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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Whitman, Walt (1819 - 1892)

"Pointing to another world will never stop vice among us; shedding light over this world can alone help us."

"And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is."

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God."

-- Walt Whitman


Walt Whitman was an American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist born on Long Island, New York. His most famous works are the collections of poetry Leaves of Grass and Drum-Taps.

Born into a family of nine children in Long Island and raised in Brooklyn, Walt Whitman began his career as a journalist and editor. He was for a time editor of The Long Islander which was his own newspaper stand that he ran himself,but unfortunately that only lasted for one year. (1838–39). During his early years, Whitman inherited his liberal intellectual and political attitudes largely from his father, who exposed him to socialists Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, Quaker Elias Hicks, and Count Volney.

At the age of seventeen he became a teacher, which helped jump start his career as a writer. He made his first trip to New Orleans to visit his brother Jeff in 1848, and remained there for several months as an editor of the New Orleans Crescent, but eventually returned to Brooklyn where he became the editor of The Brooklyn Times. On his return trip to Brooklyn, he passed through several American 'frontier' cities that would later play so heavily into his work including St. Louis and Chicago.

After returning for Brooklyn, Whitman continued to work as a journalist and editor for different newspapers. In particular, his work for the New York Aurora and the Democratic Review exposed him to the literary culture of which he would later become a part. Whitman himself cited his assignment from the Aurora to cover a series of lectures given by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a turning point in his thinking.

Poetic Work
After losing his job as editor of the Daily Eagle because of his abolitionist sentiment and his support of the free-soil movement, Whitman self-published an early edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 with Rome Brothers.

Except for his own anonymous reviews, the early edition of Leaves received little attention. One exception was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher and essayist. A few prominent intellectuals such as Oliver Wendell Holmes were outwardly opposed to Whitman and found his sensuality obscene.

It was not until 1864 that Leaves of Grass found a publisher other than Whitman. That 1860 re-issue was greatly enlarged, containing two new sections, “ Children of Adam” and “Calamus.” This revising of Leaves of Grass would continue for the rest of his life, and by 1892, Leaves of Grass had been reissued in more than seven different versions.

Whitman's prose
In 1871, Whitman published his first book of prose, Democratic Vistas. Vistas deals largely with Whitman's fears during the post-war Reconstruction that democracy had failed in the U.S. and would continue to fail unless American citizens made a radical re-commitment to personal integrity and brotherhood.

Whitman's political views
Whitman's political views generally reflected the nineteeth century classical liberalism. On free trade he stated: "The spirit of the tariff is malevolent. It flies in the face of all American ideals. I hate it root and branch. It helps a few rich men to get rich, it helps the great mass of poor men to get poorer. I am for free trade because I am for anything that will break down the barriers between peoples. I want to see the countries all wide open."

Whitman during the American Civil War
In 1862, Whitman first came face-to-face with the tragedy of the American Civil War when he traveled to Virginia to visit his brother George who had been wounded in battle. Whitman was so moved by the scene in the Virginia hospital that he traveled to Washington D.C. and remained there as an unofficial nurse in the army hospital.

He remained at the hospital and used money he earned from his writings or from donations by various fans to buy more equipment for the hospital until his health declined in 1873.

Later life
In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke while working and living in Washington, D.C.. He never quite recovered completely but continued to write and produce poetry. He was eventually largely confined to the house he bought in Camden,New Jersey.

After Whitman's stroke, his fame grew substantially both at home and abroad. Most of this was stimulated by several prominent British writers criticizing the American academy for not recognizing his talents. These writers included William Rossetti and Anne Gilchrist. At this time in his life, Whitman also had a prominent group of national and international disciples, including Canadian writer and physician Richard Bucke.

During his later years, Whitman ventured out on only two significant journeys: first to Colorado in 1879 and then to Boston to visit Emerson in 1881. Walt Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and was buried in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery.

Whitman's manuscripts
An extensive collection of Walt Whitman's manuscripts is maintained in the Library of Congress largely thanks to the efforts of Russian immigrant Charles Feinberg. Feinberg preserved Whitman's manuscripts and promoted his poetry so intensely through a period when Whitman's fame largely declined that University of Paris-Sorbonne Professor Steven Asselineau claimed "for nearly half a century Feinberg was in a way Whitman's representative on earth".

Whitman's influence on later poets
Walt Whitman is widely considered one of the most influential American poets of all time. One of his most prominent poetic admirers was Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg begins his famous poem "Supermarket in California" with a reference to Walt Whitman. Other notable American poet admirers of Walt Whitman include John Berryman and Galway Kinnell.

Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom considers Walt Whitman to be among the five most important U.S. poets of all time (along with Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Robert Frost).

