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Walt Whitman's world

America still needs his poetry

This month marks the 150th anniversary of a landmark event in literary history: the publication of the first edition of Walt Whitman's ''Leaves of Grass."

When this thin volume, with its ornate green jacket, crude title page, and frontispiece showing the casually dressed Whitman, was advertised for sale on July 5, 1855, few could anticipate its tremendous impact on literature. The book met with sharp criticism. One reviewer, shocked by its sensual images, called it ''a mass of stupid filth." Another, puzzled by its emotional intensity, said its author ''must be some escaped lunatic, raving in pitiable delirium."

In the face of such attacks, Whitman promoted himself actively. An ex-newspaperman with contacts in the press, he published anonymously three long, glowing reviews of his own book in periodicals friendly to him. Referring to himself in the third person, he exclaimed, ''An American bard at last!" He asked," Was he not needed?" He provided the answer: ''You have come in good time, Walt Whitman!"

Whitman also publicized praise he received from his most ardent supporter, the Concord sage Ralph Waldo Emerson. The poet sent his volume to Emerson, who responded with an enthusiastic letter calling it ''the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." ''I have great joy in it," Emerson wrote, ''I find incomparable things said incomparably well." In a soon-to-be-famous declaration, Emerson added, ''I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Without Emerson's permission, Whitman had Emerson's letter printed in the New York Tribune and again in the appendix to the second edition of ''Leaves of Grass," published the next year.

Whitman's self-promotion, though at times tactless, was for a good cause. He was right when he insisted that America needed his poetry.

America still needs his poetry.

Whitman called ''Leaves of Grass" ''the new Bible." He had a messianic view of himself as poetic Answerer come to heal American society. By absorbing and magnifying his culture's best aspects, he believed his poetry could help unify a nation fractured by class conflicts, shady politics, and racial tensions. The poet, he wrote in his preface, ''is the equalizer of his age and land. . . he supplies what wants supplying and checks what wants checking." He offered a recipe for healing: ''This is what you shall do . . . read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life."

Imagine if everyone followed his advice. What would happen if millions of people read his poetry regularly, absorbed it, and applied its meanings to daily life? What, in short, would be the world according to Walt Whitman?

War would decline, since readers would learn from Whitman the meaninglessness of divisions of nationality, creed, or race. Whitman, the quintessentially American poet, announces the absolute equality of all people. His poetic ''I" identifies with everyone. He is

Of every hue and rank and trade, of every caste and religion,

Not merely of the New World but of Africa Europe of Asia . . . a wandering savage,

A farmer, mechanic, or artist . . . gentleman, sailor, lover or quaker,

A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, or priest.

In a Whitmanian world, conflicts created by race or gender would diminish. Whites, for instance, would recognize blacks as fully human, worthy of equal treatment. Whitman writes of a black man: ''Within there runs his blood.the same old blood . . . the same red running blood;/ There swells and jets his heart. There all passions and desires . . . all reachings and aspirations."

Men, too, would gain greater respect for women: ''I am the poet of the woman as same as the man,/ And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man."

The environment would be protected, since nature would be treasured for its miraculous beauty. For Whitman, every element of nature, no matter how small, is sacred. Here, in his words, is a flower: ''A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books." Even a mouse is beautiful to him: ''A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels."

Not just nature but the human body would be prized: ''I believe in flesh and the appetites,/ Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle."

When Emerson wrote that Whitman's poems had ''the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging," he noted the uplifting optimism of the poet's vision. Although Whitman's poetry encompasses the dark aspects of experience, it ultimately affirms the delight and sanctity of life. Whitman once said, ''I stand for the sunny point of view -- stand for the joyful conclusions." ''Cheer!" he declared. ''Is there anything better in this world anywhere than cheer -- just cheer? Any religion better? Any art? Just cheer!"

But was his optimism just the product of a simpler time, a time when America seemed full of promise and people did not face the daily anxieties we do now?

Yes and no. The stresses of competitive capitalism were then virtually unknown. And because religion had not yet been challenged by modernism, spiritual certainty was far easier to achieve.

