Read an Excerpt
From Karen Karbiener’s Introduction to Leaves of Grass: First and "Death-Bed" Editions
"Whitman, the one pioneer. And only Whitman," wrote D. H. Lawrence in 1923. "No English pioneers, no French. No European pioneer-poets. In Europe the would-be pioneers are mere innovators. The same in America. Ahead of Whitman, nothing" (Woodress, ed., Critical Essays on Walt Whitman, p. 211). The sentiments were echoed by the likes of F. O. Matthiessen, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. Langston Hughes named Whitman the "greatest of American poets"; Henry Miller described him as "the bard of the future" (quoted in Perlman et al., eds., Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, pp. 185, 205). Even his more cynical readers recognized Whitman’s position of near-mythical status and supreme influence in American letters. "His crudity is an exceeding great stench but it is America," Ezra Pound admitted in a 1909 article; he continued: "To be frank, Whitman is to my fatherland what Dante is to Italy" (Perlman, pp. 112–113). "We continue to live in a Whitmanesque age," said Pablo Neruda in a speech to PEN in 1972. "Walt Whitman was the protagonist of a truly geographical personality: The first man in history to speak with a truly continental American voice, to bear a truly American name" (Perlman, p. 232). Alicia Ostriker, in a 1992 essay, claimed that "if women poets in America have written more boldly and experimentally in the last thirty years than our British equivalents, we have Whitman to thank" (Perlman, p. 463).
How did a former typesetter and penny-daily editor come to write the poems that would define and shape American literature and culture?
Whitman’s metamorphosis in the decade before the first publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855 remains an intriguing mystery. Biographers concede that details about Whitman’s life and literary activities from the late 1840s to the early 1850s are extremely hard to come by. "Little is known of Whitman’s activities in these years," writes Joann Krieg in the 1851–1854 section of her Whitman Chronology (most other years have month-to-month commentaries). Whitman was fired from his job at the New Orleans Daily Cresent in the summer of 1848, then resigned from his editorship of the Brooklyn Freeman in 1849. Though he continued to write for several newspapers during the next five years, his work as a freelancer was irregular and his whereabouts difficult to follow. He seems also to have tried his hand at several other jobs, including house building and selling stationery. One wonders if Walt’s break from the daily work routine had something to do with his poetic awakening. Keeping to a regulated schedule in the newspaper offices had been a struggle for him, and he had been fired several times for laziness or "sloth." Charting his own days and ways—in particular, working as a self-employed carpenter, as had his idiosyncratic father—may well have enabled him to think "outside the box" and toward the organic, freeform qualities of Leaves.
Purposefully dropping out of workaday life and common sight suggests that Whitman may have intended to obscure the details of his pre-Leaves years, and there is further evidence to support the idea that Whitman consciously created a "myth of origins." In his biography of Whitman, Justin Kaplan quotes the poet on the mysterious "perturbations" of Leaves of Grass: It had been written under "great pressure, pressure from within," and he had "felt that he must do it" (p. 185). To obscure the roots of Leaves and build the case for his original thinking, Whitman destroyed significant amounts of manuscripts and letters upon at least two occasions; as Grier notes in his introduction to Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, "one is continually struck by [the] omissions and reticences" of the remaining material (vol. 1, p. 8). Indeed, some of the notes surviving his "clean-ups" were reminders to himself to "not name any names"—and thus to remain silent concerning any possible readings or influences. "Make no quotations, and no reference to any other writers.—Lumber the writing with nothing," Whitman wrote to himself in the late 1840s. It was a command he would repeat to himself several times in the years preceding the publication of Leaves.
Whitman’s friends and critics also did their share to create a legend of the writer and his explosive first book. In the first biographical study of Whitman, John Burroughs claimed that certain individuals throughout history "mark and make new eras, plant the standard again ahead, and in one man personify vast races or sweeping revolutions. I consider Walt Whitman such an individual" (Burroughs, "Preface" to Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person). Others insisted that Leaves of Grass was the product of the "cosmic consciousness" Whitman had acquired around 1850 (Bucke, Walt Whitman, p. 178) or a spiritual "illumination" of the highest order (Binns, A Life of Walt Whitman, p. 69–70).
What sort of experience could inspire such a personal revelation? For a man just awakening to the inhumanity of slavery and the hidden agendas of the Free Soil stance, witnessing a slave auction might do it. This was but one of the life-altering events that occurred during Whitman’s three-month sojourn in New Orleans in 1848. Another, substantiated by his poetry rather than Whitman’s own word, was an alleged homosexual affair. Several poems in the sexually charged "Calamus" and "Children of Adam" clusters of 1860 are suggestive of an intense and liberating romance in New Orleans. The manuscript for "Once I Passed Through a Populous City" has the lines "man who wandered with me, there, for love of me, / Day by day, and night by night, we were together." "Man" was changed to "woman" in the final draft of the poem; see Whitman’s Manuscripts: Leaves of Grass (1860), edited by Fredson Bowers, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955, p. 64. In "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," the poet describes breaking off a twig of a particularly stately and solitary tree: "Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love." The emotional release of "coming out" might well explain the spectacular openness and provocative energy of Leaves of Grass; additionally, Whitman’s identification of his "outsider status" could have helped spark his empathy for women, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups that are celebrated in the 1855 poems.