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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

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Authors: Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Anonymous, Walt Whitman
[5513] Anonymous, Walt Whitman (1854), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-79942].

Walt Whitman Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Walt Whitman's publication of Leaves of Grass in July 1855 represented nothing short of a radical shift in American poetry. Written in free verse--that is, having no regular meter or rhyme but instead relying on repetition and irregular stresses to achieve poetic effects--Whitman's poems flouted formal conventions in favor of an expansive, irregular, and often colloquial expression of poetic voice. Whitman unified his poems through the use of repetition of key opening words and ideas, parallelism between lines, and lists to bridge together the diversity he found around him. Critics have tended to see this mode of verse-making as more democratic, as it allows for both autonomy and unity in a startling new way. Whitman also flouted convention in his choice of subject matter: in his efforts to tell the epic story of American democracy in all its diversity, he excluded almost nothing from his focus and emphasized the body as much as the soul, the rude as much as the refined. Figuring himself and his poetry as the visionary representation of the American body politic, Whitman constructed an inclusive, all-embracing identity that could, as he characterized it, "contain multitudes." In the first edition of Leaves of Grass (which he printed himself), he did not include his name on the title page. Instead, he presented his readers with a picture of himself, dressed in casual working man's clothes, as the representative of the American collective self. Challenging tradition and shocking readers, Whitman's book was a revolutionary manifesto advocating a new style and a new purpose for American literature, as well as a new identity for the American poet.

No one could have predicted from Whitman's upbringing that he would emerge as a revolutionary poet. Born to a working-class family in New York, Walter Whitman received only six years of formal education before going to work at the age of eleven. He started out as an office boy and later became a printer's apprentice, a journalist, a teacher, and finally an editor. Over the course of his career, he edited or contributed to more than a dozen newspapers and magazines in the New York area, as well as working briefly in 1848 in New Orleans as an editor for the New Orleans Crescent. As a newspaperman, he was exposed to and participated in the important political debates of his time, usually affiliating himself with the radical Democrats.

By 1850 Whitman had largely withdrawn from his journalistic work in order to read literature and concentrate on his poetry. Given the ambition of the project--Whitman intended Leaves of Grass to be an American epic, that is, a narration of national identity on a grand, all-encompassing scale--it is perhaps unsurprising that he continued revising, rearranging, and expanding this collection for the rest of his life. Between 1855 and 1881 he published six different editions of Leaves of Grass. Many literary critics were shocked by Whitman's convention-defying style, reviewing the work as "reckless and indecent" and "a mass of stupid filth." Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, praised the book in a private letter to Whitman as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet produced." Elated by this generous praise, Whitman immediately circulated Emerson's letter and supplemented it by anonymously writing and publishing several enthusiastic reviews of his own book.

In subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman caused more controversy with his inclusion of a number of sexually explicit poems. The cluster titled Enfans d'Adam (Children of Adam) in the 1860 edition focuses on the "amative" love between man and woman, while Calamus celebrates the "adhesive" love that erotically links man and man. While many nineteenth-century critics do not seem to have grasped the homoerotic import of Whitman's "Calamus" poems, the sensuality and explicitness of all the "sex" poems made the collection extremely controversial.

With the onset of the Civil War, Whitman threw himself into nursing wounded soldiers in the hospital wards of Washington. His collection Drum-Taps, including his moving elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, records his struggle to come to terms with the violence and devastation of the war. Whitman remained in Washington after the war, serving as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Dismissed as a result of his controversial poetry, he found another government job in the Attorney General's office in 1865. Whitman suffered two severe blows in 1873 when he had a paralytic stroke and then lost his mother to heart disease. Devastated, he moved to Camden, New Jersey, to be near his brother. Although he was physically weakened, Whitman continued working on his poetry, meeting with influential artists and intellectuals of the time, and even making several journeys to the American West to see first-hand the expansive landscape he lovingly chronicled in his work. In 1881, he composed his final edition of Leaves of Grass, and in 1882, he published a prose companion to his poetry entitled Specimen Days.

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