The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
Perhaps the man who more than any other out-Emersoned Emerson in publicly declaring an authentic relation to the universe was Walt Whitman. Born to a yeoman family in rural Long Island in 1819, with less education than Emerson or Thoreau, Whitman migrated to urban Brooklyn and worked for twenty years as a typesetter and journalist, part of what Emerson famously described as a “long foreground” that culminated in the publication in the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. In that poetry anthology and the many editions that followed, Whitman trampled over established conventions of rhyme, meter, structure and content in forging a unique poetic vision. Endlessly self-referential, Whitman was also insistently dialogical, drawing his reader into his work and asserting their communion in a mystical national, even global body, typified by this passage in his famous “Song of Myself”:
These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they
are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
It was Whitman’s ambition to be noting less than the poet laureate of the United States, and he was tireless a self-promoter in his quest to realize that goal (Emerson was appalled when Whitman took a private letter of praise and used it to trumpet the publication of a second edition of Leaves of Grass). During the Civil War he went to work as a nurse in Washington, soaking up blood and transubstantiating it into Drum Taps (1865), a collection of poems eventually folded into Leaves of Grass that sought to represent a universal canvas of perspectives. Though he had begun to develop an international following by the time of his death in 1891, Whitman did not achieve his civic ambitions in his lifetime. He attained it in the decades that followed, in large measure through a body of work that smashed through the walls that separate private and public (his poems discussed masturbation and homosexuality, and spoke from the perspectives of women and slaves), making the concept of inclusion synonymous with American.
Next: Final installment of this set -- Frederick Douglass