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Walt Whitman

Dead and Divine, and Brother of All

On Tuesday, December 16, the New York Herald printed a list of soldiers killed or wounded at Fredericksburg, including an entry for “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore, Company D,” of the 51st New York Infantry. It was mid-morning when poet Walt Whitman saw the item and surmised that it referred to his brother George.

Whitman’s Compost

Walt Whitman, Charles Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress The day Abraham Lincoln was first elected president, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) arrived in Washington, DC, to find, in the words of a British reporter, a “strange ci [...]

The Self in the Poem

Through you I shall be born again; myself again and again; myself without others; myself with a tomb; myself beyond death. I imagine you taking my name; I imagine you saying “myself myself” again and again. And suddenly there will be no blue sky [...]

Whitman in Baghdad

“I was going to hold forth on arms, and the violence of warfare, in a meter suited to the manner,” wrote the Roman poet Ovid at the outset of his Amores, “but Cupid, laughing,” he continued, “stole one foot from the second line,” shifting [...]

“What a Filthy Presidentiad!”: Clinton’s Whitman, Bush’s Whitman, and Whitman’s America

 

United States presidents have usually gotten exactly the Walt Whitman they deserved. During his own lifetime, Whitman admired and disdained presidents with unusual passion, rising to some of his most sublime language to evoke Lincoln (“the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands”) and descending to some of his coarsest to describe Benjamin Harrison (“the scalawag who was and is . . . the shit-ass! God damn ’im”). There was a long foreground to Whitman’s Harrison-register of voice, brought on in the 1840s and 50s, while he watched helplessly as a whole line of hapless presidents allowed the country to slip toward civil war:

Whitman and Patriotism

What some might call Whitman's essentialism is only one of the features of his statement about the United States that might mark it, in some eyes, as dated, obsolete, historically confined and limited. Another is his use of the plural verb “are,” as opposed to the “is” that gradually became dominant after the American Civil War forever rearranged the notion of an American nation. Only 79 years into the American experiment in 1855, Whitman’s grammar reflects the evolving balance between, on the one hand, the plura of e pluribus and, on the other, the emerging unum under construction. In addition, without listening closely to history, or to various histories, we might not catch the note of desperate, even doomed, hopefulness behind the vatic pronouncement that the United States are essentially the greatest poem. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act the year before and the first virulent eruptions of the killing that would go on for more than a decade, Whitman is not so much swaggering and flexing as he is urgently speaking a spell or charm against social and political malignancy, even as it too rapidly metastasizes.

Whitman Now

To contemplate Walt Whitman now, at the dawn of a new millennium in an America so deeply troubled by division and hypocrisy—almost the antithesis of the great nation of inclusion and tolerance he envisioned in Leaves of Grass—is intensely ironic indeed.

Panes of Glass

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.”

 

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