This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.
When in his old age, often painfully bedridden in his Mickle Street house in grimy, run-down Camden, N.J., Walt Whitman talked endlessly with his young friend Horace Traubel, who became his Boswell.
America's greatest poet and Long Island's finest gift to the world of letters had one request:
"Be sure to write about me honest: whatever you do, do not prettify me: include all the hells and damns."
In his poetry and prose, and in the millions of words that others have written about him, the good gray poet comes down to us unprettified, with all the hells and damns intact. Whitman, whose "Leaves of Grass" rattled the establishment when it was first published in 1855, wrote a poetry that was loose and free, sensual and demonic, where rhyme was usually absent and the self-conscious "I" was ever-present.
I celebrate myself and sing myself . . .
From Montauk on one end of the island he called Paumanok to New York and Brooklyn on the other, Whitman celebrated the world that gave birth to his genius: the thundering ocean waves pounding on the sandy Island shores, the rolling hills where he hiked in search of birds and butterflies and the throbbing energy of the expanding metropolis to the west that attracted him like a magnet. Over this island he rambled with an absorbing purpose: When the time was right, the poetry burst forth in an effusion of strange, wonderful and often perverse language that sought a connection with the universe.
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love
engirth me, and I engirth them ...
But before the thunderclap that was "Leaves of Grass," the first version of which did not come until Whitman was 36, there were years of apprenticeship. He was a schoolteacher on Long Island, a printer, a carpenter, the founder of the Huntington weekly newspaper The Long-Islander, and for years an editor and writer on at least 10 newspapers on Long Island and in New York City.
During the remarkable Civil War period of his life, Whitman volunteered as a nurse in hospitals surrounding Washington, D.C., that had been hurriedly constructed to house the Union wounded. He walked like a bearded saint among the bloodied, crippled bodies, comforting young men ravaged by war's destruction, talking to them, writing letters home for them, bringing them candy, writing paper, fruit juices and tobacco, and dressing their wounds, both real and psychic. It was a defining moment in Whitman's middle life, one that drew from him richly imagined, elegiac poetry lamenting the mutilation of fragile human bodies and the loss of an assassinated president he had grown to love.
Returning, resuming, I thread
my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify
with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark
night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the
experience sweet and sad . . .
In his free time, Whitman wandered the streets of the capital, occasionally seeing a weary President Abraham Lincoln moving about. And when Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater, came this:
When lilacs last in the dooryard
And the great star early droop'd
in the western sky in the night,
I mourned, and yet shall mourn
with ever-returning spring.
Whitman's life and his writing were a mass of contradictions, and the "myself" in the poetry is not always the real-life Walt. In the great poem that anchors "Leaves," called "Song of Myself," his first-person hero is "one of the roughs," a swaggering, earthy fellow of simple pleasures, "turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding . . ." But, though he was 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, burly, with big hands and feet, Whitman was both physically and emotionally a tender and sensitive soul, more likely to be charmed by a butterfly than a barroom brawl - and probably one who never did any breeding, since he was more attracted to men than to women.
The man who sings the song of himself boasts of being a healthy, swaggering, gutsy imbiber of life. But Whitman was not completely well by his mid-40s, according to a major biographer, the late Paul Zweig of Queens College.
"In 1855 and 1856, he sang out about his magnetism' and his radiant bodily health and offered to pull his readers - and all of America - up to his gigantic level," Zweig wrote in "Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet." "It is an astonishing combination of poetic genius, street theater and fraud. And something else, too: a feeling of power, a genuine physical aura which was the outreaching form of Whitman's egotism."
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
In the middle of the summer of 1881, when he was 62, Whitman returned for the last time to the place where he was born in Huntington. It set off a flurry of memories. The poet walked to the Whitman family burial hill above an apple orchard, sat on a grave, took out pencil and paper and made notes. A year later he published the autobiographical "Specimen Days," his most lyrical and evocative prose work:
"Rode around the old familiar spots, viewing and pondering and dwelling long upon them, everything coming back to me . . . The successive growth stages of my infancy, childhood, youth and manhood were all pass'd on Long Island, which I sometimes feel as if I had incorporated. I roam'd, as boy and man, and have lived in nearly all parts, from Brooklyn to Montauk Point."
