WHITMAN, Walt .... American poet: b. West Hills, Long Island, N. Y., 31 May 1819; d. Camden, N. J., 26 March 1892. He was educated in the pubic schools of Brooklyn, and learned the printer's trade, after which he taught in country schools in Long Island. For a brief period he did editorial and reportorial work on newspapers, and in 1847-48 he made an extensive pedestrian tour as a workman through the United Statese and Canada, subsequently employing himself as a carpenter and builder. His first and chief work, ‘Leaves of Grass,’ was published by himself in New York in 1855.
This thin volume of 94 pages was received, for the most part, with abuse, mainly because of its unconventional metrical style and the freedom with which the poet dealt with moral and social subjects. During the American Civil War, Whitman's brother was wounded on the battlefield, and the poet, who hastened to his aid, remained afterward as a volunteer army nurse at Washington and in Virginia for the years 1862-65, One result of this experience was the small volume ‘Drum Taps’ (1865), subsequently included with ‘Leaves of Grass.’ After the war he held a government clerkship in Washington, but the fatigue and mental strain of his labors in the hospitals brought about a severe attack of paralysis in 1873. He was recovering from this when the sudden death of his mother in his presence caused a serious relapse.
From this time he resided at Camden, N. J., never securing robust health. During all these years Whitman wrote with the old vigor and freedom of rhythm, but with less of the early crudeness of expression. Though Whitman, like Carlyle and Browning, may be a dangerous and dangerously easy model for imitation, he undoubiedty worked out for himself a style of distinction as notable as theirs. This in itself is a title of fame, or at least a charm against oblivion, even though his literary style ran to extremes and vices. His evolved style was a rhythmic recitative or irregular chant, precursors of which may be found in the English translation of the Psalms and other Biblical poems, in Macpherson's ‘Ossian,’ and in the later poems of William Blake.
These chants vary in movement and seem governed by laws rhythmic rather than metric, which (like the grammar of an unwritten tongue) have never been formulated even by the inventors themselves. They have a peculiar, wild, stirring charm, which is apt, for a time, to make regular verses seem tame and insipid. As to subject, Whitman set himself the Atlantean task of uplifting into the sphere or dominion of poetry the whole of modern life and man, omitting nothing, concealing nothing. His thesis is that of Saint Peter's vision: “There is nothing common or unclean.” Hence the logical necessity with Whitman to include the treatment of subjects which in modern society are tabooed as obscene and unmentionable; hence, too, the accusations of indecency, so evident and pertinent from the accuser's point of view, but so futile and irrelevant from that of the accused.
Whitman was an idealist who bound himself by a solemn vow to be a thorough-going realist; and his resolute and often successful endeavor to secure this union gave his work its exceptional artistic quality. He was a prince of impressionists in literature. But so hard and high was the task that he set himself, that it is no matter of surprise that he sometimes, if not often, fails, and from heights where he was approaching the sublime, falls perilously near the ridiculous. This is the fate of all artists who strive for the highest things, that their failures — often only apparent — are more easily detected than their solid achievements; hence the contumely and ridicule that a Turner or a Wordsworth, Keats or Shelley suffers at the hands of a clever but uninitiated critic. So it was largely with Whitman; but it is better to approach him in the same spirit that he has shown toward man and nature, that of forever seeking for what was great and good, while outfacing steadily and bravely every stern and refractory reality.
As the years roll on, Whitman's work is more highly esteemed. He had the true poetic fire, and was one of those who “talked with angels,” and had glimpses of the life beyond. Several writers have contended that he was “illuminated,” like Moses and Swedenborg. Besides the two books already mentioned, he published ‘Drum-Taps’ (1865); ‘Memoranda During the War’ (1867); ‘Democratic Vistas’ (1870); ‘Passage to India’ (1870); ‘After All, Not to Create Only’ (1871); ‘As Strong as a Bird on Pinions Free’ (1872); ‘Two Rivulets’ (1873); ‘Specimen Days and Collect’ (1883); ‘November Boughs’ (1885); ‘Sands at Seventy’ (1888); and ‘Goodbye, My Fancy’ (1892).
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920