Walt Whitman is the greatest of the American poets. He was born in a village near New York to an English father and a Dutch mother. As his only formal instruction he completed the six years of elementary school before starting work — first as a messenger for two lawyers and later as an apprentice in a printing company.
Self-taught and avid for hard work, the source of Whitman’s literary training was his delight in reading the Greek classics — as well as Shakespeare, Hegel, Cervantes, Dante …
He grew up in a society regulated by the most demanding conventions but had the courage to live the life he wanted.
Everything in him was focused on maturing his poetic faculty. In 1855 he published the first version of his great poetic work, “Leaves of Grass.” It was subject to continuous revision and expansion for the rest of his life, with the final edition published in 1892.
He received a lot of adverse criticism for this work, not because he lacked wit, but because of the ignorance and mediocrity that prevailed at the time. However, those who had a real critical sense could recognise in it a wonderful work. Thus, at least, Emerson’s criticism is well known: “It is the most extraordinary creation of wit and wisdom that the United States has produced thus far.”
Whitman’s work — although extremely brilliant, pure and devoid of malice — unleashed great disputes and scandals, to the point that the intervention of a body called the Society for the Suppression of Vice was requested, in order to destroy this horrible book (even the original), which, according to them, “had hurt their virginal modesty.”
Whitman, ignoring this false morality, continued to expand his book. He had only one interruption: the Civil War (1861–1865) in which he worked as a volunteer nurse, and during which he wrote the poem “Drum-Taps,” the essay “Democratic Vistas” and a letter to his mother called “The Wound-Dresser.”
After the war, Whitman lived in Washington until 1873 — then, for health reasons, he moved to New Jersey and died peacefully on March 26th 1892.
Whitman, as I stated at the beginning of this article, is not only the greatest of the North American poets, but also the first of them — in chronological order.
He deliberately rejects both the ‘Old World’ models and the poetic heritage of Europe. Firm in this conviction, he worked on his masterwork for 37 years. “Leaves of Grass” is the total confession of a tolerant and understanding man, who expresses his own position before the eternal problems of man. The solution to these problems he finds in democracy. A democracy that he recognises will take a long time to arrive. (A democracy that does not yet exist on earth, seeing as the current one is nothing but a sham.)
His work received much destructive criticism — he was accused of “having written the crudest sensuality” — but these judges were far from knowing what they were saying. Their ignorance blinded them.
Whitman, for his part, remained calm because he knew — and this he had understood a long time — that there is nothing sinful in that fundamental impulse of all life. It was for this reason he passionately celebrated it, without concern for the modesty of the Puritans, the fools and the hypocrites.
He expressed his clear position on the matter: “Is not nakedness then indecent? No, not inherently. It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability that is indecent.”
Whitman is the poet of optimism, joy and clarity. Opinions that matter have enshrined him as sublime, not just in his homeland or in the New World — but in human history.