One image leads to another, and Whitman's thoughts travel back to his days of hiking to the top of nearby Jayne's Hill, the highest spot on Long Island. He remembers eel-spearing on the frozen Great South Bay, gathering seagulls' eggs in the summertime, sailing around Shelter Island and down to Montauk Point, picnicking on Turtle Hill beside the old lighthouse, wandering through the Hempstead Plains, making friends with baymen, farmers, fishermen:
"As I write, the whole experience comes back to me after the lapse of forty and more years - the soothing rustle of the waves, and the saline smell - boyhood's times, the clam-digging, barefoot, and with trowsers roll'd up - hauling down the creek - the perfume of the sedge-meadows - the hay-boat, and the chowder and fishing excursions . . . while living in Brooklyn (1836-'50) I went regularly every week in the mild seasons down to Coney island, at that time a long, bare unfrequented shore, which I had all to myself, and where I loved, after bathing, to race up and down the hard sand, and declaim Homer or Shakespeare to the surf and sea-gulls by the hour."
Walter Whitman Jr. - he became "Walt" when "Leaves of Grass" was published - was English on his father's side, Dutch on his mother's, with family lines going back to the mid-1600s. For the Whitmans, life was strained. Walter Whitman Sr. was a quiet and brooding Huntington carpenter, given to fits of depression, who moved regularly from home to home as he failed and failed again to provide for his family. Walt's mother, Louisa Van Velsor, came from a nearby, Quaker-influenced family that bred horses.
Whitman was the second of nine children. One died in infancy and three of five brothers and one sister had severe problems. One was mentally handicapped, and eventually institutionalized. Another died of tuberculosis and alcoholism at age 36, and his wife became a prostitute. A third died in the Kings County Lunatic Asylum. A sister was, according to some sources, a lifelong hypochondriac, and by others, a borderline psychotic whose artist husband died in a mental institution.
Walt was born May 31, 1819, in the two-story West Hills house that his father had built in Huntington. Just before his fourth birthday, the Whitmans packed up and moved to a rented house in Brooklyn. It was there that Walt spent his childhood, though the family moved constantly as the father had mixed success in finding work. At age 11, the boy's schooling ended, as he went out to work full time, first as a clerk. When the father moved the family back to Long Island in 1833, Walt stayed in Brooklyn, although he often visited his family in places like Hempstead and West Babylon. Some of these summer visits were occasions for joyous romps on the beach or in the woods, where Walt got back in touch with the natural beauty of Long Island.
A child said "What is the grass?"
fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do
not know what it is any more than he . . .
I guess it is the handkerchief of the
Lord . . .
Taking a job as a printer's apprentice at the Long Island Patriot in 1831, when he was 12, Walt began his early career as a journalist. New York City became his mecca, a roaring, bawdy town where child prostitutes, dandies, drunkards and scavenging pigs vied for sidewalk space. Whitman explored this great metropolis, embroiled himself in Democratic politics and drank in the music of its opera halls and the rhythms and sounds of its cacophonous streets.
"Mannahatta!" Whitman would later write. "How fit a name for America's great democratic island city! The word itself, how beautiful! how aboriginal! how it seems to rise with tall spires, glistening in sunshine, with such New World atmosphers, vista and action!"
Off and on for the next quarter-century, Whitman either edited or wrote for a number of daily or weekly newspapers in the New York area, including a short period of editing the Brooklyn Eagle. In the spring of 1838, just before his 19th birthday, he bought a printing press and type in New York City and lugged them to Huntington, where he founded a weekly newspaper, the Long Islander. Although he sold the paper after about a year because he was restless, the experience left a vivid impression, as he later noted in "Specimen Days":
"I bought a good horse a white mare named Nina , and every week went round the country serving my papers, devoting one day and night to it. I never had happier jaunts - going over to south side, to Babylon, down the south road, across to Smithtown and Comac, and back home. The experience of those jaunts, the dear old-fashion'd farmers and their wives, the stops by the hay-fields, the hospitality, nice dinners, occasional evenings, the girls, the rides through the brush, come up in my memory to this day."
About this same time, Whitman earned his bread by teaching in country schools around Long Island. But it was not a calling he especially liked, and he kept returning to journalism. He was also writing, but nothing memorable. Poetry, short stories, even a bad novel, "Franklin Evans," the story of a Long Island country rube who comes to the big city, falls under the spell of evil liquor, and saves himself only through temperance. (Whitman later called the novel "damned rot.") It was putting words together, and Whitman was under the spell of words.
