The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book III/Chapter I

Chapter I. WhitmanEdit

§ 1. Difficulties in Whitman’s Biography.Edit

WALT WHITMAN once declared his Leaves of Grass to be “the most personal of all books ever published.”

This is no book;
Who touches this, touches a man.

Thus he fits Hazlitt’s description of Montaigne as one who dared to set down as a writer what he thought as a man. This being the claim of the volume, it becomes highly important to determine the character of the author. Evidently Whitman was not, in any conventional sense of the term, that “average man” whose praises he sang, else even his novel form of expression would hardly have sufficed to keep his poetry so long a time from the masses. He was a man and a writer who could be hated as an impostor or adored as a Messiah but who was in any case a challenge to discussion. Much light is thrown on his character, of course, by the autobiographical parts of his writings; but here it is frequently difficult to determine which incidents belong to his outward and which to his inner, or imaginative, life, so deftly do his vicarious mystical experiences blend with the sublimations of his own deeds, and so carefully have many of those deeds been mystified or concealed.[1] Much remains for painstaking research to accomplish. This chapter attempts to set forth only the facts of his biography which are well established or establishable.

§ 2. Youth and Education.Edit

Born in the same year as Lowell, Whitman may be said to represent the roots and trunk of democracy, while Lowell may be likened to its flowers or fruits. Whitman, for his part, could hardly have been, or wished to be, a flower; it was not in his ancestry, his education, or his environment. Blending in his own nature the courage, the determination, and the uncompromising Puritan idealism of good, if somewhat decadent, English ancestry with the placid slowness,[2] self-esteem, stubbornness, and mysticism of better Dutch (and Quaker) ancestry, Walt[3] Whitman was born 31 May, 1819, at the hamlet of West Hills, a few miles south of Huntington, Long Island. His father, Walter Whitman, was a farmer and later a somewhat nomadic carpenter and moderately successful housebuilder, who, although, like the poet’s excellent mother, he had even less education than their nine children were destined to have, was something of a free thinker. The Whitmans moved to Brooklyn about 1823–25,[4] but Walt, until he went to live in Washington during the Civil War, continued to be more or less under the wholesome influence of the country. Throughout childhood, youth, and earlier manhood he returned to spend summers, falls, or even whole years at various parts of the Island, either as a healthy roamer enjoying all he saw, or as a school-teacher, or as the editor of a country paper, or as a poet reading Dante in an old wood and Shakespeare, Æschylus, and Homer within sound of the lonely sea, and mewing his strength for the bold flights of his fancy. Perhaps it was a certain disadvantage that while he was thus “absorbing” and learning to champion the common people, the “powerful uneducated persons,” among whom he moved on equal terms though not as an equal, he was little thrown, in any influential way, among people of refinement or taste. In his old age nobility and common humanity jostled each other in his hospitable little parlour—or kitchen; but during his youth the breadth of his view and the democracy of his sympathy were somewhat limited, not so much in theory as in fact, by the conditions that surrounded him. At the same time his native “egotism,” as he frankly calls what Emerson would probably have softened to “self-reliance” had it been a trifle less arrogant, was being abnormally developed, even for a genius, by conditions little fitted to correct it. Nevertheless, he thus early learned lessons from nature and from human nature which were as indispensable to the inspiring and shaping of his liberating art and his democratic philosophy as was his outdoor life in developing his remarkably sensitive and healthy physical constitution.

§ 3. Printer.Edit

Whitman’s youth in Brooklyn, though full of interest, was uneventful. As a child of six he was flattered by Lafayette’s chancing to lay his hands on him during a visit to the city in 1825. He attended the public school for a few years, impressing his teacher, Benjamin Buel Halleck, only with his good nature, his clumsiness, and his poverty of special promise. He ran with the boys of the street and was familiar with the city and its environs, especially with Fulton Ferry, whose slip was not far from his home. Not Irving, not Charles Lamb was more intimately or passionately fond of city life, with its opportunities for human contact and for varied sights, than was Whitman, both as boy and man. When about eleven years old he left school to become an office-boy, first to a lawyer and then to a doctor, the former of whom kindly afforded him opportunities for reading such books as the Arabian Nights and the poetry and romances of Scott. At twelve he was learning to set type, in a building once used as Washington’s headquarters, under the instruction of a veteran printer who had many tales to tell of Revolutionary heroism. Next he went to set type for a few dollars a week on Aldin Spooner’s Star. He had already felt the satisfaction of authorship when “sentimental bits” had appeared from his pen in the newspapers. Later he became a compositor on unknown journals in New York.

