Walt Whitman: Contribution to American Literature

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      Walt Whitman (1819–1892) and Mark Twain are the two authors whom the rest of the world have chosen to regard as distinctively American. They are in fact more strikingly different from European writers than any other two in their outer and inner reaction against cultural tradition, though it is an error to regard Americanism as an utterly new thing instead of a compound of new and old elements. Whitman was born on Long Island in 1819:

 My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
 Born here of parents born here, from parents the same, and their parents the same.


During the latter years, however, public respect increased as his strength waned. Popularity this self-elected poet of the people never gained, but he became a poets’ poet. A Whitman vogue developed among the consciously literary, just as a Browning vogue did in the same decades. It is rather a misfortune than otherwise for any art or artist to be made the subject of a fad, but the growth of Whitman’s repute was slow and was rooted in the regard of other artists.
Walt Whitman

      They were simple, natural, country people—the mother, mild-mannered and competent, and the father, “strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,”—people with the kind of stalwart naïveté who would christen three of their sons Andrew Jackson, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Walt was the second of nine children. From boyhood he was quite able to take care of himself—amiable, slow-going, fond of chatting with the common folk of his own kind, and happy out of doors, whether on the beach or among the Long Island hills. At twelve he began to work for his living—in a lawyer’s office and a doctor’s, in printing shops and small newspaper offices, and in more than one school. Newspaper work included writing as well as typesetting and everything between, and writing resulted in his sending accepted contributions to such respected publications as the Democratic Review and George P. Morris’s popular Mirror.

      From 1841 to 1850 he was more steadily using his pen. He wrote some eighteen stories for the periodicals and, though he worked in defiance of the usual schedule, made his way in journalism to the point of becoming editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1848 he moved in a wider orbit, going down to New Orleans through the Ohio valley to work on the new Crescent, and coming back by way of the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. In 1850 he was living with his family in Brooklyn. By this time he had done a great deal of reading, starting with “The Arabian Nights” and Scott, and moving on by his own choice through the classics. Always, when he could, he read alone and out of doors; but seldom has man more completely fulfilled Emerson’s behest to compensate for solitude with society, for he was one of the great comrades of history. He found his society in places of his own selection—on the Broadway stages, in the Brooklyn ferryboats, and in the gallery at the Italian opera.

      Here is his own testimony: “—the drivers—a strange, natural quick-eyed and wondrous race—(not only Rabelais and Cervantes would have gloated upon them, but Homer and Shakspere would)—how well I remember them, and must here give a word about them. … They had immense qualities, largely animal—eating, drinking, women—great personal pride, in their way—perhaps a few slouches here and there, but I should have trusted the general run of them, in their simple good-will and honor, under all circumstances.” And of the harbor: “Almost daily, later (’50 to ’60), I cross’d on the boats, often up in the pilot-houses where I could get a full sweep, absorbing shows, accompaniments, surroundings.” There was a time when he affected fine clothes, but as he matured his dress and the dress of his ideas became strikingly informal, more like that of his comrades.

      Of the five years before the “Leaves of Grass” appeared too little is known. At thirty-one he was a natural Bohemian, independent enough not even to do the conventional Bohemian things like drinking and smoking, but he had shown no marked promise of achieving anything more than his own personal freedom. His writing and public speaking had been commonplace, and his journalistic work respectably successful. Then in 1855 came the evidence of an immensely expansive development, a development so great and so unusual that it met the fate of its kind, receiving from all but a very few neglect, derision, or contempt. John Burroughs tells of the staff of a leading daily paper in New York, assembled on Saturday afternoon to be paid off, greeting the passages that were read aloud to them with “peals upon peals of ironical laughter.” Whitman’s family were indifferent. His brother George said he “didn’t read it at all—didn’t think it worth reading—fingered it a little. Mother thought as I did … Mother said that if ‘Hiawatha’ was poetry, perhaps Walt’s was.” Obscure young men like Thoreau and Burroughs were moved to early admiration, but their opinion counted for nothing with the multitude. Emerson was the single man of influence to “greet [Whitman] at the beginning of a great career.” The larger public paid no attention to him; the smaller, artistic public did what they always do to a defiantly independent artist. Whitman determined his own reception when he wrote,

 Bearded, sunburnt, gray-neck’d, forbidding, I have arrived,
 To be wrestled with as I pass for the solid prizes of the universe,
 For such I afford whoever can persevere to win them.

