Walt Whitman 1819-1892
“Whitman was a curious mixture of the homespun and the theatrical; he had the earthy spirit of the born democrat and the self-dramatizing disposition of the artistic dandy” (326). • At times, he was seen wearing unpressed pants and rolled up sleeves; other times, he was an artist in a slouch felt hat and flowing silk ties.
Whitman’s Life Born on May 31, 1819, to parents of Dutch and English descent. They lived on a farm in West hills, Long Island He had 8 brother and sisters He moved to Brooklyn in 1823 with his family; he went to school until he was eleven and then worked as an office boy and printer’s assistant, and for a time he taught school. He never became a scholar- never went to college However, he enjoyed reading Shakespeare, Dante, Homer
Whitman as a journalist • Before the age of twenty he was led into journalism • He worked for the Crescent in New Orleans • He returned to New York to become the editor of The Freeman • While doing this, he began to compile a collection of poems that would one day transform his life and change the course of American literature.
Whitman as a poet • Much of it is very simple- simplicity of folk literature • Catalogues- long listings of things, names and activities found in ancient epics and sagas • However, the greater part of his poetry escapes all categories.
Leaves of Grass • Published at his own expense in 1855 • The book was boldly new and strange and failed to win the attention of reviewers; its publication went unnoticed. • So, he sent samples to people whose endorsements might be useful- Ralph Waldo Emerson • Emerson called it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yest contributed.”
Leaves of Grass was a masterpiece which was revised and expanded through many editions. • The ninth, “deathbed” edition was published thirty-six years after its first edition- 1891 • This is an epic- the hero is the poet, and he is a hero of the future- a journey that the speaker takes to become a poet. • Nothing quite like this had ever been done before.
Whitman was described as having the “theatrical flair of a con man and the selfless dignity of a saint; the sensibility of an artist and the carefree spirit of a hobo; the blustery egotism of a braggart and the demure shyness of a shrinking violet.”
Whitman’s poetry modified the diction of the “King’s English” and abandoned traditional rhyme schemes in favor of natural rhythms and free verse. • The result was poetry that could speak of “anything under the sun” • His form is loose enough to allow for long lists of details; it is also flexible to allow delicate moments of lyricism
He brought the vernacular to literature: farmers, steel workers, house wives • “He brought a humanizing touch that unites poetry as an art with poetry as an aspiration that runs through the life of every person.”