the work being continued by Dowden, Symonds, Stevenson, and others. The final editions of the prose works and of the Leaves of Grass were issued in 1892 in two volumes. Ten years after Whitman's death an elaborate, complete edition was published.

The intense individualism of Whitman's nature was strengthened rather than modified by the education of environment. He knew little of the life that came through books, but much of that other life of the democratic masses which to most of his poetic contemporaries was as foreign as classical culture was to him. Perhaps he was sometimes willfully eccentric. Certainly, in laboring to be natural, he stripped himself sometimes of more than the garment of convention. There was some excuse for those who found that he became indecent in his endeavors not to be smug. In subject, the Leaves of Grass were from the beginning distinctively American, dealing with moral and social conditions and with political questionings. “These United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” he had said in the preface, and he finds elsewhere that his country's crowning glory is to be spiritual and heroic. It is then the glorification of democracy, of the average man, the assertion of his right to be himself, the freedom of the individual, and at the same time the ideal of democratic brotherhood which this freedom implies, that are his themes and his inspiration. With this passionate devotion to human nature goes a hatred like that of Rousseau for the conventions that hedge it in, and parallel with this, in the style, there is a feeling for poetic beauty and a hatred for the conventions of expression. He has an instinct of rhythm, words come to him in felicitous collocations, but when they do not come he does not seek them. The result of Whitman's efforts was one of the ironies of literary history. The democratic reader, for whom Whitman wrote, made of it nothing at all. For him poetry must needs be conventional to be comprehensible. So Whitman writing of and for the nuiltitude finds himself the admiration of a cultured coterie, appreciated only by a literary aristocracy. Yet there is no doubt that more people are coming to understand and to enjoy him. He was willing, he said, to wait to be understood through the growth of the taste for himself and what he represented. Up to the present time his cult has been mainly confined to a small group of open-minded lovers of poetry and to those in search of new literary sensations. It may be added that only the pruriency against which he protests could find his work immoral. It is not always agreeable, it is often indelicate and totally frank, but it is as lacking in sensuality, even in its most crude and unconventional expression, as was the poet's own life. Although as a whole his unmetrical matter comes under no present definition of poetry, and although a large portion of it has no possible poetic significance, yet there remains a small body of his verse that reveals a richness of poetic imagination unexcelled in America and that promises to last as long as anything in existing American poetry.

Consult Autobiographia, or the Story of a Life, selected irom Whitman's Writings (1892). There is also an authorized biography by Bucke (1883). Consult also: Burroughs, Whitman, as Poet and Person (1866); Whitman, a Study (1896); O'Connor, The Good, Gray Poet, a Vindication (1866); J. A. Symonds, Essays Speculative and Suggestive, vol. ii.; and Dowden, Studies in Literature (The Poet of Democracy). The Philadelphia Conservator, a monthly edited by Horace Traubel, is the chief organ of Whitman studies.