      In 1856, in a new form and with added material but under the same title, there came a second edition that received more attention and correspondingly more abuse. His frank and often wanton treatment of sex gave pause to almost every reader, qualifying the approval of his strongest champions. Emerson wrote to Carlyle: “One book, last summer, came out in New York, a nondescript monster, which yet had terrible eyes and buffalo strength, and was indisputably American—which I thought to send you; but the book throve so badly with the few to whom I showed it, and wanted good morals so much, that I never did. Yet I believe now again I shall.” In the meanwhile the ultra-respectable—of the Jaffrey Pyncheon type—were eager to hound Whitman and his publishers out of society. Undoubtedly the advertising given by his enemies contributed no little to the circulation of the third and again enlarged edition of 1860. Of this between four and five thousand copies were sold in due time.

      In 1862, when his brother George was seriously wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman became a hospital nurse in Washington. With his peculiar gifts of comradeship and his life-long acquaintance with the common man, he was able to give thousands of sufferers the kind of personal, affectionate attention that helped all, who were not doomed, to fight their way to recovery. From every side has come the testimony as to his unique relationship with them.

      The fruits in poetry from these years of duress were in some ways the richest of his lifetime. They were included in the edition of 1865 under the title “Drum-Taps.” Here were new poems “of the body and of the soul,” telling of his vigils on the field and in the hospital, not shrinking from details of horror and death; and here also were poems that dealt with the implications of the war and of nationalism militant. “Drum-Taps”—the title poem—and “Beat! Beat! Drums!” sound the call to arms. “The Song of the Banner at Daybreak” contrasts the patriotism of the philistine with the patriotism of the idealist. “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” sings of America for the world, with its thrillingly prophetic fourth stanza,

 Have the elder races halted?
 Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied, over there beyond the seas?
 We take up the task eternal, and the burden, and the lesson,
 Pioneers! O pioneers!

      And “President Lincoln’s Burial Hymn” (“When Lilacs last in the Door-yard Bloom’d”) with “O Captain! My Captain!” are preëminent among the multitude of songs in praise of Lincoln. Whitman wrote fairly in a letter: “The book is therefore unprecedently sad (as these days are, are they not?), but it also has the blast of the trumpet and the drum pounds and whirrs in it, and then an undertone of sweetest comradeship and human love threads its steady thread inside the chaos and is heard at every lull and interstice thereof. Truly also, it has clear notes of faith and triumph.”

      There were other fateful fruits of his hospital service. It is the salvation of the surgeon and the nurse that they adopt a professional attitude toward their tasks; they save individual lives in their struggle to save human life. But it was the essence of Whitman’s work among the soldiers that he should pour out his compassion without stint. The drain of energy forced him more than once to leave Washington for rest at home, and assisting at operations resulted in poisonous contagions. He seemed to recover from these, only to give way in 1873 to a consequent attack of paralysis, and, though he had nineteen years to live, he was never quite free from the shadow of this menace.

      During the latter years, however, public respect increased as his strength waned. Popularity this self-elected poet of the people never gained, but he became a poets’ poet. A Whitman vogue developed among the consciously literary, just as a Browning vogue did in the same decades. It is rather a misfortune than otherwise for any art or artist to be made the subject of a fad, but the growth of Whitman’s repute was slow and was rooted in the regard of other artists. In the years near 1870 essays and reviews in England and Germany showed how deeply “Leaves of Grass” impressed the small group of men who knew what the essentials of poetry were and were not afraid to acknowledge their great debt to this strange innovator. The timid culture of America at first shrank as usual from any native work which was un-European in aspect, and lagged behind foreign indorsement of something freshly American just as it did in the cases of Mark Twain and “Joaquin” Miller. When it did begin to take Whitman seriously, the heartfelt admiration of Freiligrath in Germany and of William Michael Rossetti and John Addington Symonds in England, the published charge that America was neglecting a great poet, and the public offer of assistance from English friends combined to build up for “the good gray poet” a body of support to which the belated interest of the would-be intellectuals was a negligible addition. From 1881 to his death eleven years later the income from his writings was sufficient to maintain him in “decent poverty.”

