Walt Whitman is now considered one of the greatest American poets of all time, but his work was not so well-loved when it first debuted. Find out what made the man and his poems so controversial.
Who Was Walt Whitman?
Walter ‘Walt’ Whitman was an influential American poet of the 19th century, and a figure of more than a little controversy. As a transcendentalist, he held views that weren’t necessarily popular at his time, and his poetry, namely Leaves of Grass, was met with a good deal of criticism when it was first published in 1855. Whitman’s own brother George considered it not worth reading.
Ouch! Clearly, the critics were wrong; otherwise we wouldn’t be studying Whitman today. Let’s find out who this intriguing man was and why so many of his contemporaries had issues with his writing.Walt Whitman was born into a large, poor family in 1819 in New York State.
At age 11, he stopped formal schooling and went to work to support his family. He held various office jobs, worked for a printer and eventually became a journalist and teacher, though no occupation would suit him as well as poet.
Leaves Of Grass and Other Works
Whitman began work on the poems that would later comprise Leaves of Grass, including the famous Song of Myself, as early as 1850. Whitman’s style of poetry was unique for his time; he wrote in free verse, or poetry without meter or rhyme. As meter and rhyme are what people often use to distinguish poetry from prose, it was often hard for some readers to recognize Leaves of Grass as poetry at all!Though now it’s considered essential American literature, the highly sensual nature of Leaves of Grass, along with its unusual form, made it pretty unpopular at the time it was first published.
Though no one knows for certain, most scholars assume that Whitman was either gay or bisexual, and his explicit descriptions of physical pleasure in the book were highly offensive to many. Readers were said to have thrown the book immediately into the fire after reading it.Like most transcendentalist works, Leaves of Grass explores the relationship between man and nature and the value of the mind and spirit. Transcendentalism placed great value on the self, and in Book 1 of Leaves of Grass, entitled Inscriptions, the first poem is actually titled One’s-Self I Sing. Let’s take a look at it:’One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.Of physiology from top to toe I sing,Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I saythe Form complete is worthier far,The Female equally with the Male I sing.Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,The Modern Man I sing.
‘It’s interesting to note that this poem specifically mentions the body (physiology) and not just the mind or the spirit. This is one of the more tame examples of Whitman’s emphasis on the physical. If you want to see the more R-rated ones, you’ll need to read the book yourself.
Though Leaves of Grass is his most well-known work, Whitman did publish other collections of poetry during his time, such as Franklin Evans, Drum Taps and Democratic Vistas, a politically themed collection of letters and essays. Like many transcendentalists of his time, Whitman strongly opposed slavery, though scholars believe that he still held many of the common racial prejudices of his day.
Despite the controversial nature of his work, Whitman’s legacy on American poetry is hard to overstate. One of his contemporaries, a British woman named Mary Costelloe, said, ‘you cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass‘, and Ezra Pound said that Walt Whitman, ‘IS America’.
Harold Bloom, one of the most important literary critics of the present day, has this to say about Whitman:’If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.’It’s not uncommon for a work of literature to receive poor reception when it’s initially published, but go on to receive greater acclaim in the years to come, but the complete 180 in attitude with regards to Leaves of Grass seems pretty extreme. I’d like to say that Whitman handled the praise with humility, but there are reports that he viewed himself as a Christ-like figure in poetry, a Kanye West for the 19th century.
In summary, Walt Whitman was a highly influential American poet and a key member of the transcendentalist movement, along with contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Despite his humble beginnings, Whitman went on to write one of the most defining works of American poetry to date, Leaves of Grass. Though the sexuality of the book, and Whitman’s own suspected sexual preferences, made Leaves of Grass controversial for the time, scholars and critics now consider it essential American reading. So go check it out!
Finishing this lesson, you should understand what makes Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass the definitive example of the Transcendental movement and the most influential book of poetry from the period.