But let's not idealize that era or pretend that Walt Whitman had an easy time of it. Actually, in many ways life was far more difficult then than now. Americans were caught in the throes of a boom-and-bust economy, unregulated by federal programs, that left poor people utterly without relief in times of economic decline. Whitman himself, who, besides sporadic newspaper work, dabbled in carpentry, real estate speculation, and storekeeping, struggled to keep out of poverty.

A Long Island native who divided his time between Brooklyn and Manhattan, he knew first-hand the difficulties of city life. Most city streets, still unpaved, turned to dust bowls in the summer and swampy muck in the winter. Garbage was tossed into the city streets, where it rotted among the feces of animals. In a newspaper article Whitman lamented ''the accumulations of filth in a great city, . . . the slops and rottenness thrown in the streets and byways, . . . the numberless privies, cess-pools, sinks and gulches of abomination."

Not only horses but also animals of other kinds roamed the cities, provoking Whitman's outburst in the Brooklyn Evening Star: ''Out city is literally overrun with swine, outraging all decency. . . . Hogs, Dogs, and Cows should be banished from out streets."

The political scene was rotten, largely because of compromises over the issue of slavery. This was a period of unprecedented political corruption, a time of vote-buying, wire-pulling, graft, and patronage on all levels of state and national government. In the 1855 preface to ''Leaves of Grass" Whitman blasted the ''swarms of cringers, suckers, doughfaces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the judiciary or Congress or the presidency."

As for Whitman's private life, that too was stormy. He faced severe family difficulties: the pathetic condition of his younger brother Eddy, retarded since birth; the decline of his possibly alcoholic father, who died shortly before ''Leaves of Grass" came out; the marriage of his unstable sister Hannah to a neurotic Vermont artist, whom Walt later called ''a skunk -- a bug . . . the bed-buggiest man on earth"; early signs of mental illness in his older brother Jesse, whom Walt eventually committed to a lunatic asylum; and, perhaps worst of all, the indifference of the whole family (including the ''normal" siblings, Jeff, George, and Mary) to his poetry. ''Not only of my people," as he put it, appreciated his volume.

The optimism of Whitman's poetry, then, was very much a willed optimism, one achieved in the face of harsh social conditions and great personal challenges. No greater challenge faced him than the poor reception of the 1855 edition of his poems. ''It was tragic -- the fate of those books," he said of the copies of the first edition. ''None of them were sold -- practically none."

But Whitman pressed on, adding more and more poems to his ever-expanding volume, five more editions of which appeared in his lifetime. By the time of his death in 1892, the poet's genius was widely recognized, and he had become a beloved celebrity, hounded by autograph-seekers and visited by the likes of Longfellow, Oscar Wilde, and Andrew Carnegie. Today copies of the 1855 edition are collector's items that fetch high prices, averaging $60,000 to $150,000 and going as high as $650,000.

If Walt Whitman were alive today, what would he think of our world? Although he would applaud the strides that have been made by women and ethnic minorities, his overall impression would be negative. He would be sorely disappointed that many of the ideas he communicated in his poems have been neglected. He would detest the materialism and conformity of today's America. He would be appalled at our overreliance on technology and our need for superficial diversions. The political battles between the evangelical right and the liberal left would dismay him, as would the wars arising from religious and national differences that erupt throughout the world.

Still, he would remind us that it is never too late to start anew. He would be delighted that in recent times his poetry has been loved by such diverse individuals as Allen Ginsberg, Bill Clinton, and Pope John Paul II, to name a few.

More powerfully than any other literary work, the 1855 ''Leaves of Grass" reminds all humans of their identity as fellow-sojourners on this earth. If Whitman's spirit were universally accepted, social tensions and personal anxiety would diminish.

To be sure, universal acceptance of Whitman's spirit is far from being realized. But it is a goal worth pursuing. There is no better way to start than by following Whitman's advice: ''Read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life."

David S. Reynolds, a professor of English at the City University of New York, is the author or editor of many books, including ''Walt Whitman," ''John Brown, Abolitionist," and ''Whitman's Leaves of Grass, 150th Anniversary Edition."

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