      In “Myself and Mine” Whitman delivered an admonition in spite of which he has been discussed in a whole alcoveful of books and in innumerable lectures:

 I call to the world to distrust the accounts of my friends, but listen to my enemies—as I myself do;
 I charge you, too, forever reject those who would expound me—for I cannot expound myself;
 I charge that there be no theory nor school founded out of me;
 I charge you to leave all free, as I have left all free.

      The comment and the controversy which have accumulated around his poems and himself center about two nodal points: one is the relatively obvious consideration of the objections to his poetic form, his subject matter, and his conduct, and the other—far more complex and subtle—is the statement and appraisal of his philosophy of life.

      Prejudice and ignorance have had altogether too much to say about Whitman’s versification—as they still have in connection with the freer verse forms of the present day. Two or three simple facts should be stated at the outset, by way of clearing the ground. His earliest poetry was written in conventional form; the form of “Leaves of Grass” was the result neither of laziness nor of inability to deal with the established measures. Throughout his work there are recurrent passages in regular rimed meter. “O Captain! My Captain!” (1865), “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (1870), and the song of “The Singer in the Prison” (1870) are deliberate resorts to the old ways. More likely to escape the attention are unlabeled bits scattered through poems in Whitman’s usual manner. The opening of the “Song of the Broad-Axe” is in eight measures of trochaic tetrameter with a single rime—it sounds like Emerson’s; and the first four lines of section 14 in “Walt Whitman,” or the “Song of Myself,” are iambic heptameters, a perfect stanza. Furthermore, he was not utterly alone in his generation. Similar experiments by some of his contemporaries are almost forgotten, because there was no vital relation between form and content; because there was nothing vital in them; but Whitman’s rhythms survive because they are as alive as the wind in the tree tops.

      He theorized out his art in detail and referred to his lines as apparently “lawless at first perusal, although on closer examination a certain regularity appears, like the recurrence of lesser and larger waves on the sea-shore, rolling in without intermission, and fitfully rising and falling.” His feeling—and this is the right word for a question of artistic form, which should not be determined primarily by the intellect,—his feeling was that the idea which is being expressed should govern from moment to moment the form into which it is cast, since any pattern imposed on a long poem must handicap freedom. In many a descriptive passage there is a succession of nice adjustments of word and rhythm to the thing being described. The flight of birds, the play of waves, the swaying of branches, the thousandfold variations of motion, are easy to reproduce and easy to perceive, but Whitman went far beyond these to the innate suggestions of things and of ideas. At the same time—not to be occupied in a search for variety which becomes merely chaos—he adopted a succession of pattern rhythms, taking a simple, free measure and modifying it in the reiterative form frequently used by Emerson and common to “Hiawatha.” There was some acumen in Mrs. Whitman’s comparison, for Longfellow’s assumption of “frequent repetitions” was a reverting to the parallelism that prevails in most folk poetry, the same parallelism which is the warp of Whitman’s patterns. Whitman was just as conscious in his choice of diction as in his selection of measures. Poetry, he agreed with Wordsworth, was choked with outworn phrases; the language of the people should be the source of a poetic tongue. From this he could evolve a “perfectly clear, plate-glassy style.”

      In execution he was, of course, uneven. He wrote scores upon scores of passages that were full of splendor, of majesty, of rugged strength, of tender loveliness. In general it is true that the lines which deal with definite aspects of natural and physical beauty are most effective—lines of which “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” are the purest type; but many of the poems and sections in which concrete imagery is summoned to the explication of a general idea are often finely successful—as in his stanzas on the poet, or on himself, “the divine average,” for example:

 My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite;
 I laugh at what you call dissolution;
 And I know the amplitude of time.

      To the hostile critic he offered an abundance of lines for unfriendly quotation, as almost every prolific poet has done. Furthermore, he opened to attack all the series of “catalogue,” or “inventory,” passages, in which he abandoned the artistic habit of selective suggestion and overwhelmed the reader with an avalanche of detail. It is not necessary to defend these vagaries or excesses; they are obvious eccentricities in Whitman’s workmanship, as are also the wanton barbarisms of wording into which he occasionally lapsed. There are good English equivalents for omnes and allons and dolce and résumé, and better ones than promulge, philosoph, and imperturbe.

