Friday 31 May 2019

200th Anniversary of the Birth of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), America's Shakespeare

Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854
Samuel Hollyer (1826-1919) of a daguerreotype
by Gabriel Harrison (1818-1902)(original lost).
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Today's bicentennial celebration of the birth of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) honours the life and legacy of a figure of enduring fascination and appeal. To many, he has come to be seen as the embodiment of American literature of a certain era and, some have even suggested that 'he is America'. He could certainly be regarded as America's Shakespeare.

Whitman was born in New York state to a family influenced by Quakerism. Three of his seven brothers were named after figures of the American War of Independence, while Whitman himself shared the name of his father (Walter), which was shortened to Walt. He completed formal education at the age of 11. What followed was a varied career as an office worker, in printing, journalism, teaching, also writing some early novels. His real emergence on the literary scene however, was announced with the publication of his collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, in 1855, a venture that he financed himself.

During the American Civil War, he sought to rally public opinion to the Union's cause and worked in hospitals caring for the wounded.

Whitman has been been hailed the first "poet of democracy" in the United States. A contemporary and friend proclaimed that "you cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass" while a poet of a later generation, Ezra Pound, called Whitman "America's poet ... He is America."

Not all have been fulsome in their praise of Whitman however, some seeing in his supposed nationalism an America that is "arrogant, expansionist, hierarchical, racist and exclusive".
"... his poetry has been a model for democratic poets of all nations and races, right up to our own day. How Whitman could have been so prejudiced and yet, so effective in conveying an egalitarian and anti-racist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed." – see Wikipedia

His work has also been controversial for its seeming depiction of an overt sensuality that some have found 'obscene'. The subject of Whitman's own life and his presumed sexuality has come under scrutiny, both during his lifetime and right down to the present day.

Walt Whitman, poet, essayist, and journalist, was born on this day in 1819.

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