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 …

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