§ 4. Teacher; Editor; Stump Speaker.Edit

In May, 1836, Whitman went down to his father’s farm at Hempstead, and then began a wandering career as a well-liked but not altogether successful country school-teacher. He taught somewhat after the fashion of the transcendentalists, substituting moral suasion for the ferule, and “boarding round” in at least seven different districts in Queens and Suffolk counties, but seldom remaining more than a few months at any one school. His mind was but half on his work, and after two years of teaching he sought (June, 1838), a more congenial occupation in starting a village newspaper, The Long Islander, at Huntington. On this he did all the work, even to delivering the papers on horseback; but he did it so irregularly that in less than a year his financial backers entrusted the little sheet to more punctual hands. Again teaching had to be resorted to. When living at Jamaica (1839–41) Whitman spent some of his time, apparently after school hours, in learning the printing business in the office of James J. Brenton’s Long Island Democrat, to the pages of which he contributed a considerable number of sketches and essays replete with juvenile philosophy, as well as a number of patriotic and sentimental poems in conventional measures. The poet’s tendency to dream—to loaf and invite his soul—to the neglect of more earthly duties, a tendency that was to become a tradition wherever he thereafter worked, had already marked him as an unusual person. He was even then dreaming of composing a ponderous and prophetic book to teach men, among other things, the danger of riches. The Quaker’s attitude toward truth and the mystic’s attitude toward nature were already discernible in his writings. But his life was unhappy, full of irresolution and unrest, and frequently given to a morbid brooding on death, while his enormous capacity for sentimental friendship, equalled only by his capacity for taking delight in external nature, had already taught him to sing of unreturned affection, and drove him, no doubt, to take refuge, like Narcissus, in self-admiration. Yet he took part in the sports and merry-makings of the village and was interested in the political campaigns of the day, himself attaining some prominence as a stump speaker in Queens County and even in New York City.

Then, in the summer of 1841, he definitely and finally threw in his lot with the city, and the second important period of his development began. Heretofore the highly sensitive youth had been almost ladylike in his sentiments, often morbid in his contrary moods, but puritanically strict in word and deed. At twenty-two his passionate nature demanded a sort of reaction. He “sounded all experiences of life, with all their passions, pleasures, and abandonments,”[5] and became, in another sphere of indulgence, something of a dandy. He was developing his personality meanwhile, and he was learning to write.

§ 5. Early Writings.Edit

Whitman’s early pieces written in New York reflect the wave of sentimentality which was, in the forties, sweeping over the country, and display, along with their humanitarian feeling, a fondness for melodramatic extravagance which caused him later to wish them all “quietly dropp’d in oblivion.” He was a reformer pleading for the abolition of intemperance (including the use of tobacco, tea, and coffee), of capital punishment, and of slavery; and urging, as the constructive side of his reform, the need of a native American drama, opera, and literature. His interest in the theatre and the opera was a vital one, the constant satisfaction of which was made possible by his having a pressman’s pass. Here he received many hints for his declamatory and rhythmical style of verse. Altogether more than a score of tales, sketches, essays, and poems have been found which belong to this period. To these must be added a crude and hasty dime novelette, Franklin Evans,[6] addressed, in the cause of temperance, not to the “critics” but to “THE PEOPLE,” and evidently written to order. In this period Whitman was connected with some of the best city magazines and newspapers as contributor, compositor, or editor. The most important position that he held was that of editor of The Daily [and Weekly] Brooklyn Eagle, a connection which extended from February, 1846, to January, 1848, when a “row with the boss,” on account of Whitman’s unreliability, and with “the party,” on account of his progressive Barnburner politics, made it necessary for him to shift for a new position. This was readily found on The Daily Crescent, a paper about to be launched in New Orleans.

