America's Bard

A look back at the work of Walt Whitman, a poet whom many consider to be the embodiment and voice of the American spirit—and who enjoyed a long and fruitful, though somewhat ambivalent, relationship with The Atlantic.

By Erin Rogers

In 1855, two years before he helped found The Atlantic Monthly, Ralph Waldo Emerson received a 95-page self-published pamphlet of poetry by an unknown Long Island newspaperman. The pamphlet was entitled Leaves of Grass, and it greatly impressed Emerson, who wrote a congratulatory letter to its author, Walt Whitman, that declared Leaves "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed," and addressed Whitman as a poet "at the beginning of a great career."

Whitman took full advantage of this letter, publishing it in newspapers and sending clippings of it to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other important literary figures. He even published the letter without Emerson's permission in an expanded version of Leaves of Grass published a year later. Yet these efforts failed to attract the widespread acclaim Whitman had expected for his work.

In his first poem published in The Atlantic, "Bardic Symbols" (April 1860), Whitman seemed mortified at having presented his work to the world and then receiving only a minimal response. In the poem he referred to his works as "arrogant poems" and described himself as "Oppress'd with myself that I have dared to open my mouth."

In time, however, Whitman received the attention he anticipated. William Douglas O'Connor, a friend and disciple, published The Good Grey Poet, a devoted account of Whitman, in 1866. In "Proud Music of the Sea Storm" (February 1869), which was his second (and last) poem to appear in The Atlantic, Whitman seems a changed man. In confident, triumphant tones, the poem hints at important poetry still to come: "what thou has heard, O Soul, was not the sound of winds,/ Nor dream of stormy waves … [But] Poems, vaguely wafted in night air, uncaught, unwritten,/ Which, let us go forth in the bold day, and write."

Whitman's extravagant verse, unrestrained by rhyme and meter, subject to startling exclamations and even made-up words, was met with considerable apprehension from the literary community, Emerson and his fellows at The Atlantic included. During a two-hour walk on Boston Common in the early 1860s, Emerson tried but failed to convince Whitman that his "Children of Adam" poems, now known as his "sex poems," were too racy to include in revised editions of Leaves of Grass. In 1860 Atlantic editor James Russell Lowell had two lines that he considered too graphic removed from "Bardic Symbols" before its publication. And when The Atlantic finally deigned to review Leaves of Grass in January, 1882 (following publication of the seventh edition in 1881), the reviewer called Whitman "offensive" and accused him of "gross impropriety" for "publishing what is unfit for repetition."

Yet Whitman was defended in The Atlantic's pages as well. In December, 1877, an anonymous author described Whitman in the Contributor's Club (a feature similar to today's Letters to the Editor) as "one of our very first masters of verbal melody and harmony," and defended him against charges that his verse was "nasty … tedious and prosaic."

After Whitman's death in 1892, the magazine's fifth editor, Horace Elisha Scudder, wrote a piece entitled "Whitman" (June 1892), commending the poet's original but controversial use of language. "Whitman thought he had a new song to sing, and he wished to employ a new mode," Scudder argued. "Why, then, do we protest against it?"

The Atlantic's eighth editor, Bliss Perry, wrote a biography of Whitman entitled Walt Whitman: His Life and Work. In "The Spell of Whitman," a December, 1906, review of that work (and several other Whitman-related texts), M. A. DeWolfe Howe wrote, "[Perry] acknowledges, even repeats, the worst that may be said of Whitman, writer and man, and then shows how triumphantly the best of him shines out above all." During Perry's editorship, The Atlantic also published Whitman's "An American Primer" (April 1904), a lecture celebrating American language which Whitman had written many years earlier, but never delivered.

Finally, in "Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman" (June 1907), Ellen M. Calder, the wife of Whitman's first biographer, William Douglas O'Connor, recounted her memories of Whitman from the 1860s, when he boarded at her home in Washington, D.C. She described him as "in the vigor of health" and as having "a pleasant habit of singing in his room while making his morning toilet."

Whitman, a free spirit whose writing enthusiastically celebrated the spirit of individualism and democracy, was essentially an "optimist," Calder wrote, with "an intense and abiding faith in the triumph of right and justice." He was a poet with "absolute confidence that the men and women of 'these States,' and of all the world, would finally solve the problem of the unification of all races and peoples."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/11/americas-bard/308365/