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Guide to the classics: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the complex life of the ‘poet of America’

Poet Walt Whitman in his home in New Jersey in 1891. Born 200 years ago this week, Whitman is celebrated in America for his daring poetry collection Leaves of Grass.
Samuel Murray/Wikimedia Commons

Carolyn Masel, Australian Catholic University

This is a longer read. Enjoy!

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman, America’s most admired poet. Celebrations will be especially joyful around his birthday on May 31 and in New York City, whose citizens were often depicted in his poems. But the poetry many people now love won him notoriety before it won him fame.

Whitman’s life was interesting and varied. He was born in 1819 and grew up in and around Brooklyn, moving often as his family tried to make money from farming and real estate. His formal education ended when he was 11. He worked by turns in Manhattan and Brooklyn as a printer’s apprentice, a schoolteacher and a newspaper publisher, before resolving to become a writer.

Having had some success – a novel and newspaper pieces – he became chief editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, but lost this position when his opposition to the spread of slavery clashed with the views of the newspaper’s owner. Luckily, an opportunity arose to work on a newspaper in New Orleans. Whitman enjoyed this different culture, but never lost his horror of slave auctions.

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Walt Whitman, oil on canvas, 1887.
Thomas Eakins/Wikimedia Commons

On learning his brother George might have been injured during the Civil War, Whitman travelled to Washington DC and Fredericksburg, Virginia, to look for him. Fortunately, George’s wound was only superficial, but Whitman stayed on in Washington as a nurse, where he attended to sick, maimed and dying soldiers.

Working in field hospitals, Whitman’s health deteriorated, and at the age of 53 he suffered a stroke. Although he made a partial recovery, he was cared for by friends until he died almost 20 years later in March 1892. By then, he was admired for his writing in England, but the thousands who lined the streets in New Jersey for his funeral procession were probably more curious about his enormous tomb, which he had designed himself, than his writing.

Walt Whitman’s tomb in Camden, New Jersey.
Bart E/flickr, CC BY

Whitman’s innovation

We don’t know how or why Whitman began to invent his extraordinary poetry. In 1842 he listened to “The Poet”, a lecture in which philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called for a national bard who could write about the US in all its diversity. But Whitman’s daring originality seems more than a mere response to Emerson’s demands.

It is clear he thought of his book of poems, Leaves of Grass, as an experimental project. He took the opportunity of having the best compositors, the Rome brothers, typeset his poems, and he supervised the work closely, revising his poetry to fit the page. He even set about ten pages of the type himself.

The book’s long non-rhyming lines are reminiscent of bible verses. Each seems to correspond with a single breath or a single gesture. Words or phrases are often repeated at the beginning of a series of lines, building up a rhythmical pattern. However, Whitman is careful to break the pattern before it can become mere rhetoric. The reader is constantly being called to attention:

Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!

Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!

Earth of departed sunset – earth of the mountains misty-topt!

Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!

Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!

Earth of the limpid grey of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!

Far-swooping elbow’d earth – rich apple-blossom’d earth!

Smile, for your lover comes. (“Song of Myself”, canto 21)

Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s sole book of poetry. Rather than publish several collections containing new poems, he revised and expanded this single volume, so that the first edition of 12 poems eventually became a thick book of close to 400 poems.

There are six editions of the book (nine, if you count different type-settings). As soon as one was published Whitman would revise, regroup and add to the poems, treating the published book as a manuscript to be edited and republished.

The overall result of this practice is that Whitman’s poetry is seen always to flow from a single being; it is as unified and as singular as the man who made it.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass did not even contain the author’s name on the title page, but he was instantly recognisable from his picture on the frontispiece – a working man in his prime, open-shirted, hat on the back of his head, hand on hip, looking straight out at the reader.

Walt Whitman, 1854, frontispiece to Leaves of grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.
Wikimedia Commons

The poet of democracy

Emerson’s influence – or Whitman’s agreement with Emerson – can be seen in Whitman’s insistence on democracy as a central value of American society. People are equal, according to Whitman, because we are all mortal; moreover, we all have immortal souls.