§ 6. New Orleans.Edit

The trip which, with his favourite brother Jeff, Whitman made in the spring of 1848 by rail, stage, and Mississippi steamboat to New Orleans, his residence in that city for three months, and his return by way of the Mississippi and the Great Lakes[7] were rather less important than has commonly been supposed. It is doubtful whether the experience brought into his life a great but secret romance,[8] and it appears certain that he was not by it first made conscious of his mission as a poetic prophet. But the journey did give him a new and permanent respect for the undeveloped possibilities of his country, especially in the South and West, and it gave him opportunities for the study of the French and Spanish elements in New Orleans; while his observation of the South’s “peculiar institution” caused him to remain, though a radical Free-Soiler, one careful not to be classed with the Abolitionists. But if this journey was of only measurable importance, perhaps others were of greater; for, though details are almost entirely unknown, it is practically certain that he made still other visits to the South.[9]

Notwithstanding the attractiveness that the new atmosphere had for all that was Southern in Whitman’s temperament, he soon haughtily resigned his position, because of a difference with his employers, and left for home 27 May. Almost immediately after his arrival he was engaged by Judge Samuel E. Johnson to edit (and nominally to own) a new Free-Soil paper, the weekly[10] Brooklyn Freeman, as the organ of those Democrats with whom Whitman, but not the party leaders behind the Eagle, had sympathized the year before. The new paper appeared 9 September, but it had the hard fortune to be burnt out, with no insurance, in a great conflagration that swept the city that very night. But the Freeman was revived in November, and, though a small and apparently a very outspoken sheet, it attained a large circulation. The nature of the political warfare in those days of personal invective may be suggested by Whitman’s valedictory, published when, without explanation, he resigned the paper, 11 September, 1849, into the hands of those who would compromise, as he would not, with his political opponents:

To those who have been my friends, I take occasion to proffer the warmest thanks of a grateful heart. My enemies—and old hunkers generally—I disdain and defy the same as ever.

Of the next six years of Whitman’s life comparatively little is known. He is said to have been connected with certain newspapers,[11] to have run a book-store and printing establishment, and to have assisted his aging father, now suffering from paralysis, in building small houses for sale. He had here an opportunity for money-making which, to the disappointment of the family, he allowed to pass unimproved. What is more important, he was growing rapidly in his inner life, as he attended lectures, read miscellaneous magazine articles, Shakespeare, Epictetus, the Hebrew and the Hindoo bibles, and Emerson, and loafed on the shores of Coney Island, timing the new poetry he was composing to the rhythmic beat of the sea. Somewhere in this period probably belongs the mystical experience, described in the poem Song of Myself, Section 5, which clarified his vision “of the world as love” and fused his purposes in life, and which some biographers, attaching to it more significance than did Whitman himself and forgetting that he had other such experiences, are inclined to consider the most important fact in his biography. At any rate, the book of which he had dreamed since adolescence and of which he had as early as 1847[12] written many passages was now, in 1854–5, written and rewritten, and printed in Brooklyn, without a publisher, in July, 1855.

The purpose of the author in writing this unique volume may be stated in his own comprehensive words, written in 1876:

I dwelt on Birth and Life, clothing my ideas in pictures, days, transactions of my time, to give them positive place, identity—saturating them with the vehemence of pride and audacity of freedom necessary to loosen the mind of still-to-be-form’d America from the folds, the superstitions, and all the long, tenacious and stifling anti-democratic authorities of Asiatic and European past—my enclosing purport being to express, above all artificial regulation and aid, the eternal Bodily Character of One’s-Self.

The plan for his poetic life-work was to have been completed, he tells us in the Preface to the 1876 edition, by composing

a further, equally needed volume, based on those convictions of perpetuity and conservation which, enveloping all precedents, make the unseen soul govern absolutely at last.

