His fame rests upon Leaves of Grass, a slender volume of 12 poems and grew until it eventually contained 389 poems.
In his old age he likened it to a carefully constructed cathedral.
Using another metaphor, critics nowadays hail his work as the cornerstone of modern American poetry.
He is acclaimed among the best and most influential poets of his country.
But readers were slow to recognize the vividness, originality and power of his artistic expression, which was at first perceived as an assault on literary decorum.
His poetry did not fit in with the genteel standards of the time because he began to write when the popularly successful Fireside Poets, such as Longfellow, dominated the American literary scene.
Compared to them, both his language and his subject matter seemed vulgar, while his apparent lack of structure did not suit the taste of those who expected poetry to follow strictly the rigid patterns of traditional verse.
His departure from the rules of conventional poetry represented an innovation that first disturbed his early reviewers, but later won his admirers all over the world.
He broke away from the standard metre and rhyme schemes of English poetry, and explored the possibilities of free verse instead.
Free verse has no regular metre and no equal line length.
The fact that it has an irregular rhythm does not mean that it has no rhythmic arrangement. The overall effect has a melodic character because the variable patterns of sound used by the poet are created by means of alliteration and assonance, and by the repetition of words and phrases.
Verse lines have different lengths and are fluid because they are structured according to the cadences of natural speech.
Regarding content, he also revolutionized the landscape of American poetry. Not only did he reject conventionally poetic English and replace it with the language of common American speech, but he also introduced subjects that had been traditionally considered unsuitable for poetry:
· For instance, he captured the rhythms of urban life and made the city an appropriate setting for poetical works.
· His democratic ideals led him to expand his field of interest and pay particular attention to the daily lives of ordinary people, including characters and activities habitually marginalized.
· He saw himself as a bard for his whole nation, speaking with a voice drawn from America’s vernacular, a popular language, made “by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea”.
· He celebrated an America large enough to include the multitudes in a mystically imagined Union.
· By presenting himself as a model democrat who spoke as and for the people, he called for a literature for the masses, but the great contradiction was that he was never read by the mass readership of his day.
He, like B. Franklin, was the epitome of the self-made man.
He proudly proclaimed his working-class social origins.
He was born in Brooklyn, which at the time was largely rural, but its proximity to NY allowed him to become familiar with the metropolis.
Because of the low family income, he attended Brooklyn’s only public school, an overcrowded institution, which at the time had the social stigma of the poor because it only enrolled students unable to afford private schools.
He left school at 11 and found work successively as an office boy, a printer’s apprentice, a typesetter and a teacher, before he moved on to a career in journalism.
Mainly self-taught, he compensated for the little formal education he had received in his early years by reading widely and by attending the theatre and the opera, which would constitute extremely important influences upon his artistic development.
His personality was also shaped to a great extent by the Quakerism and Deism that prevailed in his household.
The Hicksite belief that one’s duty is to enjoy life guided by the intuitions of one’s soul would become the foundation of his religious thought.
He never joined a church although he considered himself deeply religious and often expressed his sympathy towards the Quaker faith of his mother’s ancestors.
His lifelong anticlericalism was partly derived from his father, a freethinking rationalist.
Rather than at school, it was at the printing office that he really acquired his reading and writing skills and also developed an appreciation of the aesthetics of the page that would be so evident in the layout of his poetry.
At 19 he founded his own weekly newspaper, the Long Islander, which is still in print today. But he was only involved in it for a short time, because he sold it 10 months later.
Then he began a brief political career by speaking at Democratic rallies, where he exercised his abilities as an innovative communicator.
At that time he was particularly interested in the press as an agent of reform from the perspective of working-class concerns.
He published stories in the Democratic Review, the most important magazine of the Democratic party, and circulated his early poems in the Aurora, a newspaper he edited in 1842.
In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle he wrote most of the literary reviews and published more than a hundred small items on fiction alone.
Apart from his early literary pieces, his editorials have attracted scholarly attention because they reveal his thinking about subjects to which he returned in his mature poetry such as the “communion” between the writer and reader.
An important aspect of his ideology was his opposition to the extension of slavery into the western territories. Unlike the abolitionists, who opposed slavery on moral grounds, he supported “free-soilers”, who were simply against the presence of slaves in the new territories.
Because of his stance on this issue, he lost the editorship of the Daily Eagle he had held for two years.
He worked for three months in the bustling city of New Orleans, where he witnessed slave auctions. He later considered that this southern sojourn had been crucial to his maturing as a poet.
Indeed, the articles he wrote there show a progressive visual ability to portray reality as a painter would.
