The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A World without Whitman? A Birthday Tribute

On this day in 1819, Walt Whitman was born into the world. But what if May 31, 1819, never occurred? What would a world without Walt look like? To pay tribute to the "Bard of Democracy," we're imaging what would be lost in a world sans Whitman---and it "ain't" (as Uncle Walt would say) a pretty picture. If we truly lived in a world without Whitman, here are a few treasures that would be absent:

1. Universal Advice for Every Season

Whitman first self-published (YES! Even Whitman had to self-publish!) Leaves of Grass in 1855. Seen today as a watershed of American poetry and literature, the first edition was a small collection of a dozen unnamed poems. However, by the poet's death, Leaves of Grass would have seven published editions and more than 300 poems. The preface of the anthology is poetry in and of itself (and is one of this blogger's favorite Whitman works), and carries counsel for all of humanity:

 "This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the 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, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem..."

2. The American Poetic Revolution

In Leaves of Grass, Whitman crafted a voice that was all his own---one that revolutionized the very constructs of poetry itself. Whitman's free-verse, first-person voice and disregard for meter or rhyme upended the poetic foundation that America was weaned on. Rather than the rigid, intellectual language prevalent in poetry of the era, Whitman's verse brimmed with colloquialisms, contemporary slang, and regional idioms: "Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much? Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?" The result was an entirely new poetic form that editorialized on the democratic American experience.

3. A Voice for the Unheard

In addition to poetic formalities, Whitman also broke with traditional poetic narratives. Whitman's subject matter touched on a wide-range of people and places that represented the American experience. Like the Impressionist painters of Europe or the Hudson River School genre painters of America, Whitman felt scenes of common life and everyday individuals should be documented and heralded in the arts. Whitman was not shy to touch on the issues of the day, and called attention to issues others would ignore. He believed in women's rights, the end of slavery, equality among all Americans, immigration, laborers' rights, and a universal brotherhood that America was uniquely equipped to cultivate. Whitman's journalism career often allowed these opinions to be widely shared, and his sharp pen rarely agreed with that of his editors or even his readers. For the time, equality was a radical idea, and Whitman was giving a voice to hundreds of thousands of alienated Americans who lacked a pulpit of their own. The opinionated Whitman was often shunned for his beliefs. In just a four-year timeframe, Whitman was fired from seven New York newspapers. But this dedication to equality would not go unnoticed by history. Today, Whitman is called the "Bard of Democracy" and his belief that art could create an ethical groundswell for the American public would later serve as a tool to assist the country as it recovered from the Civil War.

4. An Expressive Record of the Realities of the American Civil War

Whitman moved to Washington, DC, in 1862 to care for his brother George, a Union solider, after he sustained injuries at Fredericksburg. Whitman remained in the capital for the next three years and visited war hospitals for both Confederate and Union soldiers. He captured his experiences of this time, and his journals and poems offer an evocative record of a country in turmoil.

5. "O, Captain! My Captain!" and The Dead Poets Society

Whitman's metaphorical poem, "O, Captain! My Captain!" honors the ultimate sacrifice paid by President Lincoln following his assassination in 1865. The poem transposes Lincoln as the brave captain of a weather-beaten ship returning to safe harbor, only to find its captain struck down. If you were born in the late 1980s or early 90s, Walt's poem took on a new meaning of youthful perseverance thanks to the film The Dead Poets Society, which helped introduce a new generation to Whitman's classic work. The film was set at a prestigious boarding school and Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, inspires a class of young men to break from their rigid understanding of poetry and encourages them to experience carpe diem. In their discovery of poetry, Mr. Keating and his students explore the work of Whitman and other poetic giants. Mr. Keating even suggests the boys call him "O, Captain! My Captain!" if "they feel daring." In what can be debated as the most inspirational and/or tear jerking scene from The Dead Poets Society, the young students use Whitman's verse as a rally cry for their beloved teacher and the free-thinking arts education he prescribed.



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