Last Updated 28 Jan 2021

Leaves of Grass

Category Culture, Walt Whitman
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Walt Whitman was born in 1819 and died in 1892. He has been proclaimed as one of the greatest American poets to ever live. His work has been considered both enlightened and controversial. His work has been well received all over the world and translated into over twenty-five languages. He wrote of American life, including the very dark period of American history, the Civil War or also referred to as the War Between the States. His book of poems, Leaves of Grass, which he self published has become a classic especially in reference to the Civil War.

“Aroused and angry,

I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war;

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But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign’d myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.” (Whitman 110)

The above quote is the first lines of the poem, Drum Taps by Walt Whitman. It is but many of the poems of Leaves of Grass that Whitman wrote as he agonized over the war as it was written during the beginning of the war. It is hard to always look upon Civil War literature as only that which follows the years after the war ceased. Whitman was an essayist and a journalist as well as a poet.

He wrote of the things he saw not only in his hometown but also in what he observed as he followed the war through travels and reading. A conflict of great sadness, the deepest tragedy of the Civil War was the country been torn in two by the differing of opinions of both sides but the war was among Americans, Americans fighting Americans.

“Central to this task is his revaluation of the print medium, which he previously viewed as a barrier between himself and his readers, but which he now figures, in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," as deconstructing his culture's boundary-oriented notion of embodiment. Whitman does not unequivocally embrace this new model of fluidity, however. Instead, he balances fluidity and difference to illustrate for the reader both "[t]he desire to lose and the fear of losing the boundary lines in force around . . . sexual definition" (156). The 1867 Leaves of Grass, which incorporates the Civil War volume Drum-Taps ( 1865), extends Whitman's critique of the oedipal system to its patriarchal foundation.” (Maslan 131)

It had been suggested that Whitman had fallen into decline after 1865 as if the views of the war and the internal strife of his country seemed to cripple him as a poet. Through all the horror and sadness that he had seen and experienced as if he could not rally himself to write with the same fervor that he did before the war and during it, but it had been such a dramatic experience for anyone at first hand that it is no wonder that his poetic inspiration would have dimmed and waned.

“TO thee, old Cause!

Thou peerless, passionate, good cause!

Thou stern, remorseless, sweet Idea!

Deathless throughout the ages, races, lands!

After a strange, sad war—great war for thee,

(I think all war through time was really fought, and ever will be really fought, for thee;)

These chants for thee—the eternal march of thee.”(Whitman 93)

The Leaves of Grass incorporates such a magnitude of emotion and observation that to read each separate poem will leave the reader with the feeling of viewing it themselves but critics have retained that Whitman wrote more to himself, as if in a separate conversation with himself that he seems to be almost uncaring of the way it expresses itself to anyone else.

“'70 in paper 5 in cloth . . .' appears to be a reference to copies of the first edition of Leaves of Grass which was issued in various forms. See Charles E. Feinberg, "'Notes on Whitman Collections and Collectors,'" Walt Whitman: A Catalog. The Library of Congress ( Washington, D.C., 1955), pp. xi-xii. Whitman probably noted the sailors' monument in the Brooklyn Cemetery of the Evergreens at the interment of his father who had died 11 July 1855. 'I see the highlands of Abyssinia' appears in line 14, section 7 of 'Salut au Monde,' inc. ed., p. 119”. (Whitman 41)

A poetic journal; observations in poetic dialogue, as he observes those around him and what the impact of the war has had upon them so that the Leaves of Grass is filled with views of Manhattan and how that part of New York dealt with the northern activity in the war against the south.

Whitman was not the only American writer to be disturbed by the post Civil War period as many of them wrote of a country so vastly changed and so still almost in shock of what had happened to it. Whitman was a Northerner but the Southern writers such as Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain).

“This deeply pessimistic, critical view of post-Civil War America was, of course, shared by Mark Twain ( The Gilded Age) and Henry Adams ( Democracy). The moralizing fervor of the passage above seems to echo Thomas Nast's scathing Tweed Ring cartoons, which were appearing in Harper's Weekly at the very time that Whitman was composing Democratic Vistas.” (Abrams 8)

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has seen many different publishing editions since its first conception in 1867. It has been analyzed and critiqued and praised as one of the great volumes of American poetry. It brings to vivid life for the readers one of the saddest periods of American history, the Civil War and the struggling years that followed that war as a country healed and its people recovered.

Works Cited

Abrams, Sam, ed. The Neglected Walt Whitman: Vital Texts. 1st ed. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993

Maslan, Mark. "Whitman and his Doubles: Division and Union in Leaves of Grass and Its Critics." American Literary History 6.1 (1994): 119-139

Thomson, James, and Bertram Dobell. Walt Whitman, the Man and the Poet. London: The Editor, 1910.

Whitman, Walt. An 1855-56 Notebook toward the Second Edition of Leaves of Grass. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1959

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Modern Library, 1921



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