In “Song of Myself”, we can see the connection between democracy, equality and immortality in the symbolic use of grass, which grows everywhere:

[…] I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same. […]

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps. […]

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death […]

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

In this passage the grass signifies equality, by making no distinction where it grows. A “hieroglyphic” symbol might need an expert – such as Whitman – to translate it, but it grows “uniform[ly]”, giving everyone the same rights and the same chances to mean something in the great poem that is America, as Whitman saw it.

Poet of the soul

As a result of Whitman’s habit of revision, we can witness the growth of many poems. The Sleepers, generally agreed to be among his finest, was worked on over the course of his career.

It is one of his most ambitious poems, with a triumphant ending that seems genuinely earned. It poses questions about the limitations of a single human life. How can one life, or one death, or one gender, be enough for a man, a poet, consumed by curiosity?


Whitman wants to dream every sleeper’s dream, be every sleeper’s lover, know every person’s meaning in the larger scheme, live everyone’s life and die everyone’s death.

In the third section of the poem, he envisages a beautiful swimmer, who comes to grief on rocks and dies. His body is then retrieved and laid out in a barn, with others, to be mourned just as the slain soldiers in the Revolutionary War (1775-83) were mourned by General Washington.

A Native American woman comes to visit the man’s mother, and then goes on her mysterious way, before everyone else returns to their rightful place: immigrants return home, colonial masters return to their countries of origin, the dead (including the beautiful swimmer), those waiting to be born, the sick, the disabled, the criminal are all likened to one another and restored in sleep.

At the end of the poem, all of the restored sleepers begin to awaken, an event described in terms of reconciliation and resurrection:

The sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed,
They flow hand in hand over the whole earth from east to west as they lie unclothed,
The Asiatic and African are hand in hand, the European and American are hand in hand […]

The felon steps forth from the prison, the insane becomes sane, the suffering of sick persons is reliev’d,
The sweatings and fevers stop, the throat that was unsound is sound the lungs of the consumptive are resumed, the poor distress’d head is free […]
Stiflings and passages open, the paralyzed become supple,
The swell’d and convuls’d and congested awake to themselves in condition,
They pass the invigoration of the night and the chemistry of the night, and awake. (Canto 8)

Only at the end of the poem does Whitman state that he has been previously afraid to trust himself to the night, but that now he is at peace with the rhythm of night and day, sleeping and waking, which governs the world.

Poet of the body

Whitman’s poetry was initially unpopular. Not only was his new verse form considered outlandish, but his insistence on the worthiness of the body put him beyond respectability. Emerson originally endorsed him, “greet[ing him] at the beginning of a great career”, but when Whitman published Emerson’s approving letter without permission in the next edition of the book, he put Emerson in an awkward position.

Emerson tried to dissuade Whitman from publishing explicit poems about sex and sexuality, but Whitman did so anyway. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass introduced a Children of Adam section, depicting robust heterosexual love, and a Calamus section, which celebrated love between men:

Not heat flames up and consumes,

Not sea-waves hurry in and out,

Not the air delicious and dry, the air of ripe summer, bears lightly along white down-balls of myriads of seeds,

Wafted, sailing gracefully, to drop where they may,

Not these, O none of these more than the flames of me, consuming, burning for his love whom I love […]

There were a few enthusiastic anonymous reviews for Leaves of Grass, but they were written by Whitman. His friends William Douglas O’Connor and John Burroughs allowed Whitman to make bold claims for his poetic achievements under their names. One pamphlet, ostensibly by O’Connor, was called The Good Grey Poet, an image of wholesomeness that went some way toward transforming and boosting Whitman’s image. Eventually, in 1881, Whitman had the opportunity to publish an edition of his book with a major publisher, Osgood.

However, no sooner had 1,500 copies of this definitive edition been printed than the publisher had to withdraw it, under threat of litigation for promoting obscenity. Then, in 1882, Leaves of Grass was banned in Boston. Fortunately, he was taken up by another publisher, and made more than $1000 in royalties on this edition.

