The following guest post is by Barbara Bair, historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division. This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring the life and work of Walt Whitman. The Library of Congress will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birthday in spring 2019 with a series of exhibits, public programs, and a digital crowdsourcing campaign to showcase the Library’s unparalleled collections of Whitman’s writings and artifacts.
A special Whitman Bicentennial display, on view in exhibit cases in the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress from May 16 to August 15, 2019, is a chance to see original Whitman objects from the Library’s special collections, including Whitman manuscripts and rare books, printed versions of Whitman poems, rarely seen photographs and art works, musical compositions inspired by Whitman, and book design and popular culture items. Don’t miss our Whitman Open House on June 3 for even more Whitmania.
May 31, 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of poet Walt Whitman’s “starting from Paumanok”—his birth in West Hills, Huntington Township, Long Island, New York. Whitman was the second of several children born to housekeeper Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and house builder Walter Whitman. The family’s English and Dutch roots reached back to early immigration to the region. Louisa was venerated by her son. Whitman credited his mother’s embracing temperament and her lively story-telling as influences that helped lead him to the vernacular subject matter and democratic themes of his poetry. He also developed a long-standing interest in the local history of early Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, which he utilized as a newspaperman and freelance writer.
Whitman’s early childhood years in West Hills were brief, but formative. Even after his family moved their house-building and renovation trade to Brooklyn, and he grew to adulthood and took up a mainly urban style of living, Whitman remained closely connected to the rural landscapes and environs of his youth. The greater meaning he found elucidated in these natural places—the woods and fields and meadows, the sand, beaches, waves, and birds—fill his memories of his early life and provided powerful imagery for his poems.
In “Starting from Paumanok” (first called “Proto-Leaf” and used as the lead poem of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, and retitled in later editions), he refers to “Starting from fish-shape Paumanok, where I was born/ Well-begotten, and rais’d by a perfect mother.” His poet-self may have begun from Long Island, but in the larger realms of democratic and cosmic thinking, he is from everywhere. He is from West and East, South and North, all the regions of America, and indeed, from various spaces and times, and from all over the globe, from the past, and reaching out and speaking to generations of the future. “See, projected through time, / For me an audience interminable . . . . Take my leaves, America! . . . Make welcome for them everywhere . . .”
In works like “There was a Child Went Forth” (first published in 1855 and titled in 1871) and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (first published as “A Child’s Reminiscence” in 1859, re-appearing as “A Word Out of the Sea” in 1860, and retitled in 1871), Whitman explored the budding spiritual awareness and identity-awakening of the newly made—but ever-observing and learning—child, and formed it into a transcendental and universal trope.
These poems chart the child absorbing and becoming part of the world and in doing so, awakening to cycles of life and the wonder of eros and creation, as well as the poignancy of loss and mortality.
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became, . . .
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover,
and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs and the sow’s pink-faint litter,
and the mare’s foal and the cow’s calf . . .
And the fish . . . And the water-plants . . . all became part of him.
Whitman’s child-observers learn through their absorption of the natural environment that birth turns to death, and gives way again to rebirth. The world itself is a great whirl of mystic and natural transformation. What lives upon it now is connected to what will exist in turn in future time. (“I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter.”) In his “Enfans d’Adam” poems of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman used Edenic images to explore themes of nature and human nature, sensations, pangs of separation, and various forms of loving.
Whitman immersed himself in Long Island in the 1830s as a young man to teach school and pursue work with newspapers. He was an assistant compositor and printer with the Long Island Patriot and the Long Island Star before moving into editing with the Long Islander in Huntington and the Long Island Democrat in Jamaica. By the end of the 1830s he was editing his own weekly, the Long Islander, which he delivered by horseback to its rural readers.
In the 1840s and ‘50s he utilized experiences gained in part from rural Long Island to make a living in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He published individual poems and freelance prose and cultural reviews in newspapers, and engaged in editorial and publishing work under the employ of a series of New York periodicals. He edited the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from spring of 1846 to early 1848, and after a journey to New Orleans returned to found and produce in 1848-1849 another short-lived paper, the Brooklyn Freeman, which he used to advocate a Free Soil anti-slavery stance. In mid-May 1855, Whitman was approaching 36 years of age when he took out copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The first, slim work was published in July, containing twelve poems and a preface. The work seemed to be living, organic, plucked from some new source. The pages were pressed between covers featuring a title sprouting leaves and roots, and embossed with a botanical pattern.
By the time he died in March 1892, Whitman was widely known, especially in literary and reform circles. He had produced several ever-evolving editions of his master work, and wrote memoirs, especially Specimen Days (1882), looking back contemplatively at his life.
In these times we live in—over a century after his life ended, and two centuries since his birth—interest in Whitman persists. A myriad of popular and scholarly editions of Leaves of Grass continue to be published and eagerly studied and read. Whitman’s poems, partly forged in sensibility long ago during a Long Island childhood, have become part of a local, regional, and national heritage—and also a global one. His work has been translated into languages from many parts of the world, and he has inspired and emboldened international poets of different heritages; ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual identities; politics; and life choices. He lives on as subject and muse in the works of Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Louis Simpson, Mary Oliver, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Rodolfo Gonzales, Robert Haas, Martin Espada, current poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, and many more.
Happy 200th birthday, Walt!