Whitman’s personal record

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Walt Whitman, An American by Henry Seidel Canby, published in 1943, is an intimate look at the poet’s long struggle to create Leaves of Grass, which Emerson so famously hailed as the rising of a truly new American poet, of a type he had called for in his essays which urged readers to cast off European ways and forge a new consciousness based on the new American land and spirit. Canby is good on Whitman’s early life as a respected journalists and editor of several weeklies in Brooklyn and New York City where he cut a compelling figure among the writers and artists of the times. He was far ahead of his time, with a cunning understanding of publicity, a theatrical presence, and a sophisticated understanding of politics. He was viewed as a sophisticated political journalist who also had a flair for essays and portraits of people and events. All the while, his inner world, his meditative link with the unfolding of his daily experiences, was secretly putting down deep roots which around age 35 burst forth in epiphany-like awakenings, calling out the first poems celebrating himself:

From his notebook:

I am the poet of the body

And I am the poet of the soul…

I am the poet of reality

I say the earth is not an echo…

I am the poet of equality

I dilate you with tremendous breath 

He saw himself as nothing less than a divine, incarnate prophet-teacher. He fully assumed the role – braving decades of public outcries of indecency because of his frankness (so tender and mild) when writing about sexual relations between women and men, the actual extent of which are shrouded in personal reticence. His service later in life as a volunteer hospital worker in Washington D.C. during the Civil War years stands out because it called forth and displayed his saint-like character. A touching moment: when Lincoln and Whitman confronted each other on several occasions, there seemed to have been a bow given my both men without an exchange of words.

The record he left of his volunteer service to the injured soldiers, Specimen Days, and his notebooks from that period, are a close second to his final, completed version of Leaves of Grass, which is now our national song of the 19th century America spirit (which, alas, lived and lives only in literature). Wth Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Whitman we had a calling forth for an America which was never to be and four artful testaments to the causes of that failure: and yet, there is both an America which continues to live up to their ideals and an America which blusters along oblivious to the transcendence they called for to achieve a better human nature during our time on Earth. Even so, it was a bright era for American letters. Looking at Whitman’s life, you can’t help but see the link with Allen Ginsberg, a continuation of Whitman’s spirit and energy who lived in a time when the materialism and cynicism, foreseen by the 19th century writers, was firmly entrenched. It dominated Ginsberg’s time, but he did, indeed, Howl against it. Ginsberg’s public acceptance had obvious parallels to Whitman’s. A public misapprehension of his poetic style and widespread establishment shock at his unabashed homosexuality and willingness to assume a political role (something Whitman never did). And here we are, in hope, awaiting the emergence of another quartet of writers who will raise the banner in this century.

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