by Walt Whitman
“The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.” – Walt Whitman, from his introduction to Leaves of Grass.
It is during times of great social change that iconic artists, writers, and poets emerge whose works reflect and express the spirit of the times. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was one of these icons and his epic poem cycle, Leaves of Grass, describes a young nation attempting to define itself while reconciling the conflicts left unresolved at its inception. Whitman was born at a time when slavery was ripping the United States of America into feuding camps: abolitionists wanted slavery to end on purely moral grounds while slave states depended on the plantation economy in order to produce cash crops such as tobacco and cotton. In the years leading up to the Civil War, friends and family members would often come to blows over the issue of slavery because there was no middle ground. Either slaves were full humans and therefore entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” under the Constitution, or they were on a par with livestock, entitled to no rights whatsoever. In the end, it would take the catharsis of war to settle the question, but the end of the war was the beginning of the social turbulence created when tens of thousands of freed slaves abandoned the plantations of their birth, with little more than the clothes on their backs, for the hope of paid work in the smokestack industries of the northeast.
As this drama unfolded, Walt Whitman’s inner world roiled as he watched, listened, and reported on the national argument. The greatness of the United States came from the idea that we are a nation of laws, not of men, and that all men are created equal. Only the most intellectually dishonest people could argue that slaves were not human beings, and while he himself did not favor slavery, Whitman did not fully embrace the Abolitionist movement, because he felt it was somehow antithetical to the American ideal. Whitman recognized that slavery as a practice was dehumanizing; that even the most beaten down slave was still a man or woman in possession of a soul, capable of goodness and evil, and made of the same stuff as his or her master. The question of slavery notwithstanding, Whitman understood that the American ideal transcended the lesser aspects of human nature, allowing our more noble character traits to define us: a pure example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Slavery and the American ideal were incompatible, but the southern United States depended on slavery for their survival. Whitman recognized that resolving this issue was going to be painful, perhaps ruinous.
Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, describes America and Americans in words the way a mixed media collage or abstract expressionist painting tells a story through visual imagery. In the introduction to the poem cycle, Whitman writes that “the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors…but always most in the common people.” Whitman himself was of modest origins and worked in journalism and publishing for most of his young life, taking time out to nurse Civil War soldiers before becoming a US government employee after the war ended. He knew the meaning of work and was not afraid to get his hands dirty. Whitman had little in the way of formal education, but had a high aptitude for the English language and became a writer at a young age. In his early thirties, Whitman decided to become a poet and completed the first edition of the collection of poems which would establish him as one of America’s seminal literary figures.
Reading Leaves of Grass is a journey deep inside oneself. Whitman’s struggle to make peace with ethical dilemmas, sexuality, religion, death and relationships is not unique: it is something common to almost every human being, fortunate enough to live free from tyranny, who seeks a life with meaning. His poems make another point which is that even though our constitution gives us freedom, we Americans do not always agree on what it means to be free. Whitman received harsh criticism both for his free-form writing and for his treatment of sexuality in Leaves of Grass. Some said it was immoral, pornographic, homoerotic, or all three. Just the same, Whitman continued to revise and republish the work up until his death in 1892, and it remains a classic piece of American literature to this day.
I decided to read Leaves of Grass after finding my husband’s copy bookmarked by his terminally ill brother. The first bookmark fell on a verse discussing immortality, the second on sleep – eternal and otherwise, the fourth on a verse about God, and the fifth about final judgment. Clearly, my brother-in-law was preparing himself for the end and these poems were helpful to him. So out of sympathy I read the first three verses of “Song of Myself” which begin as follows:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.
And I was hooked which surprised me because I have never enjoyed reading poetry. As a child, I loved listening to poems and nursery rhymes with their song-like cadences and colorful phrases; the captivating blend of stories and songs set to verse. One of my fondest memories is of my mother’s voice reverberating as I rested my head against her while she read from “The Family Book of Best Loved Poems” with her arm tucked around my shoulders, my little sister on her other side, and my baby brother on her lap. If I could relive one moment of my childhood, it would be this.
The rhythmic poems I loved as a child are the product of a great tradition of spoken and –eventually – written language. Epic poems were how histories survived from generation to generation and across cultures. Traveling orators committed poems to memory and earned a living by entertaining crowds while preserving histories until they could be written down. The classic poems from pre-literate societies relied on metered verses with repeating phrases and epithets to make them easier to memorize. Some surviving examples of this spoken tradition include Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, and Virgil’s “Aeneid” in Greek; Vyasa’s “Mahābhārata” in Sanscrit; and “Beowulf” of unknown authorship in old English.
Unlike his predecessors and most of his contemporaries, Walt Whitman crafted free-form verse which had a more emotional and expressive quality than cadenced rhyming verses. Reading Leaves of Grass engages all the senses as if one is sharing Walt Whitman’s experience in the moment. I can see why it appealed to my brother-in-law when he believed he was dying, still hoping for a miracle. (Perhaps the poems have curative powers because not only did my brother-in-law survive his high risk surgery, but his body remains completely cancer free some three years later.) It took me the better part of a month to read Leaves of Grass in its entirety, taking it a few verses at a time, but when I was finished I felt like I could appreciate the beauty of life more deeply than before. Walt Whitman is considered a “transcendentalist” in that he sought greater and more profound truths than what we can sense and prove scientifically. What this means is that he could see God in a single blade of grass.
Copyright 2011 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved