Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Walt

Walt Whitman has been a great influence on me, as someone who celebrated life, the joy of simple things, and the value of all living creatures, unflinchingly spoke the truth as he perceived it, and called out the hypocrisy and oppression of societal dogmas. I remember discovering him when I was a young college student in the turbulent late Sixties, and it was like a rope to a drowning man. I have fond memories of reading Leaves of Grass one beautiful Spring, out loud, savoring every word.

Happy birthday, Walt. May there be many more like you.

This text is from the The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Walt Whitman (books by this author), born in West Hills, Long Island, New York, in 1819. He worked as a printer, and then a journalist. During the 1860s, Whitman worked as a clerk for the government, although he was fired from his job at the Indian Bureau when the director found out he'd written a collection of "indecent" poetry; Leaves of Grasswas published in several editions beginning in 1855, and was controversial for its frank treatment of sex and sexuality.

Whitman loved transportation and transportation workers; he would ride the ferry endlessly, going back and forth for the sheer pleasure of it. In his poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," he wrote:
"Now I am curious what site can ever be more stately and admirable to me than my mast-
hemm'd Manhattan,
My river and sun-set, and my scallop-edg'd waves of flood-tide,
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter."
He enjoyed great camaraderie with the omnibus drivers and conductors, and he'd ride the whole length of their route just for the company. He got in the habit of visiting the Brooklyn Hospital to look in on these friends when they were injured. As the Civil War got under way, he began to see more and more wounded soldiers filling the hospital beds, and he would listen to their stories, write letters for them, and give them gifts and whatever measure of comfort he could offer, "to help cheer and change a little the monotony of their sickness and confinement," he wrote. He became friends with the doctors and even assisted them in surgery from time to time.
In December 1862, his brother George's name appeared in the list of war wounded, and Whitman left New York to journey to Virginia. After a search of 40 hospitals and a trip to Fredericksburg, he found his brother, who had suffered only a mild facial wound. But Whitman couldn't turn away from the horribly maimed soldiers, "a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart," he wrote in his journal, "human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening." He stayed in Washington to help the wounded and dying soldiers, Union and Confederate alike; he wanted to be their arms and legs, often staying late into the night, moving between the rows of cots to offer a comforting touch. "What an attachment grows up between us, started from hospital cots, where pale young faces lie & wounded or sick bodies," he wrote; "The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield." Whitman visited tens of thousands of soldiers through the course of the war, and he developed close friendships with several of the men, particularly a young Confederate soldier from Mississippi. He took a job in the Army paymaster's office, and used whatever little money he could spare to buy gifts for the soldiers. He also wrote poetry about the war, but about the after-effects of battles, not the battles themselves. His collection Drum-Taps was published in 1865 and was eventually incorporated into a later edition of Leaves of Grass.
He was in New York, recuperating from exhaustion, when the Confederate Army invaded the capital, and he was there again, visiting his furloughed brother George, when the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated. At his mother's house, he wrote, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" for the fallen president:
"Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep'd from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin."


  1. Nice. Couldn't have said it better myself.

  2. Many things I wasn't aware of. 150 years later. The Civil War ceases to amaze me.