      The most violent objections launched at Whitman were based on his unprecedented frankness in matters of sex. It was the habit of the Victorian period, whether in England or in America, to shroud in an unwholesome silence the impulse to beget life and the facts surrounding it as if they were shameful matters. In consequence a central element in social and individual experience tended to become a subject of morbid curiosity to young people and one of furtive self-indulgence to adults. This bred vicious ignorance, distorted half-knowledge, and, among other things, hysterical protestations at any open violation of the code in action or in speech. People seemed to feel that they were vindicating their own probity by the voluminousness of their invective. So Whitman was made a scapegoat, just as Byron was at an earlier date; and the merits of the controversies are obscured by the fact that however much in error the poets may have been, their accusers were hardly less in the wrong. Out of the babel of discussion one clearest note emerged in the form of a letter from an Englishwoman to W. M. Rossetti, who had lent her “Leaves of Grass”:

      This single judgment naturally cannot serve as a universal ultimatum, but it should serve as a warning for those who jump to the conclusion that only one mood is possible for the writer or reader of such passages. Those who are disturbed by them should be willing not to read the few score lines that are responsible for all the turmoil.

      The only other charge against Whitman worth mentioning—the complaint at his “colossal egotism”—is a subject more for interpretation than for defense. Properly understood, it leads far toward an understanding of the whole man. In the first place, if all his “I’s” should be taken literally they would amount to no more than an unusual frankness of artistic expression. Every creative artist is of necessity an egotist. He is bound to believe in the special significance of what he is privileged to utter in words or tones or lines and colors. The whole anthology of poems on the poet and his work is a catalogue of supreme egotisms, even though most of them are written in the third person rather than the first. Whitman cast aside the regular locution without apology. But, as a further caution to the supersensitive, his “I’s” do not always mean the same thing. Sometimes they are explicitly personal, as in,

 I, now, thirty-six years old, in perfect health, begin,
 Hoping to cease not till death.

      Sometimes they stand just as explicitly for “the average man.” This he explained in the preface to the 1876 edition: “I meant ‘Leaves of Grass,’ as published, to be the poem of average Identity (of yours, whoever you are, now reading these lines). … To sing the Song of that law of average Identity, and of Yourself, consistently with the divine law of the universal, is a main purpose of these ‘Leaves.’”

      Finally, the egotistic “I” is often a token of the religious mysticism at the back of his faith. Without an understanding of this factor in Whitman he cannot be known. “Place yourself,” said William James in his lecture on Bergson, “at the center of a man’s philosophic vision and you understand at once all the different things it makes him write or say. But keep outside, use your post-mortem method, try to build the philosophy up out of the single phrases, taking first one and then another, and seeking to make them fit, and of course you fail. You crawl over the thing like a myopic ant over a building, tumbling into every microscopic crack or fissure, finding nothing but inconsistencies, and never suspecting that a centre exists.” It is James again who gives the exact cue to Whitman’s mysticism, this time in a chapter of “Varieties of Religious Experience.” It is the experience of the mystic, he explains, to arrive in inspired moments at a height from which all truth seems to be divinely revealed. This revelation is not a flashlight perception of some single aspect of life, but a sense of the entire scheme of creation and a conviction that the truth has been imparted direct from God. It is clear, like the view from a mountain top, but, like such a view, it is incapable of adequate expression in words—“an intuition,” and now the words are Whitman’s, “of the absolute balance, in time and space, of the whole of this multifarious, mad chaos of fraud, frivolity, hoggishness—this revel of fools, and incredible make-believe and general unsettledness, we call the world; a soul-sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole congeries of things, all history and time, and all events, however trivial, however momentous, like a leashed dog in the hand of the hunter.” It was the fashion of speech of the Hebrew prophets, when thus inspired, to preface their declarations with “Thus saith the Lord”; Whitman, with his simpler, “I say” or “I tell you,” regarded himself no less as mouthpiece of the Most High. The vision made him certain of an underlying unity in all life and of the coming supremacy of a law of love; it made him equally certain of the mistakenness of human conditions and unqualifiedly direct in his uttered verdicts.

      This sense of the wholeness of life—a transcendental doctrine—made all the parts deeply significant to him who could perceive their meaning. The same mystic consciousness is beneath all these passages, and all the others like them:

 I celebrate myself,
 And what I assume you shall assume,
 For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.........
 The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night;
 Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation;
 (The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen close; I find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry sky.)