Whitman’s overtly homoerotic poems won him friends as well as enemies. The English socialist writer and reformer Edward Carpenter visited him twice, and Oscar Wilde was also pleased to meet him. John Addington Symonds, an English poet and critic, wrote to Whitman over many years, urging him to state explicitly what he meant by the love of comrades.

At last Whitman emphatically disavowed any claim made by Symonds about the possibly sexual nature of the Calamus poems and stated that he had fathered six children. No evidence has been found to substantiate this claim.

Only after his death were Whitman’s romantic letters to streetcar conductor Peter Doyle published. Today Whitman is claimed as a champion of same-sex love, although whether or not it was consummated is still a matter of debate and probably unknowable.

Lines from Leaves of Grass inscribed on the paving in Walt Whitman Park, Brooklyn.
Charley Lhasa/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Whitman today

In one of the appraisals that Whitman ghost-wrote, he claimed to be better appreciated across the Atlantic than he was in America. There is truth in this: a censored English edition had found its way to a band of fervent supporters in industrial Bolton, near Manchester. They sent him a birthday message and ten pounds, and eventually two of them, J. W. Wallace and Dr John Johnson, went to visit the poet, by then gravely ill.

A lively transatlantic correspondence ensued that lasted long beyond the death of the poet and the two leaders of the Bolton Whitman reading group. Whitman’s birthday is still celebrated with a walk led by Bolton Socialist Club members.

The transformation of Whitman from shunned outsider to national poet-hero happened in fits and starts. Whitman’s own critical efforts and those of his transatlantic disciples began it. Then Whitman’s “spiritual son”, Horace Traubel, wrote a nine-volume work called With Walt Whitman in Camden, published between 1906 and 1996, designed to make Whitman’s thought more generally known.

Wealthy collectors of Americana began to exhibit the various editions of Whitman’s books. Readers began to appreciate Whitman’s insistence on the body and the value he placed on manly love. Whitman’s poetry began to be studied wherever American literature was taught, and he was taken up by popular culture.

Whitman’s birthplace in Huntington, New York, is now a museum, close to the Walt Whitman Shops on Walt Whitman Road. You can take a tour through his last residence – the only house he ever owned – in Camden, New Jersey.

He is now considered the father of free verse (although he was not the first poet to use it), the father of modern poetry, and, according to one critic, the “imaginative father and mother” of every American, whether a poet or not.

Whitman is also recognised with parks in Washington DC and New York. Among the most moving tributes is the Dupont Circle train station in Washington DC, which contains an inscription from his poem “The Wound Dresser”.

Originally written about the Civil War, these lines in their new context become a tribute to those who cared for sufferers during the AIDS crisis. One senses that the poet would be gratified at last to be given the recognition craved by this generous, embracing imaginative personality.The Conversation

Carolyn Masel, Lecturer in Literature, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Inside the story: writing trauma in Cynthia Banham’s A Certain Light

Cynthia Banham with Kevin Rudd in 2008. Banham’s memoir explores both the trauma she experienced during a plane crash in 2007 and her family’s history.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Tess Scholfield-Peters, University of Technology Sydney

Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In a new series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.

Former Fairfax journalist and lawyer Cynthia Banham voices the silenced pain of generations in A Certain Light, her evocative, hybrid work of docu-memoir.

In an effort to process the trauma she experienced while on assignment more than ten years ago – a plane crash over Indonesia claimed both her legs and left 60% of her body covered in full thickness burns – Banham locates her own experience within her wider family’s narrative.

Banham’s memoir was released in 2018. Her story was once again in the news earlier this year, when Eddie McGuire mocked her pre-match coin toss at an AFL game (McGuire later apologised and said his comments were not about Banham).

In the book, Banham confronts the impact of the accident on her identity, and the ways in which her own resilience can be traced backwards through her heritage. She writes of her family: “We were shaped by each other’s trauma, just like we were shaped by each other’s love.”

