ww0053sMy appreciation of this great American poet has deepened as a result of the discoveries made in Seeking Inspiration — Walt Whitman: Part I. Previous to this research, I’d known nothing about his Quaker ancestry, the impact of alcohol on his childhood, his career in print and journalism, or his interest in the abolition movement.

Whitman maintained his keen interest in the debate over slavery and his concern for its social and political impact. He drew together his collection of poems called Leaves of Grass which he published in 1855. In future years, he would release new editions of the book featuring new poems and slight modifications in punctuation and title of the original works. Sadly, his father never saw the book published as he died within the year prior to its being published.

His literary hero, Robert Waldo Emerson wrote to him, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career”.  Even so, the book was not the success he had hoped for. People referred to him as “a mass of filth” or an “an escaped lunatic”. He began moving in circles of writers and poets that included activists and risqué characters. Whitman changed his manner of dress. He began wearing overalls, a red flannel shirt and a striped calico jacket. His hair grew shaggy and his grey beard, long.

Leaves of Grass
Whitman was very involved planning the layout of Leaves of Grass, right down to selecting font. Some of his notes are seen here. (Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Family relationships continued to place a strain on Whitman as well. He was close to his mother, but she often complained about complications regarding his brothers and sisters. George, Jeff and Mary were self-sustaining but the others posed problems for their mother, Louisa Whitman.

Eddy required constant care. He suffered a head injury after falling from a ship mast. Eddy was physically disabled and prone to agitation to the point of violence. He was eventually committed to King’s Lunatic Asylum where he died six years later.

Brother Andrew suffered from alcohol addiction as his father had. He died of tuberculosis in 1863. Sadly, his family was turned out on the street. The children begged and their mother turned to prostitution.

Walt’s sister, Hannah, was the victim of domestic violence. Her husband suffered bouts of mental illness, during which he hounded Walt for money. These experiences lead to Hannah’s emotionally instability, and her hostilities turned on her mother whom she began to  hit.

Soldiers wounded at Fredricksburg
This photograph shows soldiers outside a brick hospital building in Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 1864 recovering from wounds received during the battles in the “Wilderness campaign.” I considered removing it from since Whitman volunteered at Washington hospitals, but something about the photo captivates me, so I did not. The woman seated in doorway is volunteer nurse Abby Gibbons from New York City (Source: photographer James Gardener, contributed by descendant Angela Schear, Oct. 2013)

The American Civil War began and Walt received word that his brother George was wounded and being held in a Washington hospital. Walt went there immediately and was relieved to learn that the injury was superficial. He stayed on in Washington and volunteered as a nurse in hospitals for the war wounded. He secured a clerk position for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was fired from that job in 1865 when Major James Harlan, a strict Methodist, decided that Leaves of Grass was, in his opinion, immoral.

As it turns out, Harlan did Whitman a service. Douglas O’Connor, a friend and fellow author, wrote a pamphlet, “The Good Gray Poet” in which he defended Whitman’s work and his character. Leaves of Grass was not pornographic and Whitman helped selflessly in the Washington hospitals.

Whitman was disturbed by the materialism and political wrongdoing that occurred after the Civil War ended. He wrote new poetry to convey his feelings on that topic and published yet another edition of Leaves of Grass.

The final 19 years of Walt’s life were lived out in Camden. He moved there to be near to his dying mother. His brother George lived in Camden as well with his family and operated a pipe manufacturing business. Soon after his mother’s death, Whitman suffered the first of many strokes. His leg was left paralyzed, forcing him to walk with a cane. In future years, he would come to rely on a wheelchair.

Cambden house
In 1882, Whitman bought a narrow two story wood frame house on Mickle Street in Camden. He was visited there by the likes of Oscar Wilde and others. (Source: unknown)

In the latter years of his life, Walt Whitman’s fame increased. He continued to write and lecture until his final four years during which he suffered the result of strokes and tuberculosis. Each day he spoke to Horace Trubel who recorded notes from their conversations which he later compiled into a collection of written works called With Walt Whitman in Camden. Walt Whitman at his home died on March 2, 1892.

I recently read through portions of Leaves of Grass in search of poetry that the characters in my novel would enjoy. What I discovered was a two lined poem that captures the heart of the story. The characters share a philosophical conversation about what Whitman might have meant. This discovery was the bit of synchronicity I’d been waiting for. After learning about Walt Whitman’s life experiences, I know that I looked to right poet for inspiration. We speak each others language.

Only themselves understand themselves and the like of themselves,
As souls only understand souls.
by Walt Whitman
Lead and closing photos (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

What is your interpretation of Perfections? 

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