Walter Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist. He was a part of the transition between Transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse. His work was very controversial in its time, particularly his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sexuality

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Born on Long Island, Whitman worked as a journalist, a teacher, a government clerk, and a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War in addition to publishing his poetry. Early in his career, he also produced a temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842). Whitman's major work, Leaves of Grass, was first published in 1855 with his own money. The work was an attempt at reaching out to the common person with an American epic. He continued expanding and revising it until his death in 1892. After a stroke towards the end of his life, he moved to Camden, New Jersey where his health further declined. He died at age 72 and his funeral became a public spectacle.
 

Whitman's sexuality is often discussed alongside his poetry. Though he is usually labeled as either homosexual or bisexual, it is unclear if Whitman ever had a sexual relationship with another man and biographers continue to debate his sexuality. Whitman was concerned with politics throughout his life. He supported the Wilmot Proviso and opposed the extension of slavery generally, but did not believe in the abolitionist movement.

Leaves of Grass (1855) is a poetry collection by the American poet Walt Whitman. Among the poems in the collection are "Song of Myself," "I Sing the Body Electric," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and in later editions, Whitman's elegy to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Whitman spent his entire life writing Leaves of Grass, revising it in several editions until his death.

 

This book is notable for its delight in and praise of the senses during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman's poetry praises nature and the individual human's role in it. However, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.


Leaves of Grass
 

Leaves of Grass has its genesis in an essay called The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1845, which expressed the need for the United States to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country's virtues and vices. Whitman, reading the essay, consciously set out to answer Emerson's call as he began work on the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman, however, downplayed Emerson's influence, stating, "I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil".
 

On May 15, 1855, Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass with the clerk of the United States District Court, Southern District of New Jersey, and received its copyright. The first edition was published in Brooklyn at the Fulton Street printing shop of two Scottish immigrants, James and Andrew Rome, whom Whitman had known since the 1840s, on July 4, 1855. Whitman paid for and did much of the typesetting for the first edition himself. The book did not include the author's name, instead offering an engraving by Samuel Hollyer depicting the poet in work clothes and a jaunty hat, arms at his side. Early advertisements for the first edition appealed to "lovers of literary curiosities" as an oddity. Sales on the book were few but Whitman was not discouraged.
 

The first edition was very small, collecting only twelve unnamed poems in 95 pages. Whitman once said he intended the book to be small enough to be carried in a pocket. "That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air: I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air." About 800 were printed, though only 200 were bound in its trademark green cloth cover. The only American library known to have purchased a copy of the first edition was in Philadelphia.
 

The title Leaves of Grass was a pun. "Grass" was a term given by publishers to works of minor value and "leaves" is another name for the pages on which they were printed.

Whitman sent a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to Emerson, the man who had inspired its creation. In a letter, Emerson called the book "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed."
 

When the book was first published, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and said he found it very offensive. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire. Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion, calling it "a mass of stupid filth" and categorized its author as a filthy free lover. Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians", one of the earliest public accusations of Whitman's homosexuality. Griswold's intensely negative review almost caused the
publication of the second edition to be suspended. Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.
 

An early review of the first publication focused on the persona of the anonymous poet, calling him a loafer "with a certain air of mild defiance, and an expression of pensive insolence on his face". Another reviewer viewed the work as an odd attempt at reviving old Transcendental thoughts, "the speculations of that school of thought which culminated at Boston fifteen or eighteen years ago." Emerson approved of the work in part because he considered it a means of reviving Transcendentalism, though even he urged Whitman to tone down the sexual imagery in 1860.
 

On March 1, 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens wrote to Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that Leaves of Grass constituted "obscene literature". Urged by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, his letter said: "We are of the opinion that this book is such a book as brings it within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature and suggest the propriety of withdrawing the same from circulation and suppressing the editions thereof." Stevens demanded the removal of the poems "A Woman Waits for Me" and "To a Common Prostitute", as well as changes to "Song of Myself", "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Spontaneous Me", "Native Moments", "The Dalliance of the Eagles", "By Blue Ontario’s Shore", "Unfolded Out of the Folds", "The Sleepers", and "Faces".
 

Whitman rejected the censorship, writing to Osgood, "The list whole & several is rejected by me, & will not be thought of under any circumstances." Osgood refused to republish the book and returned the plates to Whitman when suggested changes and deletions were ignored. The poet found a new publisher, Rees Welsh & Company, which released a new edition of the book in 1882. Whitman believed the controversy would increase sales, which proved true. Though banned by retailers like Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, this version went through five editions of 1,000 copies each. Its first printing, released on July 18, sold out in a day.

Not all responses were negative, however. Critic William Michael Rossetti considered Leaves of Grass a classic along the lines of the works of William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri. A woman from Connecticut named Susan Garnet Smith wrote to Whitman to profess her love for him after reading Leaves of Grass and even offered him her womb should he want a child. Though he found much of the language "reckless and indecent", critic and editor George Ripley believed "isolated portions" of Leaves of Grass radiated "vigor and quaint beauty".
 

Whitman firmly believed he would be accepted and embraced by the populace, especially the working class. Years later, he would regret not having toured the country to deliver his poetry directly by lecturing. "If I had gone directly to the people, read my poems, faced the crowds, got into immediate touch with Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of waiting to be interpreted, I'd have had my audience at once," he claimed.