The perfecting of this latter work, dealing with the soul and immortality, had proved beyond his powers and failing health, but a fair idea of what it meant to set forth is to be found, no doubt, in The Two Rivulets (1876).

§ 7. Leaves of Grass.Edit


If Emerson’s American Scholar address was the intellectual declaration of American independence, this first edition of Leaves of Grass, though only a thin imperial octavo of ninety-five pages with a hastily written but vigorous and far-sighted explanatory preface, was the first gun in a major campaign of the war that was to win that independence. Of the form taken by so audacious a message space is wanting for accurate description. It may be said, however, that, denying to itself rhyme, regular metre, stanza forms, literary allusions, and “stock ‘poetical’ touches” in general, it frequently achieved, nevertheless, a deep and satisfying rhythm of its own—sometimes pregnant gnomic utterances, sometimes a chant or recitative, occasionally a burst of pure lyricism. Just where, if anywhere, Whitman found the hint for this flexible prose-poetic form critics have not agreed. Perhaps Biblical prosody, Ossian, the blank verse of Shakespeare and Bryant, the writings of Blake, the prose of Carlyle and Emerson, and his own impassioned declamation all assisted; but full allowance must be made for the unquestioned originality of his own genius, working slowly but courageously for the fuller liberation of song.[13]

§ 8. Its Reception.Edit

The book, expecting opposition, was met by almost complete disregard. Except for a few copies which found their way to England and were later to secure for Whitman ardent disciples and his first English editor, William Michael Rossetti, there was practically no sale. Most of the reviews in the periodicals that noticed the book at all were as scandalized as had been anticipated; but a highly congratulatory letter from Emerson, who evidently recognized in Whitman the disciple he then professed to be, compensated for all neglect or abuse from other quarters, and a sentence from it was put to good, if indelicate, use as advertising on the back of the second edition (1856), a volume much larger than the first and more open to criticism because of its attempt to combat prudery in America by a naturalistic but fragmentary treatment of the facts of sex. Of this patent and confessed indebtedness to Emerson, who had brought the simmering pot of Whitman’s literary and patriotic ambition to a boil, Whitman had no cause to feel ashamed; for though lacking Emerson’s sanity and mature idealism, he had a greater sympathetic, active, and emotional equipment than had the Concord sage. If Whitman was, as he said, “a child, very old,” Emerson was a man, very young. It was almost as if the older champion of individuality had meditated the philosophy by which the younger was to live; but whereas the Emersonian gospel, addressing itself to the idealism of its readers, “breeds the giant which destroys itself,” Whitmanism, appealing strongly to the religious sentiment, has already had the ironical fate of developing something not unlike a cult, both at home and in other countries.

§ 9. Lectures.Edit

Of course such a book failed to bring in royalties, and Whitman again fell back on the drudgery of editing a newspaper, in this instance the bantling Daily Times (Brooklyn). Just when this editorship began (1856 or 1857) is not easily determined, but it ended probably in the early part of 1859, after the editor had repeatedly rebuked certain church officials for the, as he thought, unfair treatment they had accorded to one Judge Culver, then the defendant in an ecclesiastical trial. At odd times Whitman wrote the new poems, including that incomparable lyric, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, which appeared now and then in the pages of the Bohemian Saturday Press, and the many others which were to be included in the 1860 edition of the Leaves. The country was full of lecturers in 1858, and Whitman planned to become one, both to support himself and to supplement the Leaves, which could hardly as yet have been called a success. But though he disciplined himself in a style of oratory only less novel than that of his poetry, writing “barrels of lectures” on religion, democracy, language, æsthetics, and politics, and though the desire thus to present his message in a more personal fashion than any sort of authorship, even his own, could afford, persisted throughout life, only a few memorial addresses—such as the tribute to Lincoln—and a few public readings of his own poems written for college commencements or other special occasions ever came of it.

