Monday, May 31, 2010

In Memoriam: Walt Whitman

His was the first really American poetry; prior to the self-publication of his masterwork Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman in 1855, most writers (as was the case with painters and performers of various kinds) still looked to Europe for their inspiration, conventions, and very often their audience as well...

PhotobucketWhitman helped to change all that, by giving his poetry a uniquely American voice; proof that he was really on to something was the criticism his work drew, although it would have been less obvious to cultural workers then than it is now that controversy in one generation usually means acclaim in the next. Certainly, Whitman had many wildly popular contemporaries who are now nearly forgotten (especially among poets) while his own fame - and, more importantly, the fame of his work - endures. Yet for every bluestocking who reviled his verse as obscene, there came to be a growing crowd who rejoiced in it, among the more famous of them Ralph Waldo Emerson. Condemnation, after all, is just a judgemental form of PR.

Born on this day in 1819, as a young man Whitman worked a variety of jobs, frequently on newspapers or in print shops of one kind or another. His affection for and affinity with Nature appears to have developed around this time, but it's impossible to know much about him for sure; as an older man, with his fame fully grown, Whitman cropped, re-arranged, and even outright invented his past to suit his future - even unto frequently contradicting himself - in what can only be considered a deliberate act of obfuscation.

What Whitman was hiding can only be deduced; judging by the tenor of his poetry, it's safe to say that sexual attraction to (and possibly even sexual experiences with) men are likely the principal targets of his personal revisionism. Yet even as he burned diaries and notebooks, he more or less left his poetry intact, despite frequent revisions* to the text as a whole, and for that we can be grateful.

*Between six and nine versions of Leaves of Grass were published, depending on which scholarly account is considered.

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