Her voice shifts between the investigative (she incorporates historiography, images, documents, footnotes and parentheses) and the insightful and emotional first person. Yet her journalistic attention to detail is constant. Woven together, these voices comprise her fragmentary memoir, an arduous journey into the past and ultimately, resolution.

Allen & Unwin

Banham says A Certain Light is written for her young son, so he will one day know about his family’s history. The book begins with an epistolary prologue that speaks directly to him, predominantly through first person but sometimes in second.

We are invited by Banham into the intensely personal space of the text. She reveals to us her maternal indecision – the desire for her son to know, yet be shielded from, her trauma’s painful excesses.

Banham writes: “Will you, my son, grow up with memories of your mother’s suffering, feeling that you are somehow my compensation?” The first of many rhetorical questions throughout the text reminds us of her vulnerability, and the fraught task of communicating trauma through generations.

Connected narratives

Banham’s painful telling of her rehabilitation after the crash is threaded through other, broader stories of the past, an act of deflection perhaps signifying the difficulty endured in writing about the crash itself.

She retraces the trauma narratives of her grandfather, Alfredo; Alfredo’s sister, Amelia; and Banham’s mother, Loredana. She collects memories from family members across Europe, and artefacts and documents she has chosen to incorporate into the text, reflective of her own pieced-together family narrative.

The images are haunting at times and lend an immense gravity to Banham’s storytelling. Connecting stories of suffering to a face or a real artefact allows the reader to explore her own empathic ties with the story.

Banham finds a connection between the experiences of these relatives and her own. While her grandfather’s plight as an Italian prisoner of war in Nazi Germany is of course different to her own experience, Banham draws effective comparisons.

For example, she likens her thirst immediately after the plane crash as she waited, unable to move, in a foreign hospital hallway, to the excruciating thirst felt by victims of war.

In her research she encounters an image of German soldiers who had lost their legs. “War wounds”, she writes, “how did I end up with war wounds?” These comparisons show a lingering resonance of war in her mind, of the shared, transcendental suffering that connects generations.

Through her mother’s story as an Italian immigrant to Australia during the 1950s, Banham connects to a deep feeling of shame – the shame of difference, of abnormality. Shame was so innate that her mother was reluctant to let the surgeons amputate Banham’s legs in life-saving surgery, for fear of what her daughter’s life might be like without a “normal” body.

Banham leans painfully into her trauma in the final chapter of the book, titled Crashing. She revisits the site of the plane crash, and the days immediately before and after – the most distressing moments.

Cynthia Banham is evacuated from Sardjito hospital, in Yogyakarta, Wednesday, 07 March 2007.

Tension builds as she recalls a handful of details: the description of her hotel room; the clothes she chose to wear that morning (might her life be different now if she had worn pants instead of a skirt?); the trivial pre-flight conversation she had with fellow journalists about Indonesia’s air crash record.

The actual recount of the crash is surreal. Banham writes: “Shit, I was thinking. Is this really happening? Then: Oh God.” On the next page: “Shit, actually, this could be it, this could be the end, maybe this is how I am going to die.”

The terror Banham experienced in those moments is beyond comprehension, and yet the incredibly human, common thoughts of panic incite an immense sense of empathy in the reader. It reminds us this could happen to anyone.

This is Banham’s second book – her first, Liberal Democracies and the Torture of Their Citizens, was derived from her PhD undertaken at the Australian National University several years after her accident.

A Certain Light reconciles the woman she was before the plane crash with the woman who writes this text. Banham explores the fragility of memory and the shared longing to know the stories of family members who can no longer speak, or perhaps do not want to.

“Memory is fluid, malleable, untrustworthy”, Banham writes, yet ultimately it’s memory that has created her narrative, her identity reclaimed from trauma. A Certain Light is a reminder that despite even the greatest tragedy, time moves on and there is light in the darkness – if we choose to see it.The Conversation

Tess Scholfield-Peters, PhD candidate in Creative Arts, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.