§ 10. New Friends.Edit

Meanwhile Whitman was widening the circle of his acquaintance. Emerson not only called on him frequently when in the city but sent Alcott, Moncure Conway, and Thoreau to do likewise. Lord Houghton also came, and Bryant crossed the river to share with him long walks into the country. These were the days of Whitman’s Bohemianism. A negligent, open-throated attire and great soft hat that one might associate with a carpenter or a sailor he insisted on wearing, Richter-like, wherever he went. In the earlier years of his journalism he had worn a high hat, cane, and boutonnière; now the dandy had given place to a man dressed in a habit more in keeping with his new rôle as the national bard of democracy en masse. The affectations in his dress were, however, of less importance than the inner character of the man. And that character was one of great human sympathy and magnetism, possessing a charm which those who felt it most were least able to explain. He spent, as from childhood he had done, much time among the people—boatmen, pilots, omnibus drivers, mechanics, fishermen—going anywhere to “feed his hunger for faces.” He visited prisons, attended the sick in hospitals, drove all one winter the stage of a disabled driver, and mingled as a meditative observer among the liberal-minded and light-hearted Bohemians at Pfaff’s restaurant. In 1860 he went to Boston and published, through Thayer and Eldridge, his third edition, full of the echoes of this life, in which he had not always been a mere observer. Until the war drove its publishers to the wall, the book had a fair sale. The poems of two new groups—Enfans d’Adam, celebrating the love, usually physiological, between the sexes, and Calamus, celebrating that “adhesiveness” or “manly attachment” which Whitman then considered the true cement of a democracy—have in the past provoked much severe criticism and indignant defence, and the former were the occasion, at various times, of a threatened official prosecution, of a temporary exclusion of the book from the mails, and of the author’s being dismissed from a government clerkship. Emerson had urged Whitman to be more tactful and worldly-wise, but the latter’s inner conviction that he was right and his stubborn determination to go ahead in the chosen course blinded him to the value of tact and condemned him to suffer from a reputation that he did not really deserve. Whatever may be the true interpretation of these poems, one finds it difficult to understand either the character or the writings of Whitman unless one’s eye is kept on the chronology of his publications, a feat which his method of grouping has rendered rather difficult; for he was a growth, as his poems were, in which a heroic and loving soul gradually freed itself from the passions of a very human and earthly body. His reaction from the asceticism of his adolescence was strong, tumultuous, almost tragic, but it was only a reaction; and when the war had passed over him with its purification and its pain, and when he had suffered severely in his personal affections, he sang more and more of the soul.

§ 11. The Civil War.Edit

Whitman’s optimistic faith in democracy was put to the severest possible test by the outbreak of the Civil War. But he did not come into personal touch with its heroic and pathetic sides until, in December, 1862, he went down to the front at Fredericksburg to look after his younger brother, an officer in a volunteer regiment, who had received a slight wound in battle. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities Whitman had begun writing (June, 1861) for the weekly Brooklyn Standard a serial history of the city, entitled Brooklyniana, based on his own reminiscences, his conversations with older citizens, and his rather desultory historical reading. He had likewise been composing a few of the vivid war poems in Drum-Taps. But as the war became more serious he suspended this writing and took a loitering trip through many of his old haunts on Long Island, fishing, sailing, meeting people in the unceremonious manner of the country, and doubtless pondering the gloomy problems of the war. The early Whitman, so inadequately reported in the biographies, was preparing to give place to the well-known serious and noble Whitman of the Washington hospitals; and this leisurely visit was, one chooses to think, a farewell to the light-hearted irresponsibility of his protracted youth. Returning to Brooklyn in the fall, he took up the Brooklyniana again and occupied himself with it almost until the accident to George Whitman called him to the Virginia battle-field.

