Walt Whitmans Origins

Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, Huntington Township, Long Island, New York on May 31, 1819. His family moved to Brooklyn in May of 1823. Whitman Sr. continued to buy and sell property that he fixed up. Whitman Jr. attended District School #1 in Brooklyn until 1830, when he began to work as an office boy in a law office. He got a subscription to a library and it was here that his love for reading began.

In 1831, young Whitman found work in a Brooklyn printing office and continued to work for printers in New York even after his family moved back to Long Island in 1833. The only thing that finally compelled Whitman to leave New York was a fire that wiped out most of the buildings in Paternoster Row, the printing center of New York, in 1835.

In 1836, Whitman joined his family back on Long Island and taught school until about 1841, when he moved back to New York City and started working in the printing office of the New York New World. At this point in his life, Whitman began going to the theater and writing reviews about performances, attending lectures, writing stories, and even penning a temperance novel. The young writer developed a taste for opera through the 1840s and became politically active in the Democratic Party.

He left New York for New Orleans in 1848, but really spent most of his time in New York.

From 1851 to 1854 little is known about Whitman's activities.

After the publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman continued to live and work in Brooklyn, where in 1859 he became involved in the first American bohemi-an circle at Pfaffs. He met actors and freethinkers of all types, including, among others, Henry Clap, editor of the Saturday Press.

In 1862 when he found out that his brother had been wounded in the Civil War, he left New York for the South and for years worked as a Civil War nurse. He never really came back to New York to live permanently after 1862. It is between Whitman's early teen years and 1862 that most of his important work took place.

Living in New York City was most certainly important to Whitman and his becoming a poet. Whitman's inspiring rite-of-passage

Katedra Notre Dame Ciekawostki

New York City Helps Create a Poet

Living in New York City was most certainly important to Whitman and his becoming a poet. Whitman's inspiring rite-of-passage poem arid paean to New York was stimulated by his workaday life—in fact, his commute between Brooklyn and New York was by ferry. The Fulton Ferry was something that completely framed Whitman's day and provided him with a unique time for contemplation.

From the "Sun-Down Poem":

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes,

How curious you are to me! On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross

Are more curious to me than you suppose, And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more To me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose ...

This very broad opening, that brings together a number of people, quickly becomes very personal, born out of actual personal and professional crises Whitman experienced between 1855 and 1856. Despite the critical and commercial failure of the first publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman set to work almost immediately on the revisions and new poems of the second edition. The artist may have felt the need to write, but the man found life getting in the way. "Every thing I have done seems to me blank and suspicious," Whitman wrote in a notebook entry in late 1855. "I doubt whether my greatest thoughts, as I had supposed them, are not shallow—and people will most likely laugh at me. My pride is impotent, my love gets no response" (Notebooks and Unpublished Manuscripts, 167). There is the sense that this is a difficult personal time for Whitman. There's a sense he is engaged in an activity that makes him feel "unclean" or dirty.

Continued from later in the "Sun-Down Poem" ...

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,

The dark threw patches down upon me also,

The best I had done seemed to me blank and suspicious,

My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meager?

Would not people laugh at me? It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil, I am he who knew what it was to be evil ...

Whitman was inspired by his lack of inspiration much as Samuel Taylor Coleridge described this paradox in "Dejection: An Ode." This is a moment of deep introspection for Whitman. How does he get out of this? What we see is him reaching towards his fellow New Yorkers:

Closer yet I approach you,

What thought you have of me, I had as much of you— I laid in my stores in advance,

I considered long and seriously of you before you were born.

The water cleanses him but the poet must journey through the "dark patches" to a moment of emotional equilibrium and spiritual poise.

He then discusses the role of the city of Manhattan in his personal journey.

Now I am curious what sight can ever be more stately and admirable To me than my mast-henn'd Manhatta, my river and sun-set, And my scallop-edged waves of flood-tide, the sea-gulls Oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, And the belated lighter...

