Loafing on a quiet street in Huntington, Long Island, like an oasis tucked into the desert of suburban sprawl, stands the house where Walt Whitman was born. It was a large, rambling farmhouse for 1810, covered with natural cedar shakes that undulated and swelled and cracked as they dried to the color of stale blood. A carpenter, Whitman’s father built the house himself, and it bears many of his stylistic quirks, like the Dutch doors, corbelled chimneys, and, especially, the battalion of extravagant windows, recklessly uneconomical, through which sunlight gushes in every season.
Inside, the house erupts with motion; the eye roves up oak stairs on which knots are carefully arranged right at the lip. Blueberry stain trims the whitewashed walls, as well as the mantels and doorways and doors themselves. A house that outside wears the twisted wood of trees inside breathes with sunlight and the colors of the nearby ocean—a froth of white walls and the pounded, gunmetal blue of the sea. The oak plank floors are studded with blacksmithed nails, but the attic beams are pegged. In Whitman’s day, settlers sometimes went so far as to burn down their homes and collect the nails when they moved. Timber was plentiful, but hand-wrought metal rare as radium.
Most rooms have two or three tall windows, with 12 hand-blown panes of glass over 8 each pane quarto-sized, like Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass. The original panes are delicately flawed and lens-like; they give off a visual vapor when I look through them, imagining how he cooled his head here in summer. Look into the soul of a house, through its windows, and all is blackness. There is no Whitman anywhere, not the fresh lonely boy who collected eels and gull eggs by the shore, not the sensitive lonely man who, in his notebooks, kept a tally of his lovers, noting their facial features, ages, and interests, as if he feared there might come a time in his life when he would forget that he had loved and been loved. Not the free-thinking hothead who held dozens of jobs as teacher, printer, and reporter, and who founded many newspapers himself. Not the omnivorous reader and poet drenched with passion who, years before Darwin’s Origin of Species, wrote about evolution, as well as “the ancestor-continents away group’d together.” Not the health fanatic who took cold water plunges every day. Not the Civil War nurse who traveled among battlefield hospitals, and became one of the finest war correspondents who ever lived, while he cared for the sick and dying with a saint’s conviction. But when I look out through the same windows, the world quivers into focus, becomes a pageant of color, vitality, and detail, as it did for Whitman. It’s much easier to look out of this house than into it; I know so little about the man, but so much about the vision.
America had many poets before Walt Whitman, but there was never an American poet before he held the country in the sea-to-sea embrace of his imagination, named its wonders like a latter-day Adam, proclaimed its common men and women to have lives of sparkling beauty and dignity, blessed it as good, and then revealed it to itself in all its bustling, fidgeting, trail-blazing, huckstering, big, booming, melting-pot panorama. He especially loved America’s social “turbulence,” which was its lifeblood and the perfect parallel to its wild, unbridled landscapes. Whitman’s portrait of America is rich with sensations and unnervingly complex, but he also saw it whole, as one democratic fabric, where “a great personal deed has room.”
Because there was a new breed of American, surfacing in the fast waters of the 19th century, Whitman decided to invent a radically new poetry, by translating the revved-up mosaic of the daily newspaper into a poetry full of street talk and everyday events, a poetry so plural it sought to sum America, a poetry so aggressively intimate that it buttonholes the reader, cries with the reader, woos the reader—a poetry written in a breathless, ecstatic style, through which flows the electricity of his vast, athletic vision, a poetry that celebrates the human body in frank sexual detail, a poetry of catalogues and parading images, a poetry that drastically changed the idiom of poetry by bringing into it all sorts of gorgeous, untraditional things like astronomy, Egyptology, carpentry, opera, Hindu epics, census reports: the whole big, buzzing confusion of life “immense in passion, pulse, and power.”
Whitman was the first American poet that the universe didn’t scare. He took it literally—as one verse—and wanted to touch and be touched by and leave his mark on all of it. Voluptuously in love with life, his mind was unquenchable and nomadic, always pitching the tent of its curiosity someplace new. He believed the poet’s duty was to change people’s lives, by teaching them how to see, by throwing a bucketful of light onto the commonest things. And he believed that perfecting his own life was essential to perfecting his art. Indeed, he became the embodiment of the 19th century’s ideal, the “self-made man,” and was self-reliant, robust, obsessed with the physical; Leaves of Grass is, among other things, a journey of self-discovery whose message is that you can change your personality, change your fate, invent the self you want.
The central event in Whitman’s life was the Civil War. In 1863, he visited his wounded brother in a makeshift hospital, and the first sight he saw was a heap of amputated limbs. Rigid with horror, but boldly compassionate, he began his work of visiting war hospitals every day to tend the young soldiers as they died. “I have never before had my feelings so thoroughly and permanently absorbed,” he wrote, “as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys.” At night, he would migrate from bed to bed, writing letters for them, or giving them spoonfuls of stewed fruit or jam. But most of all he brought his extraordinary presence: a large, healthy, magnetic man charged with energy, and white-bearded as an Old Testament God. He held their hands and kissed them. On at least one occasion, he told a dying boy that he, Walt, was Death incarnate, and not to be afraid. This is where he really got to know the America that figured in his poems, through the mainly adolescent boys torn out of their hometowns to fight one another.
Whitman really wrote only one poem, although he added to it throughout his life and sometimes made separate books of it. It was the great poem of being, the great epic of life in America in the 19th century, in the solar system, in the Milky Way, in the infinite reaches of space. He began with a microscopic eye focused on the beauty of the lowliest miracle, say a leaf of grass, and then stretched his mental eye out to the beauty of the farthest nebulae. An earth-ecstatic, he was not a churchgoer, but deeply religious. If there is no choired Heaven in his poems, there is also no death: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” He taught his contemporaries and his latter-day children, such as Loren Eiseley, a new way of prayer.
A shocker in his day, when Victorian prudery gagged at his evangelism of the body and his sensuous relationship with the universe, he electrified the country’s notion of its humdrum self. Not long after his death, schoolchildren were given Leaves of Grass to read as a sacred American text about the essential goodness and perfectibility of people, the sanctity of the common person, the holiness of the human body viewed naked and up close, the need to forge one’s own destiny, and the duty of all to discover the world anew, by living in a state of rampant amazement at the endless pocket-sized miracles one encounters every day. As he reminds us, “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” Whitman’s vision is still the one taught in elementary schools, the one we cherish as the great opera of American life; it has become the mental landscape in which we live. Taking the coastlines and canyons and mountain ranges and farmlands and cities, he stitched them together as one sweeping vista that begins and ends with the self.