Thence he casually drifted into the finest employment of his life, that of caring for sick and wounded soldiers on the field and, especially, in the many military hospitals in and about Washington. He lived frugally, supporting himself for a time by doing copying[14] and by contributing wonderfully vivid sketches of his experiences to the Brooklyn Eagle and Union and the New York Times.[15] To supply the little comforts and necessities of the hundred thousand soldiers, Northern and Southern, to whom, as he estimated, he ministered courage and cheer, he privately raised several thousand dollars from friends and correspondents in the North. When he obtained a salaried position in 1865, a generous portion of his earnings went into the same fund. But chiefly he gave himself, in undisguished affection. The full tenderness, almost motherliness, of this large-hearted, self-sacrificing man can be fully understood only in the modest but realistic account of his daily activities preserved in the letters written to his mother at the time and in the hospital-notebook jottings printed in Specimen Days. It would be a questionable serve to Whitman to affirm that these three years of slow martyrdom sanctified the whole of his life; but it is literally true that the deepest and best instincts in him never before had found such full and beautiful expression. Partly, at least, as a result of his hospital service his magnificent health was lost, and the last twenty years of his life were those of a paralytic cripple.

§ 12. Drum-Taps; Democratic Vistas.Edit

Whitman’s poetic power was still at its height. Drum-Taps,—the poetic complement to Specimen Days and The Wound-Dresser,—a booklet charged with the pathos and the spirituality of the war, was published in 1865, with the profoundly moving dirge for the martyred Lincoln. In Democratic Vistas (1871) he made use of prose, though with unequal success.

§ 13. The Good Gray Poet.Edit

This period was also important because of the friendships that it made or fostered. Perhaps the most important was that with William Douglas O’Connor. When, in 1865, Whitman had been employed for several months in the Interior Department under Secretary Harlan, the latter, on learning that he was the author of Leaves of Grass, had him summarily dismissed; then O’Connor came to his friend’s defence in a brilliant and passionate, though ill-advised, polemic, The Good Gray Poet, the title of which gave the bard a fit and enduring sobriquet. The advertising value of such a polemic, or of such an incident, though it was rated highly by Whitman and by some of his friends, may now be questioned. Thanks to such staunch friends, however, Whitman was soon settled, for the eight following years, in a comfortable clerkship in the Attorney-General’s Department. Another close friend and enthusiastic disciple then and later was John Burroughs, who published in 1867 the first biographical and critical study of the poet. An attachment more similar to those of the New York days was Whitman’s singular friendship for Pete Doyle, an unschooled young Confederate soldier, now a street-car conductor, with whom, notwithstanding the disparity in their ages and interests, the poet spent much of his leisure time. To him Whitman wrote the letters which were, after his death, published by one of his literary executors under the appropriate title Calamus. But this comfortable and congenial life was destined to a sudden end.

§ 14. Foreign Reputation.Edit

Just when Whitman was beginning to make literary friends abroad—Rudolf Schmidt in Denmark, Freiligrath in Germany, Madame Blanc in France, Edward Dowden in Ireland, and in England William Rossetti, Swinburne,[16] Robert Buchanan, Roden Noel, John Addington Symonds, Tennyson, and Anne Gilchrist—and when he was beginning to become somewhat favourably known abroad through Rossetti’s expurgated selection, Poems by Walt Whitman (1868), and through fragmentary translations in Continental countries, an attack of paralysis (January, 1873) compelled him first to suspend and finally to give up his clerical work. Taking his savings, enough to tide him over the first few years of invalidism, he went to live with his brother, Colonel George Whitman, in Camden, New Jersey. A leisurely trip to Colorado in 1879, a longer one to Canada in the following year, and various briefer visits and lecture journeys—now to New York, now to visit his friend Burroughs at his home on the Hudson, now to his own Long Island birthplace, but oftenest to recuperate and to write charming nature descriptions at his retreat on Timber Creek—except for these furloughs Whitman was to spend the remainder of his days, and to be buried, in Camden. In March, 1884, he bought a little house (328 Mickle Street, now 33) with the proceeds from the very successful Philadelphia edition of the Leaves in 1882.

