Other Articles of Interest

Ceniza, Sherry. '"Being a Woman ... I Wish to Give My Own View': Some Nineteenth-Century Women's Responses to the 1860 Leaves of Grass." In Ezra Greenspan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 110-134.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. "Whitman's Sexual Themes During a Decade of Revision: 1866-1876." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 4 (Summer 1986), 7-15.

Pollak, Vivian R. "In Loftiest Spheres: Whitman's Visionary Feminism." In Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman, eds., Breaking Bounds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 92-111.

Scholnick, Robert J. "The Texts and Contexts of 'Calamus': Did Whitman Censor Himself in 1860?" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 21 (Winter/Spring 2004), 109-130.

Lecture 8: Glancing Back, Looking Forward: Whitman and the Promise of America

Before beginning this lecture you may want to ...

Read Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (the later sections).

Many readers feel that Whitman wrote his best poetry in the first three or four editions of Leaves of Grass (1855-1865). Whitman however continued to write up until ten days before he died. This leaves a significant amount of time and work for which Whitman is less well known. Why would this be? How does Whitman change as a man and a poet in his last twenty years? What sort of legacy does Whitman establish for the poets to come in America's history?

Whitman constantly revised and expanded his work and wrote new poems. These revisions and reconsiderations are signs of an active and flexible mind, one unwilling to settle or stagnate despite the appeal of worldly success and acceptance and the burdens of heartache, disease, loss, and age. Throughout his life, he was continually reaching for new ideas and additions to his oeuvre. Even while Whitman is staying active as a poet he's also changing his image of what his poetry should do and what his country represents. The late Whitman is really a different poet from the early Whitman.

There is an essay published in 1888 that illustrates this fact entitled "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads." In it is the idea that Whitman is wrapping up his vision of what his poetic enterprise consisted of. This essay frames his late career in the same way that the "Preface" to Leaves of Grass encapsulates his early career in 1855.

In the third paragraph of "A Backward Glance," written not long before his death, Whitman comes out with a statement of what he thinks has been accomplished and what he thinks remains to be done in his career:

That I have not gained the acceptance of my own time, but have fallen back on fond dreams of the future—anticipations—That from a worldly and business point of view Leaves of Grass has been worse than a failure—that public criticism on the book and myself as author of it yet shows mark'd anger and contempt more than anything else ... As fulfilled, or partially fulfilled, the best comfort of the whole business is that, unstopp'd and unwarp'd by any influence outside the soul within me, I have had my say entirely my own way, and put it unerringly on record—the value thereof to be decided by time.

This is a Whitman who is disillusioned and who realizes that some of his early hopes would not be realized. From the "Preface" of 1855: "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."

This is what Whitman had hoped for his whole life. When this didn't happen, he felt obliged to talk his way through his life and dreamed as he does in "A Backward Glance." We see in Whitman's later life a modesty that was not before present. The overwhelming "I" of early poems leads to an understanding on his part that he forms part of a poetic lineage and that there may be poets after him that will be influenced by him but who may also be able to speak better to the new and growing America.

And whether my friends claim it for me or not, I know well enough too, that in respect to pictorial talent, dramatic situations, and especially in verbal melody and all the conventional technique of poetry, not only the divine works that stand ahead in the world's reading, but dozens more transcend (some of them immeasurably transcend) all I have done, or could do.

And from the end of the essay ... ... the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.

Whitman's Late Collection: A Poet looking at Post-Bellum America

By studying poems from Whitman's late collection, Goodbye My Fancy, especially "To the Sunset Breeze," we can see in this mode that he dwells on what he has done and where he is in the larger scheme of the world of poetry and history. There is the sense that his work is finished and that he must hand the torch to new poets to complete the tasks he originally set for himself. These poems are so different both in content and texture, and to fully explain why this is, it is necessary to return to Whitman and his views on the results of the Civil War.

The Civil War ended in 1865, and did not bring with it the changes for which Whitman had wished. As a poet reflective of his country, what did he now have to write about, when his country had seemed to disappoint him? The America Whitman used to sing to no longer existed, and was being replaced. This seems to have had a profound effect on him.

In the late 1860s, Whitman looked out on a cultural landscape in many ways different from the one he had surveyed a decade earlier. Among the losers of the war were the values of individualism, state autonomy, and local power. Among the winners were federalism, centralized control, technology, and industrialism. The powers of the federal government expanded, and several laws—including the chartering of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads—gave huge boosts to business. The spirit of centralization and organization affected many areas of American life. For example:

• Antebellum fads like the pseudosciences of phrenology, harmonialism, and mesmerism were supplanted by more institutionalized mind-cure movements, ranging from Christian Science (with its highly structured church organization) to theosophy, and were closely connected with consumerism. The seeming experimental, individualized nature of American rr

Railroad workers celebrate at the driving of the Golden Spike Ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869. signifying completion of the first transcontinental railroad route created by joining the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads.

religion had disappeared.

