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The Great American Poet

In 1882, when Walt Whitman finally put into one untidy package, Specimen Days and Collect,* reminiscences of his youth, his various “memoranda” of the Civil War, his travel diaries and “nature notes” after the war, he was almost at the point of becoming that mythic figure, the universal poet, that he had celebrated in his own poems. In these last years of his life he had become strangely important to writers in England otherwise so different a Gosse, Tennyson, Hopkins. At home though his reputation in respectable literary circles was still bad, he was becoming a cause to all sorts of lonely American iconoclasts. Then, after his death in 1892, Whitman was gradually to be seen as the first truly comprehensive writer America had produced, the first whose imaginative interest concretely included the different peoples in the world. Before Emily Dickinson was recognized as an original poet and Melville as a great myth-maker Whitman was valued abroad as the American writer who had somehow brought his country into world literature—the poet of a “democracy” not limited to Americans. During the 1914-1918 war, fallen French and German writers alike were found in the trenches with Whitman’s poems in their uniforms.

This importance to a future concerned (whether through socialism or the early twentieth-century religion of art) with the idea of a world community, this legend of himself as a political-philosophical poet and incarnation of what might yet be everybody’s “New World”—this Whitman had foretold in his poetry. Future “greatness” of an almost sublime kind, resting on the idea of redemption through the poet, had been a recurrent motif of Whitman’s poetry. He had celebrated himself as a poet by identifying himself with the easy transcendentalist afflatus of the “genius of these states”—and, by extension, with every kind of creative leadership conceivable to the stormy literary prophets, entrepreneurs, and nation-builders of the nineteenth century.

In 1882, however, Whitman had little tangible reason to expect so much of the future. He was able to make a characteristically uneven, idiosyncratic, but finally remarkable self-revelation out of Specimen Days largely on the strength of his experiences as a visitor to Washington hospitals during the Civil War, and for this he had to use his old newspaper articles and his already published Memoranda During the Civil War (1875). Whitman introduced these essential war experiences—the heart of the book—with reminiscences of his early life in order to bind future biographers to this self-portrait.

Thanks not least to his famous “magnetism”—he was already becoming one of the most photographed men of the nineteenth century—he was betting on the future (for some time he had not had much but the future). He was, at sixty-three, still unread as well as infamous. He was very poor, partially paralyzed, more or less immobilized by the stroke he had suffered after the Civil War, and which he sometimes attributed to his self-sacrificial hospital visits. He was living in the Camden house of his brother George, and was full of concern for him and for other members of his immediate family. Whitman was always in close touch with his mother, brothers, their wives, his sister. They depended on him for handouts and steadfastness; the Whitmans had a sickly history of mental illness and of public brawling over money.

Whitman eked out his own precarious existence by gifts from distinguished admirers. (Mark Twain among others found it easier to help buy the paralyzed old man a horse and buggy than to praise Leaves of Grass). There were occasional sums from the brave (and always different) publishers who would risk a new edition of Leaves of Grass. The Secretary of the Interior himself had discharged Whitman from his clerkship in the department when he had found Leaves of Grass in Whitman’s desk; in 1874 Whitman had been discharged from another clerkship, in the Attorney General’s office, which he had held by employing a substitute. In the same year that he put out Specimen Days, James Osgood of Boston, who had brought out the eighth edition of Leaves of Grass, found himself threatened with prosecution by the Society for the Suppression of Vice and abandoned publication.

Another publisher, in Philadelphia, was to go ahead with the next edition of Leaves, and in his own foraging, dependent, seductive kind of way Whitman was able during America’s Iron Age to carry on from day to day. But the immediate circumstances of this disabled and isolated old man in Camden, who looked so much older than his years, were in extreme contrast to the poet’s ambition to create a last monument to himself in Specimen Days.

Walt Whitman” had been as great a creation in 1855 as Leaves of Grass. Nothing so proves Whitman’s genius as the fact that he was able to turn into this persona and to make it stick. The poet was to become as important to his readers as his book. From the moment that the “real” Whitman (the hack journalist and unsuccessful editor who had failed at every occupation and probably felt threatened by the mental disturbance marked in his family) was able to create a wholly new existence for himself in and through Leaves of Grass, Whitman became one of those “heroes” and “master builders,” like Carlyle, Balzac, and Ibsen, who proclaim the scope of the nineteenth century.