      It explains, too, the otherwise bewildering excesses of the “inventory” passages, which, for all their apparent unrelatedness, are always brought up with a unifying, inclusive turn. In the universe, then—and Whitman thought of the word in its literal sense of a great and single design—man was the supreme fact to whom all its objects “continually converge”; as man was God-created, Whitman was no respecter of persons, but a lover of the common folk, in whom the destiny of human-kind resided more than in presidents or kings. And since he considered the race in the light of ages upon ages, the generating of life seemed to him a matter of holiest import.

      For the carrying out of such a design the only fit vehicle is the purest sort of democracy; all other working bases of human association are only temporary obstacles to the course of things; and as Whitman saw the nearest approach to the right social order in his own country, he was an American by conviction as well as by the accident of place. Governments, he felt, were necessary conveniences, and so-called rulers were servants of the public from whom their powers were derived. The greatest driving power in life was public opinion, and the greatest potential molder of public opinion was the bard, seer, or poet. This poet was to be not a reformer but a preacher of a new gospel; he was, in fact, to be infinitely patient in face of “meanness and agony without end” while he invoked the principles which would one day put them to rout.

 I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions;
 But really I am neither for nor against institutions;
 (What indeed have I in common with them?—Or what with the destruction of them?)

      To the bard he attributed knowledge of science and history—the learning of the broadly educated man—but, beyond that, wisdom:

 He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more nor less....
 He is no arguer, he is judgment—(Nature accepts him absolutely;)
 He judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling round a helpless thing:
 As he sees farthest, he has the most faith.

      He is no writer of “poems distilled from foreign poems”; he is the propounder of the idea of free and perfect individuals, For that idea the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders, The attitude of him cheers up slaves and horrifies foreign despots.

      In America, whose “veins are filled with poetical stuff,” Whitman was certain not only of the need for poets but of their ultimate power; for in America, the cradle of the race, and through the bards God’s will was to be done.

      Whitman arrived at the acme of self-reliance. With the mystic’s sense of revealed truth at hand, and a devout conviction that it was the poet’s duty—his duty—to show men a new heaven and a new earth, he went on his way with perfect faith. Emerson wrote of self-reliance in general, “Adhere to your act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.” Yet he remonstrated with Whitman, and in the attempt to modify his extravagance used arguments which were unanswerable. Nevertheless, said the younger poet, “I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way”; in doing which he bettered Emerson’s instructions by disregarding his advice. Hostile or brutal criticism left him quite unruffled. It reënforced him in his conclusions and cheered him with the thought that they were receiving serious attention. After Swinburne’s fiercest attack says Burroughs: “I could not discover either in word or look that he was disturbed a particle by it. He spoke as kindly of Swinburne as ever. If he was pained at all, it was on Swinburne’s account and not on his own. It was a sad spectacle to see a man retreat upon himself as Swinburne had done.”

      His daily preoccupation with “superior beings and eternal interests” gave him some of the elevations and some of the contempts of the Puritan fathers. It leads far to think of Whitman as a Puritan stripped of his dogma. It accounts for his daily absorption in things of religion, for his democratic zeal, his disregard for the adornments of life, even for his subordination of the sentiment of love to the perpetuation of the race. In these respects he dwelt on the broad and permanent factors in human life, regarding the finite and personal only as he saw them in the midst of all time and space. And this leads to the man in his relation to science, with which Puritan dogma was at odds. Whitman was not in the usual sense a “nature poet.” The beauties of nature exerted little appeal on him. He had nothing to say in detached observations on the primrose, or the mountain tops, or the sunset. But nature was, next to his own soul, the source of deepest truth to him, a truth which science in his own day was making splendidly clear. The dependence of biological science on the material universe did not shake his faith in immortality. He simply took what knowledge science could contribute and understood it in the light of his faith, which transcended any science. Among modern poets he was one of the earliest to chant the pæan of creative evolution.

 Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
 Afar down I see the huge first Nothing—I know I was even there,
 I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
 And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.

      It is impossible, as all critics agree, to compass Whitman in a book or essay or compress him into a summary. He was an immensely expansive personality whose writings are as broad as life itself. It is almost equally impossible for one who has really read over and through and under his poems to speak of him in measured terms. The world is coming round to Whitman much faster than he expected. Every great step in human progress is a step in the direction he was pointing. His larger faith, whether so recognized or not, is yearly the faith of more and more thinking people. And in an immediate way his influence on the generation of living poets is incomparably great.

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