§ 15. Specimen Days and Collect; November Boughs.Edit

This period, the final act of Whitman’s unique life, was naturally not a climax of achievement, though it was a severe test of his patience and optimism, a test which, on the whole, he stood with unassuming courage. He sent forth occasional contributions to various American and British magazines and newspapers, besides new editions of his works. The most notable of these latter was the autographed Centennial or Author’s Edition in two volumes of prose and verse (1876), designed to be sold in England, his best market, in order to relieve the straitened circumstances of the author, who was then “paralyzed … poor … expecting death,” and who had been fleeced by his New York publishers; Specimen Days and Collect (1882–3), a “diary of an invalid,” which contains some of Whitman’s most characteristic prose and is a storehouse of autobiographical data; and November Boughs (1888), containing reprints of short poems that Whitman had been writing regularly for the New York Herald and of miscellaneous prose essays that had appeared elsewhere, the most significant of these being A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads.

§ 16. Later Friends.Edit

New friends were made, as faithful as the old. One was Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, of Canada, who, like Burroughs, hailed the Leaves of Grass as “the bible of democracy” and wrote (1883) the first comprehensive biography of its author, to set him forth as a mystical saviour of the modern world. Another was Thomas B. Harned, in whose hospitable home the poet met, during these later years, not a few American and foreign notables. A third was Horace Traubel, who until Whitman’s death was his daily visitor, who, without pay, assisted him in his dealings with printers and publishers, and who has for some years been publishing a minute diary of his talks with the poet during 1888–92. These three friends became, by Whitman’s will, his literary excutors. Space is wanting to mention even the most prominent of that host of other visitors, American and foreign, who made Camden the object of their pilgrimages, some with a selfish desire to secure the poet’s bold autograph, others with a reverent wish to pay homage to a liberator of the soul. One of the most sincere and unreserved of these tributes was that proffered by Mrs. Anne Gilchrist, the English author (then a widow), who through his poetry came to love the man[17] and who later with her children spent two years (1876–1878) in Philadelphia in order to be near him. Assistance of a substantial nature from abroad, due in part to the efforts of Mrs. Gilchrist, who had been the first woman to defend the Children of Adam poems in print, together with similar if somewhat later help from a growing number of friends and readers in America, lightened the burdens of Whitman’s last years, affording him comforts that would otherwise have been denied him and giving him hope that the tide of disapproval and misunderstanding which he had been breasting for half a lifetime was beginning at last to turn. When a complication of maladies finally resulted in his death, 26 March, 1892, he had “positively appeared,” a prophet and a poet not without honour even in his own country. He was buried, with unique but impressive ceremony, beside a number of near relatives, in a massive and costly tomb which he had built for the purpose the preceding year. Most of his property, valued at a few thousand dollars, was left for the support of an imbecile brother, to care for whom Whitman had for many years saved money from his own small income.

§ 17. Influence of Whitman.Edit

The influence of Whitman has in the past taken three directions. Those of his readers who, like himself, attach most significance to the revolutionary and the religious elements in his writings have naturally been somewhat indifferent as to whether a place could be found for Whitman among the recognized literary coteries. To them he has been a seer profound enough and a lover sincere enough to render ordinary literary criticism an impertinence—unless such criticism would content itself with mere exegesis. On the other hand a growing number of readers have seen in Whitman—quite aside from a personality which, for all its philosophical breadth and its friendly sweetness, was hampered by an occasionally repellent sentimental egotism and a marked deficiency in taste—a genuine artist and a true poet. All manner of liberal political, sociological, and religious movements have been fathered on Whitman the seer and prophet; while Whitman the poet has become the legitimate founder of the various forms of modern free verse. Criticism that confounds this twofold claim and this twofold appeal of Whitman’s writings is destined to make little progress, as is also that criticism which considers the two methods of approach to be necessarily exclusive. Still a third class of readers, uninterested in poets or prophets, as such, have gone to Whitman for the refreshing presence of a man and a writer who was entirely himself and who loved nature and his fellow men.


