One day in 1855, while pondering his evening commute on a New York ferry, Walt Whitman took out his notebook and jotted down thoughts for a poem, about time, space and his mystical ties to the future.
“What is it now between us?” he asked of readers. “A score of years . . . a hundred years . . . five hundred years?”
“Whatever it is, it avails not,” he wrote. “Distance avails not and place avails not.”
“I am with you,” he would write in the finished poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” “Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now . . .?”
This month, the country marks the 200th birthday of the legendary American poet who rejoiced in such transcendent connections, yet celebrated the sensual nature of life, and chronicled the catastrophe of the Civil War, which he called “the distinguishing event of my time.”
Tributes are planned at the Library of Congress in Washington, where Whitman lived and worked for a decade, in New York, where he spent much of his life, and at his birthplace on Long Island.
Trained as a printer and newspaper reporter, Whitman wrote stories, essays, sketches, blurbs, editorials, memoirs and letters, as well as some of the world’s best loved poetry, between the 1830s and his death in 1892.
His work captured the gigantic American landscape as no one before had, with “incomparable things said incomparably well,” the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson told him.
His poems were earthy, joyous and mournful. He wrote about sex and death, and in 1860 wrote, “I have not once had the least idea who or what I am . . . the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d.”
His masterpiece, “Leaves of Grass,” was first published in 1855 with 12 poems. He would adjust it and add to it for the rest of his life. The final version, the 1892 “deathbed edition,” contained hundreds of poems.
They included his famous requiems for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” and “O Captain! My Captain!” as well as “Song of the Open Road” — “Whoever you are come travel with me!”
He also wrote reminiscences of the Civil War. He had visited the soldiers’ camps and haunted Washington’s military hospitals to minister to the sick, maimed and dying. Often he could only offer comfort, pass out food or write letters home for the men.
He saw terrible sights, which tormented him later.
In one poem, he wrote that he dreamed:
Of the look . . . of the mortally wounded . . .
Of the dead on their backs with arms extended wide . . .
Long have they pass’d, faces and trenches and fields,
Where through the carnage I moved . . .
But now of their forms at night,
I dream, I dream, I dream.
Born May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Long Island, he was a witness to what he called the “strange, unloosen’d, wondrous” days of mid-19th-century America.
He loved and wrote about cities — New York, Washington, Philadelphia — and rivers, New York’s East River, the Potomac and the Delaware.
He had a passion for ferries. “They afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems,” he wrote.
He rejoiced in his body — “I celebrate myself,” he wrote in the poem, “Song of Myself”:
“Every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air . . . My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs . . . Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile.”
And he loved the company of people — present, past and future — “you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,” as he wrote in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in 1856.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd . . .
I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water.
“It’s totally cosmic and transcendent,” said literature historian Barbara Bair, of the Library of Congress.
(The library says it has the world’s largest collection of Whitman material. It plans to display his notebook, and partly frosted eyeglasses, on June 3 in the Library’s Jefferson building. A broader Whitman tribute opened there May 16 and runs until August 15.)
It’s the idea “that time collapses and that we all have souls, and what he’s really looking at aren’t the bodies, but the souls of people, and that’s eternal,” she said at the library recently.
“This is one of the miracles of Whitman,” she said. “Where did this genius come from, with this cosmic viewpoint from the very beginning?”
Emerson, his early admirer, wondered, too: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start,” he wrote Whitman in 1855.
Whitman carried small notebooks with him everywhere. Sometimes they were just scraps of paper held together with a pin.
“He was a journalist,” Bair said. “He was interviewing people . . . and then he would also get an idea for a poem and he would write trial lines.”
He also jotted down names and descriptions of people, and, in one case, the price of boots: “Stout . . .$4. Double water proof 4.50.”
He made a list of news outlets in Manhattan that might run his pieces — “Harper’s Magazine, Franklin Square,” “Leslie’s Illustrated News, 12 Spruce st.,” and the “Police Gazette, 103 Nassau,” among others.
And he made notes to himself.
“Make no puns, funny remarks, double entendres, ‘witty’ remarks, ironies, sarcasms — only that which is simply earnest meant, harmless to anyone’s feelings,” he wrote.
He understood people. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” he wrote:
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall
The dark threw patches down upon me also
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious
My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre would not
people laugh at me?
A dapper man with a full gray beard and light eyes, Whitman came to Washington from Brooklyn in December 1862, when he learned that his brother, George, had been wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Whitman had wandered through the vast Army camps at Falmouth, Va., until he found George, moderately wounded in the cheek. He stayed with George for over a week.
“One of the first things that met my eyes in camp, was a heap of [amputated] feet, arms legs . . . under a tree in front [of] a hospital,” he wrote his mother, Louisa, on Dec. 29.
He landed a job in Washington, with an endorsement from Emerson, who called him a man of “original genius . . . with marked eccentricities.”
But his constant visits to the hospitals affected him.
“It is now beginning to tell a little upon me,” he wrote his mother in two letters in 1864. “So many bad wounds, many putrified & all kinds of dreadful ones . . . I was quite blue from the deaths of several of the poor young men I knew well.”
After the war, Whitman was a diligent federal employee in Washington for about a decade. “Honesty is the prevailing atmosphere,” he said of his colleagues in the government bureaucracy.
In 1873, he suffered a stroke and moved in with his brother, George, in Camden, N.J., according to the Walt Whitman Archive.
A once robust man, “by the time he left [Washington] he was ruined,” Bair said, in part by exposure to the awful sights he saw in the wartime hospitals.
“They didn’t call it post-traumatic stress at that time,” but that’s what his doctor thought it was, she said.
Whitman substantially recovered from the stroke but had another one in 1888.
He died in his house on Mickle Street in Camden on March 26, 1892, and was buried in a tomb he had commissioned in nearby Harleigh Cemetery.
The year before, he had written a closing poem:
GOOD-BYE my Fancy!
Farewell dear mate, dear love!
I’m going away, I know not where . . .
The slower fainter ticking of the clock is in me . . .
Yet let me not be too hasty . . .
If we go anywhere we’ll go together to meet what happens,
May-be we’ll be better off and blither, and learn something . . .
So now finally,
Good-bye — and hail! my Fancy.