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Walt Whitman: Famous American Author

Walter “Walt” Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was one of the most famous American authors. Furthermore his legacy has been still a matter of controversy for the manner it was written in as well as for its outward sexuality.

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The poet was born to a carpenter who struggled to find regular work yet was consistent in his liberal convictions. The only sibling of Walter Whitman’s who was not named after any of the Founding Fathers was both mentally and physically handicapped. Nevertheless Walt Whitman surpassed his father in all respects. He left no posterity, changed lots of occupations and became the father of free verse in America (Folsom & Price, 2011).

By the time he published the Leaves of Grass – his first and the most notorious collection of verses – Walt Whitman changed various occupations. He used to work as an office, boy, journalist and a school teacher yet apparently was not success in either of he occupations he tried. As he put it himself after many years of striving for “the usual rewards” he made up his mind to become a poet. Whitman was likely to pin his last desperate hope on that collection. That is why he paid himself for the first edition and even did much of the typesetting for it. The very name of collection the author worked on through the rest of his life is eloquent enough to make us aware of the author’s lack of self-confidence. In the publishers’ slang the word “grass’ is for low-quality readings while the word ‘leaves” in that argot is for the pages on which such a fiction was printed.

Whatever Whitman was writing about he actually wrote about himself. In fact the whole his legacy is his “Song Of Myself”. The “self” of the poems’ speaker as well as the poems’ “I” are often confused with Walt Whitman’s person. The protagonist has transcended the self’s conventional boundaries. “I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-washed babe…. and am not contained between my hat and boots” (section 7). There are plenty of quotes from the poem making it evident that Whitman tries to attribute his qualities to other people. He seems to justify his vices referring to other people allegedly being similar to him:

“in all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less/and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them” (Section 20)

“it is you talking just as much as myself…I act as the tongue of you” (Section 47)

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” (Section 51)

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“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (Section 1) (Miller, 1988)

Many authors researching Walt Whitman’s legacy offer interpretations concerning the meaning of the “self” in his poetry stressing its importance to the poems. Another Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is also dedicated to the author’s self. When being a child Walt used to use the ferry in Brooklyn and was fond of that means of transportation throughout the rest of his life. As he put it himself “rivers, the wharves, the boats” have always been his “favorite loafing places”. His older relatives as well as other people used to cross the river by means of ferry going on their own business (LeMaster, 988).

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry tells a reader nothing about the author’s reason for crossing the river. Whitman focuses not upon a purpose of destination yet on the very process of crossing the river as well as on the nearby sights: the people, the boats, the water and the sun. The poem tells a reader about a New York ferry-rider’s experience, worldly for the most of the people (to those in a hurry on business) yet glorious to Whitman himself. The ferry serves him the way the tub served Diogenes of Sinope. The latter also did not have either family or any business or a job. However unlike Diogenes Walt Whitman did not “look for a human being”. He preferred to indulge his self-admiration placing himself somehow above other people. He does not seem to have even needed “a human being”. Following the ancient Greek he mentions masturbation yet removes the phrase “solitary committer” from the later editions. He did not have to rub his belly to satisfy his hunger.

Nevertheless following Diogenes was not Whitman’s ultimate goal. Likewise his vanity was hardly the reason why this handsome-looking man had never had a family of his own. The roots and causes of his attitudes to life as well as of the motifs of his poetry were revealed in his Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking poem.

The poem relates on behalf a boy who witnesses a couple of birds. A she-bird fails to appear one day and the boy tries to interpret the male’s thoughts. In this poem Walt Whitman extrapolates his juvenile complexes and fears upon his characters’ relationships” He says “My own songs awaked from that hour.” Here the author is telling us about his awakening to death projecting his fears and complexes onto his poetry (Bauerlein & Kummings, 1998).

Although the Literature readers call us to feel sympathy to that American classic writer it is not easy to answer such a call. It is not easy to sympathize with the man who instead of overcoming his fears and complexes himself blames others ‘endlessly rocking” like a rolling stone.


Bauerlein, M. & Donald D. Kummings (1998) Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia New York: Garland Publishing. Web.

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Folsom, E & Kenneth M. Price (2011) Walt Whitman. Web.

LeMaster, J.R. & Donald D. Kummings (1998) Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia New York: Garland Publishing.

Miller, James E., Jr (1998) Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia New York: Garland Publishing.

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