  1. For instance, a poem, Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City, taken by many biographers to support the theory that Whitman had a romance with a lady of high social standing during his 1848 visit to New Orleans, proves to have been addressed, in the original draft of the poem, not to a lady but to a “rude and ignorant man”; on the other hand, the poem Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd, to which no biographer has attached particular personal significance, can be shown to have been addressed, about 1864, to a married woman with whom Whitman was in love and with whom he maintained for a time a correspondence notwithstanding the jealous objections of her husband.
  2. This description does not allow for a high temper, displayed on occasion, which Whitman seems to have inherited from his father.
  3. Shortened from Walter to distinguish the son from his father, but not used in connection with his published writings until 1855.
  4. The exact date is uncertain. Whitman gives 1822–3 once, 1823 twice, 1824 twice, and 1825 once; the earliest record in the directory of the city (Spooner) is 1825. At any rate Whitman was probably accurate in his statement that he was “still in frocks.”
  5. John Burroughs, in Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, 1867, p. 81. The substance, if not the phrasing, of this indefinite though suggestive passage was supplied by Whitman himself.
  6. This was republished, in compressed form, under the caption Fortunes of a Country Boy, by J. R. S. in The Brooklyn Eagle (November, 1846) as an “original novel.” Death in the School Room, The Child’s Champion, Little Jane, The Death of Wind-Foot, and a few poems were similarly twice published by Whitman, in the lax fashion of the day. See Bibliography.
  7. Whitman’s fullest and best account of the trip south was printed in the early numbers of the Crescent. This was not preserved in his collected prose editions, but a considerable portion of it was reprinted in The Yale Review, September, 1915.
  8. Whitman never married. In old age he confided to John Addington Symonds the information that, though unmarried, he had had six children, from intimate relations with whom he had been prevented by circumstances “connected with their fortune and benefit.” For a fuller discussion of this confession and the questions arising out of it than is here possible the reader is referred to the biographies by Binns, Perry, Edward Carpenter, Bazalgette, De Sélincourt, and Traubel.
  9. Several lines of evidence point to this conclusion. Here it will be sufficient to refer to Whitman’s autobiographical note published in The Critic, 28 February, 1885, over the pseudonym “George Selwyn.” See Bibliography.
  10. Changed to a daily in April, 1849.
  11. An article in the Springfield Republican, 28 March, 1892, states that Whitman helped to edit Levi D. Slamm’s Plebeian; and a letter from Whitman’s friend, T. H. Rome, the first printer of the Leaves of Grass, to Wm. E. Benjamin (September, 1898) mentions the fact that after his return from New Orleans Whitman conducted for a short time an advertising sheet called The Salesman. See also Hearne’s city directory for 1851 and 1852.
  12. A Whitman manuscript notebook in the possession of Thomas B. Harned, one of the poet’s friends and literary executors, preserves these earliest known specimens of modern free verse. They are shortly to be published by the present writer.
  13. In one of the anonymous reviews which Whitman saw fit to write, in 1855, of his own first edition, he disclaims any model: “The style of these poems, therefore, is simply their own style, just born and red. Nature may have given the hint to the author of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ but there exists no book or fragment of a book which can have given the hint to them.” In Re Walt Whitman, p. 16.

    The first poem known to have been published in this measure was Blood-Money, which appeared in Horace Greeley’s Tribune (Supplement), 22 March, 1850. But Isle of La Belle Rivière, published in the Cincinnati Post, 30 April, 1892, was written, in what is now called imagist verse, at the age of thirty (1849–50), while New Year’s Day, 1848, written in an album just before Whitman’s departure for New Orleans, shows a tendency to break away from conventional forms. By far more important are the Harned manuscript notebook specimens already mentioned.
  14. It is probable that Whitman had been reduced to the necessity of doing copying before, for the Brooklyn city directory (Lain) for 1860 gives “Walt Whitman, copyist.”
  15. Most of these letters were reprinted in Specimen Days or in The Wound-Dresser. See Bibliography.
  16. Swinburne, who had in Songs before Sunrise hailed Whitman as a new force in literature, considerably retracted his praise in later publications.
  17. The love-letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman are now being edited by Thomas B. Harned and will soon be published.