How 'America's Poet' Walt Whitman Can Both Appeal and Appall

By: John Donovan  | 

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman is best known for his epic work of poetry "Leaves of Grass." Library of Congress/HowStuffWorks

Walt Whitman is universally recognized as one of America's most influential literary voices. He was a man who defined his time and defied its conventions, who was in large measure misunderstood in life but whose brilliant poetry has been celebrated now for more than a century.

Whitman (1819-1892) was a lover of life, of nature, of men and of mankind — and of himself. He wrote of them all passionately, vividly, and what many in fusty mid-19th century America considered obscenely. Sexuality — and homosexual love — was a frequent topic in Whitman's work.

From The New York Times in 1860, after the third edition of Whitman's seminal volume of poetry, "Leaves of Grass," was released:

He seems to delight in the contemplation of scenes that ordinary men do not love, or which they are content to regard as irredeemable evils, about which it is needless to repine. Mr. WHITMAN sees nothing vulgar in that which is commonly regarded as the grossest obscenity; rejects the laws of conventionality so completely as to become repulsive; gloats over coarse images with the gusto of RABELAIS, but lacks the genius or the grace of RABELAIS to vivify or adorn that which, when said at all, should be said as delicately as possible.

As raw as his poetry struck many, Whitman was recognized, from the beginning, as uniquely talented and uncommonly perceptive. In his poems, he explores the divinity of nature and of the person. He embraces religions of all kinds. And he often weaves them together in the glorification of another love: America.

"[T]his man has brave stuff in him. He is truly astonishing," The Times wrote in its initial review of "Leaves" in 1856, after much gnashing about the "insolence and indecency" of the work. "We are much mistaken if, after all, he does not yet contribute something to American literature which shall awaken wonder."

In fact, "Leaves," a collection that Whitman added to and edited many times over his life, endures as one of the most persuasive of American literary efforts. Years after his death, the poet Ezra Pound called Whitman "America's poet."

"His crudity is an exceeding great stench," Pound wrote, "but it is America."

Certainly, Whitman is as complicated as the nation itself.

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A Brief Bio

Whitman was born in 1819, on Long Island, New York, the second son of nine children to Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor. Soon after, the family moved to Brooklyn where Whitman attended Brooklyn public schools. By the age of 12, Whitman was working for a printing press and fell hard for books. He read insatiably, including works of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare.

In 1841, at the ripe old age of 22, Whitman turned his career to journalism, founding the weekly newspaper, The Long-Islander. He later worked for several Brooklyn and New York papers, until moving to New Orleans in 1848 — this is where he first witnessed auctions of enslaved people. After soon returning to New York, he co-founded the Brooklyn Freeman, a free-soil (antislavery) newspaper. According to the Walt Whitman Archive, the paper includes some of Whitman's "most passionate antislavery journalism and marks a transitional period in his life during which his cynicism about American politics began to direct his attention to other areas."

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The Wonder of Whitman's Work

To understand and appreciate Whitman — critics and scholars have been trying to do so since that first edition of "Leaves" — is to recognize an extraordinary view and a unique way of expressing it.

Walt Whitman
Many contemporary literary scholars credit Walt Whitman with creating a new way of thinking about poetry.
Library of Congress

"He invented a new way of thinking about poetry," says Marianne Noble, a professor of literature at American University in Washington, D.C. and a self-professed huge Whitman fan. "His long lines, his extremely simple diction, his brash championing of the natural dialect of Americans — all of this affirms people and fills them with self-esteem."

The mechanics of his poems have been copied for decades. But his themes, his intertwining of subjects like sex, religion, love, nature and the worthiness of every person, are something wholly Whitman. And they are worth celebrating, Noble says, sharing this verse from one of Whitman's most renowned poems, "Song of Myself":

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

"Whitman believes that the divine is present in the physical human body, so that even the arm pits themselves are prayerful," Noble says in an email. "For this reason, sex is a religious act."

Noble points to three noteworthy aspects of Whitman and his poems: His celebration of sexuality. His "encouragement of the value of each person." And his sense that a person is made up of all that is around that person, in nature and beyond; what Noble calls "his philosophy of the self." Again, from "Song of Myself":

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass ...

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Whitman's America

Whitman's idea of America (see, "I Hear America Singing") is of a place where disparate individuals combine, in a united country, to form a greater self. In the preface to "Leaves," Whitman calls America "the greatest poem." He wrote dozens of pieces during the Civil War ("Beat! Beat! Drums!") and after it. In 1865, after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, he penned a tribute to the fallen president, "O Captain! My Captain!".

But Whitman's idea of America, despite his belief in the worth of every person, did not include all.

After the Civil War, Whitman suggested that Black people were inferior to whites and possibly destined for extinction. He thought the same of Native Americans. He likened Black Americans to "baboons." He called Native Americans "savages."

"How Whitman could have been so prejudiced," George Hutchinson and David Drews wrote in a 1998 book on Whitman, "and yet so effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed."

Says Noble: "Whitman on 'America' has some problems. He had an idea about America as made up of all races, but it is the problem of the melting pot. All needed to be washed white in America. They were washed white, he thought, so he didn't see a problem, but we know that a great deal is lost in the process, and it doesn't happen anyway."

Those views on race seem especially at odds with Whitman's mantle of "America's poet." How do we reconcile the work of someone who sees a sacredness in all individuals, who praises America as a place where individuality can soar, but who would deny that promise to so many?

It is, in the end, the most confounding paradox of a complicated, talented and flawed artist.

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was a complex man who created a new type of mechanics for poetry, which has been copied for decades.
Smith Collection/Gado /Contributor

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