This year we celebrate the two-hundredth birthday of Walt Whitman; and by “we” I mean all of us who take conscious pleasure in speaking American English. Whitman invented a poetry specific to this language and open to the kinds of experience, peculiar to democracy in a polyethnic society on a vast continent, that might otherwise be mute. Public events commemorating the bicentennial include three summer shows in New York—at the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, and the Grolier Club—that touch on the story of his life. There are books, manuscripts, prints, photographs, audio and video elements, and relics—at the Public Library, a lock of his hair, and, at the Grolier, snips that may be from his beard. The shows are excellent of their kind: informational and evocative, about remembering. But I don’t much care for them. They have unavoidably cultish auras, akin to celebrity worship; not that Whitman would have minded, he having been a shame-free self-promoter who ghosted rave reviews of “Leaves of Grass” and played to his sappy popular image as “the Good Gray Poet” (less good if brunet, less gray if bad?). Such exhibits are to poetry as museum wall texts are to art works—supposedly enhancing but often displacing aesthetic adventure.
I recommend observing the occasion at home, or on vacation. Sit down with a loved one and read aloud two poems: the miraculous “The Sleepers” (1855), in which Whitman eavesdrops on the slumber of multitudes, alive and dead, and interweaves dreams of his own—at one point joining a merry company of spirits, of whom he says, “I reckon I am their boss, and they make me a pet besides”—and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865), his epic elegy for Abraham Lincoln, in which the President isn’t named, even as his loss interpenetrates nature, symbolized by the unearthly song of “the gray-brown bird,” a hermit thrush. (I’ve gone online to hear its call: a melancholy arpeggio, repeated at different pitches.) In either case, see how far you get before you’re in tears, then pull yourself together and continue to the end. Reading Whitman silently enriches, but hearing your own or a partner’s voice luxuriate in the verse’s unhurried, insinuating cadences, drawn along on waves of alternately rough and delicate feeling, can quite overwhelm. That’s because your voice, if you are fluent in American, is anticipated, pre-wired into the declarative but intimate, easy-flowing lines. It’s as if you were a phonograph needle dropped into a vinyl groove.
Whitman was born the second of nine children on a farm in West Hills, on Long Island, where his father struggled in various lines of work. When Whitman was three, the family moved to Brooklyn, and, in 1830, he left school, at age eleven, to help support the household. He took jobs as a printer, meanwhile roaming the city and, an insatiable reader, haunting libraries. After the printing district burned down, in 1835, he returned to Long Island, working unhappily as a schoolteacher and pursuing a knockabout career in journalism. By 1846, he was the editor of the prestigious Brooklyn Daily Eagle, from which he was fired, two years later, for his radical free-soil and anti-slavery politics. Among subsequent ventures, he founded a weekly newspaper; another fire destroyed the office after its initial issue.
In 1855, Whitman self-published the first of an eventual nine editions of “Leaves of Grass.” He advertised it by printing, without permission, a private letter of praise that he had received from Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essay “The Poet,” from 1844, reads in parts like a directive—“America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres”—that young Walt more than carried out. The book gradually gained wide notice, while often coming under attack for alleged obscenity. Whitman’s homosexuality became unmistakable in his impassioned “Calamus” poems of “adhesiveness,” named for a plant with phallus-shaped “pink-tinged roots,” but, even before then, his sensuality, regarding women as well as men, was earthy enough to rattle the genteel. He expressed fervent Union patriotism at the start of the Civil War and, in 1862, travelled south of Washington, D.C., to find his brother George, who had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. For the next three years, he served indefatigably as a volunteer nurse and comforter of wounded, sick, and, too often, dying soldiers in Washington hospitals. “The real war will never get in the books,” he wrote, but certain of its awful aspects are etched in his own writing.
Those harrowing years amplified Whitman’s already Romantic conceptions of death. If Keats was “half in love with easeful death,” Whitman was head over heels for it, as a subject fit for his titanic drive to coax positive value from absolutely anything. (“What indeed is beautiful, except Death and Love,” he wrote. Note that death has pride of place.) Meanwhile, he piloted his soul in genial company with all other souls, afoot like him on ideal democracy’s Open Road, exulting in human variety. If he failed any definitive American experience, it was aloneness. That lack was made good by his younger contemporary Emily Dickinson: the soul in whispered communication with itself. Both poets dealt with the historical novelty of a nation of splintered individuals who must speak—not only for themselves but to be reassured of having selves at all. There have been no fundamental advances in the spiritual character—such as it is, touch and go—of our common tongue since Whitman and Dickinson. It’s a matter of the oneness of what they say with how they sound saying it. Admittedly, Whitman can be gassy and Dickinson obscure, but they mined truth, and mining entails quantities of slag. They derived messages from and for the mess of us.
Whitman’s flaws were at once eccentric and typical of his day. He was a sucker for modish philosophies and supposed sciences, from positivism to phrenology. In “Salut au Monde!” (called “Poem of Salutation” on its first publication, in 1856), he exalted the “divine-souled African, large, fine-headed, nobly-formed, superbly destined, on equal terms with me!” But he was less universalist in his journalism and made pointedly racist remarks in later years, calling blacks “baboons” and “wild brutes”—a serious matter in any era but especially today, at a moment of newly concerted will to face down the pestilential afterlife of slavery. Whitman had imbibed a version of social Darwinism that predicted the decline of nonwhite peoples, Asians sometimes excepted. It’s not for me to say that this, much less his slurs, should be forgiven. Even so, in liberalism he was miles ahead of his most penetrating modern critic, D. H. Lawrence, whose apposite essay in his alternately profound and infuriating “Studies in Classic American Literature” leaps to my mind whenever I think of Whitman.
Lawrence is sardonic about Whitman’s hyperbolism. Quoting the line “I am he that aches with amorous love,” Lawrence comments, “Better a bellyache.” He taxes Whitman with a disintegration of personhood, “leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the universe.” But then he writes, “Whitman, the great poet, has meant so much to me”—as “a strange, modern, American Moses” and “a great changer of the blood in the veins of men.” Lawrence quails at democracy, from which he wants to rescue Whitman. “The only riches, the great souls,” he concludes, with bullying confidence in having one himself. But for Whitman the soul is fungible, shared by all. It’s a terrific contrast: Lawrence bitterly struggling to be free of Old World constrictions, Whitman born free to “loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.” Lawrence craved the American’s fre