is loving yourself, or so I think when I remember lying on my bed poring over Leaves of Grass as a teenager after school instead of going out and playing field hockey. How could my parents not know it would stoke the flames of adolescent rebellion to allow me that book?
I’m marking his birthday here but off by a few days. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind!
We think of him now as a full-bearded bard – apparently he loved to have his picture taken, and this was when photography was novel. But our greatest American poet was just 37 when he published Leaves of Grass.
There was no author credited, and he posed for the engraving on its cover as a rakish working man. None of the poems had titles and there was no table of contents.
He was born on Long Island (a local mall, the Walt Whitman Shops, in South Huntington, New York, stands near his birthplace). He moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was five.
At various times in his life, he worked as a printer and editorial writer, a schoolteacher and a journalist, and as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. The love of his life was great love was a streetcar conductor.
Once he published Leaves of Grass, on July 4, 1855, revision became a fixation, and he wrote and rewrote and added poems during the course of his life. Ever the newsman, he did the typesetting for the first edition himself. That first book had 12 poems, the final compilation over 400. It was always about the body, about the material world, and singing the praises of it all. In his time, of course, frank talk about sexuality was considered questionable, and so Song of Myself, probably the best American poem, was heartily debated.
He got fired from his job at the Department of the Interior. One reviewer suggested that Whitman throw the poems into the fire, another that he commit suicide. An early critic called the work “a mass of stupid filth.”
You have to love it, don’t you? Even much later, the revered literary figure Malcolm Cowley called Leaves of grass “An extraordinary mixture of greatness, false greatness and mediocrity.” That quote comes from the introduction to The Works of Walt Whitman, published in our time, and it’s kind of unfair – couldn’t they have come up with a more partial introducer?
He appreciated trees. From Song of the Open Road: “Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”
I have tried to find a line, a stanza, any one thing to put in here from Song of Myself, but I can’t choose.
So why don’t we start at the beginning:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Whitman always intended that the book be small enough to fit in a pocket. “That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air,” he once said.
I loaf and invite my soul. A sentiment teenagers of all ages can embrace.