Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Great Poetry Book: Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass, the only book ever penned by Walt Whitman, has an interesting story that is as compelling as the poems contained within the book itself. Whitman grew up poor. He was one of a number of children in the Whitman clan. Their father, an amateur inventor, preferred to spend his time working on inventions instead of working to support his family. Whitman worked in a number of occupations before he accepted work as a printer. He learned the craft and soon opened his own shop, writing a newsletter.

Whitman loved poetry, however. He had developed this love at some undetermined time in his life, rumored to have been around the time he visited New Orleans. Whitman began to write his poems feverishly but secretly. When he had gathered 12 poems that he thought suitable for publication, he printed them in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Without a major backer, the slim volume, which was fewer than 100 pages, likely would have sold a couple of copies and then vanished. Whitman, though, had other plans.

He sent out the book to other writers, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson. At the time, Emerson was considered the preeminent literary scholar in the United States. Something about Leaves of Grass spoke to Emerson, and he wrote to Whitman to tell him that he enjoyed reading. The poems, which spoke of the human experience more so than nature or human emotion as did other poems at the time, had not been well received until that point. Whitman (as legend has it) then sent the letter he received from Emerson to the New York Times, where it was published. One Whitman had received such high praise from Emerson, he became a mainstay on the American literary circuit.

Whitman produced new editions of Leaves of Grass every couple of years. Each time he added poems that spoke to what had been going on in his life and mind. Sexuality became an important theme in the poems, which did not sit well with the proper American society. Emerson denounced Whitman and said that he took back everything he said about the poems being worthy of admiration. Whitman continued to write, however, and his poems spoke to people in later generations more than in his own. Whitman abandoned verse and rhyme in his poems, which was unheard of at the time. He decided that the poems spoke for themselves, and they did not need the addition of arbitrary rhyming schemes to make them work.

Whitman was very passionate about his politics, and he believed very strongly in the Union cause during the American Civil War. He actually went to Washington DC to look for his brother, who had been wounded in battle. While there, Whitman was overcome with the plight of the soldiers, and he volunteered to serve as an Army nurse. He tended to wounded and sick soldiers for two years. That experience would become the defining experience in his life, and he would return to Leaves of Grass in 1865 with a new perspective.

Whitman found that he could write about the war, and it would help heal his emotions, still raw from everything he had seen. He wrote eloquently about the soldiers who died, about why they were fighting, and about the atrocities of war. The work Whitman did in his war writings have sparked much discussion in later wars, as Whitman seems to have been one of the first war protesters in American history.

Today, most scholars consider Whitman to be the best poet in American history. He receives accolades in classrooms across the United States, and his work is canonized in American literature. It speaks to people even now, 140 years after the last edition. Whitman may be difficult to decipher as he uses many subtleties in his writing, but he spoke of universal experiences of suffering, gladness, and fear that still resonate with modern readers.

The next time you are looking for a classic to read, think about Leaves of Grass. It is one of the less heralded classic works, but it is one that should not be forgotten because of its age. Whitman provides a unique addition to American literature.

By Julia Mercer

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