Whitman and homosexuality
Another topic intertwined with Whitman's life and poetry is that of homosexuality and homoeroticism, ranging from his admiration for 19th-century ideals of male friendship to openly erotic descriptions of the male body, as can be readily seen in his poem "Song of Myself". This is in contradiction to the outrage Whitman displayed when confronted about these messages in public, praising chastity and denouncing onanism.

He also long claimed to have a black female paramour in New Orleans, and six illegitimate children.This story about the paramour in New Orleans has led historians on a wild goose chase. Jean Luc Montaigne specifies that the name of Whitman´s lover was Jean Granouille, not Jeanine Granouille. This male octoroon was only 26 years old when he met Whitman, and he was the son of Huguenot preacher and a slave. Some, in order to whitewash Whitman´s reputation, converted Jean into Jeanine.

Having a Negress as a lover was far more acceptable than having a male octoroon lover! Modern scholarly opinion believes these poems reflected Whitman's true feelings towards his sexuality, but he tried to cover up his feelings in a homophobic culture. In "Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City" he changed the sex of the beloved from male to female prior to publication.

During the American Civil War, the intense comradeship at the front lines in Virginia, which were visited by Whitman in his capacity as a nurse, fueled his ideas about the convergence of homosexuality and democracy. In "Democratic Vistas", he begins to discriminate between amative (i.e., heterosexual) and adhesive (i.e., homosexual) love, and identifies the latter as the key to forming the community without which democracy is incomplete:

It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it), that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof.

In the 1970s, the gay liberation movement made Whitman one of their poster children, citing the homosexual content and comparing him to Jean Genet for his love of young working-class men ("We Two Boys Together Clinging"). In particular the "Calamus" poems, written after a failed and very likely homosexual relationship, contain passages that were interpreted to represent the coming out of a gay man.

The name of the poems alone would have sufficed to convey homosexual connotations to the ones in the know at the time, since the calamus plant is associated with Kalamos, a god in antique mythology who was transformed with grief by the death of his lover, the male youth Karpos. In addition, the calamus plant's central characteristic is a prominent central vein that is phallic in appearance.

Whitman's romantic and sexual attraction towards other men is not disputed. However, whether or not Whitman had sexual relationships with men has been the subject of some critical disagreement. The best evidence is a pair of third-hand accounts attributed to fellow poets George Sylvester Viereck and Edward Carpenter, neither of whom entrusted those accounts to print themselves.

Though scholars in the field have increasingly supported the view of Whitman as actively homosexual, this aspect of his personality is still sometimes omitted when his works are presented in educational settings. The love of Whitman's life may well have been Peter Doyle, a bus conductor whom he met around 1866. They were inseparable for several years. Interviewed in 1895, Doyle said:""We were familiar at once — I put my hand on his knee — we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip — in fact went all the way back with me."

Whitman chronology
1819: Born on May 31.
1841: Moves to New York City.
1855: Father, Walter, dies. First edition of Leaves of Grass.
1862: Visits his brother, George, who was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg.
1865: Lincoln assassinated. Drum-Taps, Whitman's wartime poetry (later incorporated into Leaves of Grass), published. (See O Captain! My Captain!)
1873: Stroke. Mother, Louisa, dies.
1877: Meets Maurice Bucke
1882: Meets Oscar Wilde. Publishes Specimen Days & Collect.
1888: Second stroke. Serious illness. Publishes November Boughs.
1891: Final edition of Leaves of Grass.
1892: Walt Whitman dies, on March 26.

Cultural references
Whitman is heavily referenced throughout the film Dead Poets Society.

Homer Simpson of The Simpsons who, after discovering that a grave his father told him was his dead mother's was actually that of Whitman, says along with intermittent kicks to the gravestone "Damn you Walt Whitman! I...hate...you...Walt...freakin'...Whitman! Leaves of grass my ass!". (Episode #136, "Mother Simpson")

In an episode of the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman Walt Whitman comes to Colorado Springs town to inspire a young writer.

In the film With Honors, Walt Whitman's book "Leaves of Grass" is a major prop in the film.

In the 1994 Canadian Independent film titled "" a patient in a mental hospital looks like and claims to be Walt Whitman. Critics noted that the film obscured the sexuality of this Walt Whitman character, with a brief bit of dialogue where a nurse wonders aloud why Mr. Whitman never married.

Whitman is also referenced in the movie "The Notebook"

In a short play entitled The Open Road, the protagonist, Allen, thinks he is Walt Whitman; it was an off-off Broadway show.

 
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The information on which this page is based has been drawn from research on the Internet. For example, much use has been made of Wikipedia.org, to whom we are greatly indebted. Since the information recording process at Wikipedia is prone to changes in the data, please check at Wikipedia for current information. If you find something on this page to be in error, please contact us.
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