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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 849

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This is the grave of Walt Whitman.

Born in 1819 in West Hills, New York, Whitman grew up as part of a large, pretty poor family. He did remember being kissed on the cheek by the Marquis de Lafayette on his victorious tour of America in 1825, which he always thought was pretty cool. But he didn’t have all that much formal schooling and none after the age of 11. He needed to work to help support his family. He found labor as an office boy for lawyers and a printer’s devil at a newspaper.

Despite this, the young man was getting pretty interesting in politics and social reform by the mid-1830s. Working as newspapers certainly helped spur this as he was surrounded by ideas and politics much more than your average working kid. The 1830s was also the beginning of a vast period of reform in the nation and that tumult of new ideas had a lot of power in New York. Whitman started teaching a school a bit, tried to open his own newspaper, worked for other newspapers, and started to write himself. He moved around from paper to paper all the time, struggling to find any kind of success and what success he did find was as an opera critic. He became a free-soiler, costing him a job with the newspaper he worked for in the late 1840s that was a pro-slavery Democratic paper. He was also a delegate at the 1848 Free Soil Party convention.

Whitman was also a kook of the Second Great Awakening. Very concerned with masculine behavior in the Industrial Revolution, in 1858, he published a book titled Manly Health and Training. In it, he recommended that men grow long beards, that they embrace nudity, that they eat lots and lots of meat, that they bathe in cold water every day, that they wear comfortable shoes, and they get up very early every morning. The shoes idea is a pretty good one, but this quackery was one of probably hundreds of similar books published by northern reformers during these years. Not surprisingly, he was a temperance man as well, though later in life he did enjoy a glass of wine from time to time.

Much more importantly, Whitman started writing his masterwork, Leaves of Grass. More of a life project than a book that was ever truly complete, he published editions of it as he went. In it, he helped invent American poetry and along with writers such as Mark Twain, a truly American literature with true American voices. The first edition came out in 1855. Perhaps its biggest fan was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman, a fairly open homosexual for the time, also wrote reasonably openly about this and readers picked up on the themes, threatening future publication of the book. Other expanded editions were released in 1860 and 1867. I am not the person to analyze poetry and will leave it to commenters to do this for me. But suffice it to say that none of this made Whitman all that much money. Instead, he continuing working, usually as a journalist and newspaper editor.

The other Whitman is most known for is his work during the Civil War. Believing his brother George was wounded, Whitman headed south to find him. Although he did not, the experience of seeing wounded soldiers transformed him profoundly. He moved from New York to Washington to help in the war effort. He got a job in the Army paymaster’s office and helped nurse wounded soldiers. He wrote extensively about the latter, including his essay “The Great Army of the Sick” in 1863 and a full book after the war. He wanted better work and had the recommendations for it, but Salmon Chase refused to hire him in the Treasury because he found Leaves of Grass scandalizing. Then, in 1865, Secretary of the Interior James Harlan fired Whitman from the job he presently had, probably because he found out about Leaves of Grass. But Whitman’s friends got him transferred to a job at the Attorney General’s office and published the first paeans to the great poet. Whitman himself also published his famous poem “O Captain! My Captain!” after Lincoln’s assassination, getting himself public approval for the first time.

After the war, Whitman’s work found greater acceptance in the U.K. He published his new editions of Leaves of Grass. He gave the commencement address at Dartmouth in 1872. But until that year, he continued to work in the AG office, needing steady income. Although he had a stroke in 1873, he recovered more or less and in his late life found the acclaim he so desired. Living with his brother for the next decade in Camden, New Jersey before finally buying a home for himself in 1884, Whitman became quite productive, including writing new editions of Leaves of Grass. He never truly recovered from the stroke and was pretty well bed-ridden by the 1880s, having a neighbor move in to take care of him. Obsessed with death like any good Victorian, he personally designed the above grave, often visiting it during its construction. The other people buried there who died before Whitman were moved later to be near him, including his parents. He prepared his last edition of Leaves of Grass from his death bed in 1891. He died in March 1892, at the age of 72.

As for the issue of sexuality, even with someone such as Whitman, it’s just hard to know exactly. He was pretty forthright–for the time. But forthright for the 19th century still meant never really talking about. We know he had intense relationships with men, sometimes lasting for years. But we also have almost no written information that would confirm any of it–a snippet here or there. He may also have been bisexual, but again, what exists on the relationships between Whitman and women is quite limited. I normally don’t really care that much about these issues, but with Whitman, it was so widely rumored during his life (and a detriment to his career) and he has been so embraced as a queer writer in recent decades that you have to discuss it.

In terms of criticism, I am most familiar with the discussions of Whitman’s embrace of American nationalism. There’s something both beautiful and disturbing about this. His deep, wonderful Americanness was the nation at its best. But American nationalism at its best was also stealing half of Mexico to expand slavery and committing genocide against the tribes. It’s not as if Whitman was blind to this. It concerned him. He was deeply opposed to the Mexican War, for instance, and remained so for the rest of his life. But there was no way for him to reconcile these concerns with his larger embrace of the future America. In some ways such as this, Whitman is the American white liberal personified, for better and for worse.

Oh yeah, Walt Whitman’s voice was also recorded. Here it is:

Walt Whitman is buried in Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey.

This post was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks!!! In the Library of America series, Whitman was the 3rd volume, published many years ago. It is now up to 347 official volumes, plus other imprints and publications. If you would like this series to visit other writers in the LOA, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jack London (Volumes 8 and 9, seems early in the list to me) is in Glen Ellen, California and Stephen Crane (Volume 18) is in Hillside, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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