• Individualism (which in the late 1850s had fostered several forms of anarchism and bohemianism) later became co-opted by capitalism. Consider Henry Clapp, the former Prince of Bohemia. In 1865 Clapp revived his experimental paper, the Saturday Press. New York's bohemian culture had been wiped out by the war, however, and the paper quickly failed. Within two years Clapp was working as a clerk in a New York public office, leaving himself open to the jokes of his former friends.

• Urban conditions (still grubby and chaotic) were being dealt with by organizational entities such as New York's Metropolitan Board of Health, which in 1866 posted a momentous victory over cholera through improved sanitation, and the park movement.

• Even radical reform was touched by the institutional spirit. American feminists replaced the rather loose organizations of the antebellum period with the highly organized National Woman Suffrage Association and the competing American Women Suffrage Association.

• The development of colleges and stadium sports.

• Grand three-ring circuses replaced the small circuses from before the war.

• Plays and musicals saw far less direct interaction between performers and audiences than previously.

Due to these developments Whitman found that post-Belllum America was too big, baffling and too complex for the man who once thought he could see the "bigger picture."

The Last Years of America's First Poet

Whitman—the man and the poet—changed dramatically because of the Civil War and related occurrences. The feeling of health and the passionate questionings regarding love were no longer part of his life. In 1858, Whitman start ed experiencing strokes that would eventually leave him half paralyzed. In 1863, he reported a "bad humming feeling and deafness, stupor-like at times." In 1864, he reported a "deathly faintness." Whitman would later claim that it was the war that changed his life, and many doctors agreed that he had "absorbed hospital sicknesses into his system." Also, at home, there were unhealthy family issues occurring. His brother George returned shell-shocked from the war; Hannah and Heyde carried on endless feuds in Burlington, and in 1868 her thumb had to be amputated because of an infection; Martha coughed up blood and died of tuberculosis in 1873; Andrew's widow Nancy, heartily despised by the family, prostituted and begged on the streets with her children (including her son Andrew, who was run over and killed by a brewery wagon); his other brother Jesse died of a ruptured aneurysm in a lunatic asylum and was buried in a potter's field in 1870.

In addition Whitman's love life was a mess. His relationship with Pete Doyle, whom he met in Washington, D.C. in 1865, when he was 45 and Pete was 21, had deteriorated. Pete was subject to mood shifts. In August 1869, Pete Doyle made a proposition to Whitman that Walt was shocked by. He said, "It seemed to me ... that the one I loved, and who had always been manly and sensible, was gone, and a fool and intentional murderer stood in his place."

Doyle went on to say later that "Walt was too clean. He hated anything which was not clean. Not any kind of dissipation in him." He also complained that Whitman never smoked and drank only very moderately in Washington.

Whitman then, is strongly disappointed with the outcome of the Civil War, as can be seen by his personal life and by his writings, especially in the late essay, "Democratic Vistas" ( 1871). He speaks of the physical horrors he has seen in the Civil War and of how all the bloodshed does not seem to have been compensated for with any sort of new freedom or vision for America. He condemns Lincoln's War Department as being corrupt and rotten under Simon Cameron, who gave lucrative government contracts to his business cronies in Pennsylvania and bemoans the fact that the political and social corruption survived the war and was worsening. He is surprised and disappointed that the success of the Union in the Civil War doesn't begin a new powerful era of democracy.

Whitman, who had so much riding on the idea that America could turn around after the War and fulfill its promise, finds that when this fails to materialize, he begins to espouse a very new form of negativity. He does, however, speak of his hopefulness for the future, for poetry and women and about the unity of the country and the unity of its people:

Poets to come!

Not to-day is to justify me, and Democracy, and what we are for,

But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,

You must justify me.

Indeed, if it were not for you, what would I be?

What is the little I have done, except to arouse you?

—beginning of "Chants Democratic 14"

The poem that Whitman wanted to be the last poem in all of his collections from 1860 on is called "So Long" and illustrates that there is still a tremendous amount of strength, depth and challenge to Whitman's work:

I have pressed through in my own right, I have sung the body and the soul, war and peace have I

Sung, and the songs of life and death, And the songs of birth, and shown that there are many Births.

And from the ending:

Remember my words, I may again return, I love you, I depart from materials, I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

There is a feeling here that we are alone with Whitman for the final time, and with the feeling that he is ready to leave us. Unlike how Whitman ends many of his poems, here he chooses the word "dead." Why would he choose this ending? Perhaps the physical Whitman has passed and now he is more of a spiritual presence, so that the body may be gone but the feeling, emotion and spirit continues.

On March 26, 1892 at 6:43, two months and several days short of his 73rd birthday, Whitman died of bronchial pneumonia. It may have been the final complication of tuberculosis that he brought back from his time in the hospitals of the Civil War. Four days later he was buried in Camden, New Jersey. A public viewing of the body was held in his house, where thousands of people attended. There was a strange silence at the funeral where no one spoke; it was a silence that permeated Whitman's end.

In the remaining lectures we will investigate how intense the response has been to the legacy of Walt Whitman. In the next lecture we'll look at the first important American critical response to Whitman. In particular Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams.

1. What effect did the changing cultural landscape have on Whitman and his poetry?

2. What particular disappointments did Whitman have over the outcome of the Civil War?

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