Today is the birthday of Walt Whitman born on Long Island, New York in 1819. Whitman was working as a carpenter and living with his mother in Brooklyn, when he read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” which claimed the new United States needed a poet to properly capture its spirit. Whitman decided he was that poet. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman later said. “Emerson brought me to a boil.”
Whitman began work on Leaves of Grass, crafting an American epic that celebrated the common man. He did most of the typesetting for the book himself, and he made sure the edition was small enough to fit in a pocket, later explaining, “I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air.” He was 37 years old when he paid for the publication of 795 copies out of his own pocket.
Many of Whitman’s poems were criticized for being openly erotic. One of Whitman’s earliest reviews had called the book “a mass of stupid filth,” accusing Whitman of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians.” But rather than censoring himself, Whitman added 146 poems to his third edition.
He began to grow a literary reputation that swung from genius to moral reprobate, depending on the reader. Thoreau wrote, “It is as if the beasts spoke.” Willa Cather referred to Whitman as “that dirty old man.” Emerson praised Whitman’s collection as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed,” and the critic William Michael Rossetti proclaimed that Whitman was a talent on par with Shakespeare.
Whitman left New York when his brother was wounded in the Civil War, traveling to Virginia and then to Washington, D.C., to serve as a volunteer Army hospital nurse. He had a reputation for unconventional clothing and manners.
With the help of well-placed friends, Whitman eventually found work as a low-level clerk in the Department of the Interior. But when former Iowa Senator James Harlan discovered Whitman worked in his department, he had him dismissed, proclaiming Leaves of Grass was “full of indecent passages,” and that Whitman himself was a “very bad man” and a “free lover.”
Whitman’s friend William Douglas O’Connor immediately came to his defense. He arranged for Whitman to be transferred to the attorney general’s office, and he published a pamphlet refuting Harlan’s charges. Titled The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, the small book praised Whitman’s “nobleness of character” and went on to quote from positive reviews — and to ridicule Harlan as an under-read philistine.
The pamphlet became more than a vindication: it helped to radically alter the average reader’s perception of Whitman as both a writer and as a man: Out with the image of the bawdy nonconformist and in with the “good gray poet,” the nickname for Whitman that is still popular to this day.
Whitman spent the last 20 years of his life revising and expanding Leaves of Grass, issuing the eighth and final edition in 1891, saying it was “at last complete — after 33 y’rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old.”
Today, most scholars agree that Whitman was likely gay. When he was asked directly, toward the end of his life, Whitman declined to answer. But he did say, shortly before he died, that sex was “the thing in my work which has been most misunderstood — that has excited the roundest opposition, the sharpest venom, the unintermitted slander, of the people who regard themselves as the custodians of the morals of the world.”