The variety of America is a theme that would figure so prominently in his writings.
His views on slavery drove him away from the Democratic party, for he felt that its politicians had betrayed the fight for liberty and justice they were proclaiming in their speeches.
He became an active member of the Free Soil party and the editor of its newspaper, Freeman.
His contributions to this political paper in the midst of a particular turbulent period are interesting because they include his most passionate antislavery journalism, which can be related to the indignation he also expressed in several poems written in the 1850s.
He also wrote editorials in the Brooklyn Daily Times on the inhumanity of slavery. These pieces show how he gradually went farther than most free soilers, as he finally came to defend the thesis that the institution of slavery itself was incompatible with the egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution.
Probably the reason why he was so slow to engage emotionally in the war effort was the despair he had already felt for his country before the actual fighting broke out, convinced as he was that the causes for the armed conflict lay in the corruption that had infected both the North and the South.
He never took up arms and did not witness any battles. His only contact with the war came through the hospitals, for he went to the front in search of his wounded brother, and then volunteered as a male nurse in the military hospitals of Washington.
Out of his experiences nursing wounded soldiers grew his volume Drum-taps, a collection of 53 poems he incorporated into the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, thus giving the Civil War a central position in his work.
As the author rearranged and placed in other sections some of the poems that had appeared in the separate volume of Drum-Taps and its Sequel, the “Drum-Taps” cluster of the final edition of Leaves of Grass contains 43 poems that, exhibiting varying responses and changing moods, stand among the finest war poetry written by an American.
It is commonly believed that the assassination of President Lincoln at the end of the war affected him much more deeply than any event in the war itself. First he wrote two short poems, and during the summer he composed the great elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, later included in Leaves of Grass with other poems as a cluster entitled “Memories of President Lincoln”, which expresses a profound grief at the loss of the “powerful western fallen star”.
His explicit celebration of sexual freedom often shocked and offended his first audience. Many of his contemporaries saw him not merely as vulgar, but as corrupt for his alleged obscenity.
For instance, in the cluster of poems originally entitled “Enfans d’Adam” in the edition of Leaves of Grass, which was called “Children of Adam” and thereafter he exhorted a return to the Garden of Eden by recovering the sexual innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall.
He did not use taboo words, but his early readers found “gross indecencies” in his use of daring sexual imagery, particularly in his obvious metaphors for sexual organs.
In his lifetime it was his allusions to heterosexuality that became subjects of controversy, whereas his handling of homosexuality was largely unnoticed.
20th –c scholarship has paid a great deal of attention to the “Calamus” poems, that had their origin in a sequence called “Live Oak with Moss”, to which he added other pieces to comprise the 45 poems of the “Calamus” cluster of 1860.
As these pieces celebrated the “beautiful and sane affection of man for man” according to its author, they were initially taken as innocent poems of male comradeship and brotherly love. Recently, however, the “Calamus” cluster has come to be interpreted as a group of overtly homoerotic lyrics.
His treatment of sexuality tends to be overemphasized to the detriment of the attention deserved by other equally noteworthy themes. Since he thought that sex was part of human experience, he saw no reason why it should be excluded from his all-embracing poetry, whose material was drawn from the common everyday lives of all kinds of people.
He declared himself both “the poet of the Body” and “the poet of the Soul”. Consequently, his poetry stressed the importance of the physical self, yet it did not focus exclusively on it. In fact, democracy was his most distinctive and central theme, to which many others were related.
He thought that America was the great democracy where each individual could evolve to spiritual perfection and, in Democratic Vistas, a lengthy prose work, he suggested that the American poets could spread the idea of democracy throughout the world.
Compared with the poems that he had published in popular magazines in the 1840s, his first book of poetry seems almost a miracle.
Critics have expressed their astonishment over the difference in literary quality between those early poetic compositions, conventional and full of sentimentality, and the contents of Leaves of Grass.
This first edition:
· Contained 12 untitled poems, preceded by a 10-page statement in prose, which was also untitled, and later came to be known as the 1855 Preface.
· The volume was privately printed at his own expense. He designed it and even set up part of the type himself.
· On the frontispiece was the portrait of a young man, who remained unidentified, as no author’s name was given on the title page.
· His unconventional appearance, however, seemed to link him to the poet who boldly addressed readers by celebrating himself and his whole nation with him.
From its first publication in 1855, Whitman continued to revise and expand Leaves of Grass, never changing the name of the book.
He published six separate editions of his work, developing it in an episodic way and sometimes altering the titles of his poems.
In the 1881 edition he finally decided on their definitive arrangement and titles.