Whitman the poet had the vision of the whole, the historic “scheme,” the national and nationalizing mythos that one associates with Lincoln, Mazzini, Dostoevsky. This poet of the “modern” (in personal sensation) and of the “future” (as a new sympathy between different races and peoples) actually helped to supply, through all his writings on the Civil War, the rationale for the huge continental power that emerged from the North’s victory. The poet of “comradeship,” of “manly love,” of “adhesiveness,” was just now, in 1882, to become as much the bard of blood and soil as Carlyle. Carlyle sneered that Whitman thought he was a big poet because he came from a big country, but Carlyle went on to idolize concentrated Prussian Macht. Whitman’s America would prove ultimately more powerful and more complex—especially to Walt Whitman.

The Whitman who had created a new self in 1855 was now, with Specimen Days, to show what a really determined genius in the nineteenth century could do by way of an “autobiography.” If he wanted to create a genial, sweet old W.W. for his expected army of biographers, one reason is that he had perceptibly slowed up, had lost his fire, had dropped the fervently suggestive sexuality of his early poems. No doubt he meant to show that he could do something good in the slower, more ruminative style that came with age. But most of all he wanted, by exploiting his experiences in the Washington hospitals, to ennoble and advance his literary reputation by joining it to the drama of war and the “majesty” of the Union cause—by 1882 as sacred a theme as the Passion of Christ and, through Lincoln, often identified with it.

In our century writers have often made their literary fortunes from war. But Whitman is virtually the only important American writer of his day who made so much of the Civil War, who identified himself so directly with it. Emerson was harshly anti-South, from the sidelines. Thoreau and Hawthorne, who died during the war, disbelieved in the holy cause; Henry James could not fight because of the famous “dreadful hurt” he suffered putting out a fire; Howells was American consul in Venice; Mark Twain was to wax comic about his brief inglorious experience as a Confederate volunteer—and after the war became a professional Northerner at banquets of the G.A.R. Of Whitman’s literary peers, only Melville left a lasting record—in his privately published poems—of his concern with the war.

Melville’s Battle Pieces are strikingly unenthusiastic, nonpartisan, tragic, sorrowful; they are above the battle. Specimen Days, by contrast, shows Whitman always at the scene, in the streets and hospitals of wartime Washington, so intimate and involved an observer that he becomes the important presence he wanted to be—in the war-torn, often “seditious” capital, virtually a participant in the war, at least by his account. Specimen Days is thus one book about the Civil War by a first-rate writer of the time that reflects the national fervor of the North, especially as it came to a retrospective glow in the 1880s. But Whitman’s spasmodic, curious, fascinating book is most valuable as a record. It is distended, like almost everything else that Whitman wrote, but it is not a simply literary creation, like The Red Badge of Courage. It is part of the passion of the Civil War itself, of the madness of war, of the victory spirit and the national ego that were to shape the North as much as defeat shaped the South.

Whitman presciently related himself to the popular passion released by war, he gave himself to this passion as the greatest possible political cause, he understood popular opinion in a way that Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville would never have attempted to understand it. Emerson, who said, like any conventional New England clergyman, that the war was “holy,” could not express the war. Whitman was able to get so much out of the war, and to put so much into it, because he knew what the people were feeling. He was not solitary and detached like the Concord writers; not suspicious of the majority, like his fellow New Yorker Melville. Whitman’s visits to the hospitals, his actual “war service” in fact began when he went down to the Virginia front in December, 1862, to look for his brother, Captain George Washington Whitman, who had been declared missing.

Despite Whitman’s mysterious, still elusive personality, he genuinely felt close to the “common man,” and he was a notably accessible and sociable creature. He was always to get along better with omnibus drivers, workingmen, printers, “simple” soldiers (especially when they were wounded and open to his ministrations) than with the “genteel” literary class. Whitman, who in his newspaper days had been a radical Democrat, had the instinctive feeling for the Union as the “popular” cause that radicals felt in Europe as well as in America.

But by the time of the Civil War—and as a result of the war—Whitman’s politics had become the “nation.” One of the essential qualities of Specimen Days is Whitman’s libidinously powerful urge to associate himself with the great, growing, ever more powerful strength of the Union cause. Whitman’s characteristic lifelong urge to join, combine, to see life as movement, unity, totality, became during the Civil War a kind of actively loving association with the broad masses of the people and “their” war. In his cult of the Civil War, Whitman allies himself with a heroic and creative energy which was not limited to leaders, as it was for Carlyle and Bismarck, but which sees itself spreading out from saintly American leaders (like himself and Lincoln) to be justified, finally, in the mythical connection between these representative men of the people and the people.

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    This essay is the Introduction to a new edition to be published by David R. Godine, Inc.

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