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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, 1887, Thomas Eakins
He never painted a stroke in his life, at least not in the pursuit of any artistic bent. He never drew a line, modeled a shape, or crafted an ornament aimed at decorating his world...or ours. Yet the vivid, lusty, even lustful images of life and limb he portrayed have grown with us for more than a hundred years. He painted not on canvas but on our brains. He conjured up vivid illusions so emotionally real and addictive they can only be compared with chocolate or sex. I have dealt with the work of many artists over the last two and a half years but I've never fawned over that of an artist who painted with words. I do so now. His name was Walt Whitman.

I'm no literary critic. I'm as much a self-taught writer as I am a self-taught artist. So you'll hear nothing critical from me regarding Walt Whitman. I've heard of his famous Leaves of Grass" since I was a teenager but I must confess, until recently, I'd never read a word of his work. You can tell I was an art major not an English major in college. I'm not sure his words effect everyone as the do me, but once I get started reading Whitman, it's like minutes become seconds. He writes in short bursts of non-rhyming verse. Like peanuts, popcorn, or potato chips, you can't stop with just one. You devour another, and yet another, only realizing an hour later that it is, indeed, an hour later. Whether he's writing on war, food, history, travel, nature, politics, or sex, his words infiltrate the mind. You find it hard to imagine they are more than a century old. Here is a poet who seems not the least bit poetic. Like a virtuoso painter or musician, his technique and medium are totally transparent. You don't think about form, only about meaning.

Whitman was a native born Long Islander who came to this life in 1819 on a small farm in West Hills near Huntington, New York. He was the second of nine children. At the age of four his parents, who were only semi-literate at best, moved to Brooklyn where he grew up with a mere six years of formal schooling. Just as important, perhaps even more so, to the writer he was to become, was his "Sunday schooling." It forever shaped his relationship with both man and his God. As an independent and adventurous young man, he was apprenticed to a Manhattan printer. He explored the city relentlessly, eventually becoming, a journalist and, at various intervals, editor of nearly a dozen usually short-lived, politically motivated newspapers over his lifetime. Politically, he was a Lincoln Republican and a dedicated Abolitionist. He also served for several years as a rural school teacher. He never married.  Scholars and historians have long debated his relationships with any number of women and men, and the likelihood he may have fathered one or more children. In any case, there is an ever-present bisexual quality in many of his verses.
Leaves of Grass,
1861 edition, Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855.  It was a meager collection of just twelve poems. As if its boldly sensuous content was not shocking enough for its Victorian Era, in form, it was nothing at all like the sentimental rhyming verse so common in American poetic literature at the time. His rhythmic style is often compared to that of the King James Bible. Later editions, published ever two or three years for the rest of his life, grew to several hundred pages, some of which he set the type himself. Mostly self-published, it was fortunate that he was also well-versed in the printer's art inasmuch as few publishers at the time would touch his often erotic content.

As it did so many men of his generation, the Civil War forever altered his life and lines. He was a stalwart nurse during the war, though his work centered more on providing emotional and moral support to the wounded and dying in the makeshift hospital system in and around Washington, DC than it offering medical care. He was a much-loved sight among the men in the rag-tag chain of improvised hospital wards which at one time included the U.S. Capitol itself. Supporting himself as a government clerk, he's credited also with bringing home from Virginia a large group of wounded Union soldiers in exchange for a similar group of Confederate troops.

After the war, his writings began to earn him some measure of fame and wealth, allowing him to buy a home and travel broadly here and around the world. He seemed especially mesmerized by California and the endless Pacific. He suffered a stroke in 1873, and from then until his death in 1892, he devoted his time to living life and writing about it so eloquently, yet honestly that a reader feels as if he has lived it too.

                     One day an obscure youth, a wanderer,
                      Known but to a few, lay musing with himself
                      About the chances of his future life.
                      In that youth's heart, there dwelt the cool
                     Ambition, burning and glowing; and he asked himself,
                     "Shall I, in time come to be great and famed?"

                                                                                  --Ambition:  Walt Whitman, 1840

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