"A perfect writer," he once wrote, "would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry, or do any thing that man or woman of the natural powers can do."
The mature Walt Whitman was about to emerge. It all came together in the spring of 1855, when Whitman published on his own a 95-page book that he called "Leaves of Grass." It contained 12 untitled poems, but Whitman kept revising, rearranging, deleting and adding new material until he died in 1892, by which time the ninth edition of "Leaves" was 426 pages long and contained 417 poems.
I hear America singing, the
varied carols I hear . . .
Whitman was ready for America, but America was not necessarily ready for Whitman. "In 1855, Whitman felt America needed him, and he was there to supply the need," writes David S. Reynolds in his 1996 cultural biography, "Walt Whitman in America." "He firmly believed his country would absorb him as affectionately as he had absorbed it. It was not long before he knew that he was terribly mistaken."
"Leaves" was not a complete failure, but the first edition sold only several hundred copies and the reviews were sharply divided. There was one extraordinary accolade, however, that has had literary critics buzzing ever since. One of the people who was given a first copy was the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of Boston's leading intellectuals. On July 21, 1855, Emerson wrote Whitman a letter that has been called the most famous letter in American literary history.
"I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed," Emerson said of "Leaves." ". . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career . . . " Whitman, no slouch at self-promotion, used the letter as a publicity tool for subsequent editions of the book.
Though a number of critics applauded the new poet, many Americans were not ready for Whitman's odd-sounding free verse. They were even less ready for his unbuttoned, freewheeling celebration of the body, of the robust human appetite for sex, both heterosexual and homosexual. They were simply not ready for Walt Whitman's gargantuan, offbeat appetites. There was, for example, New York journalist Rufus Griswold, who wrote that "Leaves of Grass" was "a mass of stupid filth."
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices
veil'd and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified
Emerson himself once proposed that Whitman clean it up a little, but Whitman later told his friend Traubel that he would have none of it. "If I had cut the sex out I might just as well cut everything out," Whitman said. And later, he added, "Damn the expurgated books! I say damn them! The dirtiest book in the world is an expurgated book."
Those who feel that "Leaves of Grass" is a dirty book - or at least a homoerotic book - might point to lines like these from the poem "When I Heard at the Close of Day":
For the one I love most lay
sleeping by me under the same
cover in the cool night,
In the stillness in the Autumn
moonbeams his face was inclined
And his arm lay lightly around
my breast - and that night I
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Whitman stayed on in Washington after obtaining low-paying government jobs that gave him the freedom to continue his revisions of "Leaves of Grass." But in 1873 he was partially crippled by a stroke, and was taken in by his brother George, who was then an inspector in a Camden, N.J., pipe foundry. He was not an easy guest, since he liked to spend his days working on his poems and entertaining numerous guests from far and wide who came to pay their respects.
The best-known story from that period concerns the day in 1882 when the great Irish author and wit Oscar Wilde, then only 28, came to visit the master. "I come as a poet to call upon a poet," Wilde said. Whitman opened a bottle of his sister-in-law's homemade elderberry wine and offered Wilde a drink from a dirty glass. Wilde later said that he would have drunk it even if it had been vinegar.
Whitman, however, wanted to be on his own, and in the spring of 1884 he bought a house in a workingman's neighborhood at 328 Mickle St. for $1,750. It was near the railroad tracks, and freight and passenger trains rumbled by on a regular basis. He called it his "shanty," and he lived there for eight years, slowly getting weaker and weaker, less and less able to take care of himself. In addition to Traubel, nurses became his regular companions.
With the end of his life nearing, Whitman began thinking about his own memorial. He chose Camden's Harleigh Cemetery as the site of a Massachusetts granite mausoleum that would contain not only his remains, but those of a number of family members as well. He was delighted with the effect, and visitors came round to visit the tomb even before Whitman was buried there.
On the evening of March 6, 1892, Walt Whitman died. He was 72.
Seventy years later, across the highway from the cedar-shingled house where he was born in Huntington, developers built a shopping mall and put Walt Whitman's name on it. Purists who visit the house love the old place but feel the commercial setting is deplorable. Walt, however, might have gotten a chuckle out of it. A company once produced a Walt Whitman cigar, and when he saw his picture on the box, Whitman, a nonsmoker, laughed and said: "That is fame!"