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," perhaps more successfully than any other poem, unites Whitman and his reader across the "impassable" boundary of time. It also helps explain the process of how Whitman was able to move past trouble and self-doubt to full and free artistic expression. And New York seems to have had a large part in this.

"There Was a Child Went Forth" is another coming-of-age poem that speaks of Whitman's family issues and shows how movement from country to city helps initiate him as an artist. "There Was a Child" is about revisionism, and tells us much about Whitman, the poet of revision. He's also coming to terms with what might be a dark and complicated past. How do you get through a clinging memory of bad experience? Take a look at these lines from "There Was a Child Went Forth."

There was a child went forth every day,

And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder Or pity or love or dread, that object he became,

And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part Of the day ... or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

This poem was one of the public's favorites, but not much to the critics, or to Whitman himself. There are patterns and movements in this poem. We get a good description of the family, but at which point do things get difficult? Where does the poet find joy at the end of this poem?

"The Sleepers"

"The Sleepers" is a poem that caused a great deal of controversy right from the start. For many readers, the poem was simply a mystery. Whitman's friend and admirer John Burroughs wrote in 1896, "There are passages or whole poems in the Leaves which I do not yet understand ("Sleep-Chasings" is one of them), though the language is as clear as daylight; they are simply too subtle or elusive for me."

"The Sleepers" has a very different sort of goal and direction than that of "There Was a Child." It was a more challenging poem, supposedly the first surreal poem written in America and maybe the first stream-of-conscious-ness style.

I wander all night in my vision,

Stepping with light feet ... swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping,

Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers;

Wandering and confused ... lost to myself... ill-assorted ... contradictory,

Pausing and gazing and bending and stopping.

There are many vivid images in the poem that spark discussion. In the line, "I wander all night," why night? Why sleep? What are some of the "dreams" that release Whitman from categories normally defining him?

Throughout the central portions of the poem there are extraordinary moments of the fluidity of identity. Then there are images that equate with loss and loneliness ("Swimmer," "Battle of Brooklyn," "Squaw," and "Black Lucifer"). There are also images of return and renewal. The poem moves from hate to love, darkness to light, winter to spring—what was the way down becomes the way up. In the end, what Whitman longs for is not Nirvana or peace, but the continuing cycles of life.

We have seen Whitman wrestle with social, family and psychological issues in these three poems. In the next lecture, which is about Whitman and sexuality, we'll see him thinking about his own physicality and about the bodies of those around him.

Critical Views on "The Sleepers"

Dr. Richard Bucke, a pioneer in psychiatry, found "the most astonishing parts of the poem" those passages where "the vague emotions, without thought, that occasionally arise in sleep, are given as they actually occur, apart from any idea—the words having in the intellectual sense no meaning, but arousing, as music does, the state of feeling intended." Bucke warned readers that the poem "requires a great deal of study to make anything of it," though to some few readers, he believed, "it would, no doubt, be plain at once."

"The Sleepers" became a favorite of psychological critics like Edwin Haviland Miller and Stephen Black. When Miller offered a long reading of the poem in 1968 as "an evocation of psychic depths" and "a reenactment of ancient puberty rites," he noted that "until recently" the poem "has been neglected and misunderstood" (pp. 72, 78). But seven years later, in offering his own psychoanalytical reading of "The Sleepers" as a revelation of "threats" that inhibited Whitman from "achieving a secure sense of identity," Black described the poem as "one of Whitman's most widely admired and analyzed poems" (p. 125). It was clearly a poem that had to wait over a century for its readers and for the psychological approaches that would open Whitman's words.

As readings of the poem proliferated, Jerome Loving would call it "the most famous dream in American literature" (Etudes Anglaises) and post-structural psychological readings based on the ideas of theorists like Julia Kristeva developed the complexities of the poem (see Carol Zapata Whelan, " Do I Contradict Myself?': Progression through Contraries in Walt Whitman's 'The Sleepers,'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 (1992), 25-39).

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