Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds

He was a poet, a journalist, a one-time teacher, a bit of a rogue and a rambler. His was the voice of America in the mid-19th century. All this and more was Walt Whitman.

David Reynolds, a professor at the City University of New York, has written a compelling biography of Whitman. Reynolds fixes Whitman in the times of his life. Long sections of the book describe the various influences on Whitman’s poetic and journalistic themes. It’s an intriguing if occasionally tedious story. Moreover, Reynolds shows the reader how the society around Whitman changed and how the writer attempted on one level to change with it. In my view, it is this story that is the most gripping of Reynolds’s work. Allow me to explain.

Each one of us has a gift, a special knack or ability that, in my mind, comes from God. Whether you agree with me or not on the source, I suspect many readers will concur on the point that everyone excels at one particular thing above all. Certainly, the idea is not unique to me.

Our lives at work and in career are an expression of this fact. Contentment reflects in part the state of your gift at any given point in life. If you’re using the gift, contentment rises. If not, it falls.

Whitman had a gift. He believed that in his poetry and stories he embodied the fundamental nature of the American people. Fervently, passionately, some might say obsessively, Whitman was convinced that he needed to share that gift with the people he symbolized; that is, he wanted the American public to buy, literally, what he wrote.

You might not understand the depth of Whitman’s conviction. During the gathering crisis of the late 1850s that would produce the Civil War, Whitman was convinced that he could help unite the nation with his poetry and unique insights into the American mind. Startling in his audacity, Whitman was incensed when the public didn’t seem to agree with him.

Whitman had a gauge for his gift. How many volumes have I sold? For much of his adult life Whitman agonized over the middling success of selling his poems. He tried everything from packaging to marketing to content in his quest to sell more volumes of poetry. He juggled the order of poems in his books, attempted to stir up interest by ghost-writing favorable reviews in newspapers, and sent his books to influential intellectuals whose endorsements would build a “buzz’ for his work. In addition to working on his craft as a poet and writer, Whitman worked just as feverishly on sharing his craft with the public. In our era, one might even be so brash as to say his “market.” Whitman in his youth might have despised such a word. Whitman in his older years would have agreed with it.

Whitman found by the 1870s (in his 50s) that his sales depended on honing an ideal in the mind of the public. He assumed a posture in his photographs and public appearances: bearded, graying hair, leaning, crossed legs, a textured and wrinkled face, drab clothing that hinted at the touch of the common man. His gift at writing became supplemented with a physical appearance. His outward look was an extension of his writing. It was hard to see where the one ended and the other began. In searching for a modern-day equivalent, as a fan of the Man in Black I might invoke Johnny Cash to illustrate Whitman’s evolution.

But for Whitman (unlike Cash, in my estimation), it seems that his interest in appearances began to outweigh his interest in the gift. By the 1880s Whitman simply ground and reground his old work in the search for an ever-growing audience. He did find that audience but by that time he had become something that in his younger years he would have loathed—a comfortable reminder of days gone by, a piece of nostalgia.

Now, you could say that Whitman actually matured and that the visions of edginess, as we might call it, simply grew up into something else. You could also say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to share the gift with the public and that sales is one measurement of this sharing. Yes, you can say these things.

They don’t hold up. We know that you can find niches. Pockets and clusters of people can appreciate your gift in its purest form, a form that only you in your heart, mind, and soul will know. You don’t need a major slice of the public or even a majority of a group. If you do, then you’re verging on seeking popularity. A niche might in fact be a small subset of a larger number. In addition, you need to put in the time and effort of pulling yourself out of the current context to ask the hard questions. Am I doing the truly best I can do? Is it making the type of difference I want? How have I changed for better and for worse? And here’s one more—can I identify a handful of people who will be fully honest with me and how would they answer these questions on my behalf? You and I should ask these questions of ourselves.

We may not be as likely as Whitman was to emphasize sales. We probably have versions, though, that include getting a promotion, receiving praise, earning more money, and so forth. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the hard questions above are meant for someone else.

Finally, Whitman’s life as we see it in Reynolds’s book is an example of an artist-as-leader. Whitman’s poetry, particularly when it reached its popularity in the last quarter of the 19th century, generated an intense following. His poetry produced followers for Whitman. We have a blinding array of such artist-as-leaders in today’s world, most of whom are largely wretched in their artistry. Like them, Whitman could have urged his most ardent followers to consider something. They would have done so simply because he had said it.

Walt Whitman’s America is a tough read unless you have an interest in 19th century American literature. If you make the effort, you’ll find rewarding discoveries about an icon of American poetry.