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Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, on Long Island, New York. He was the second son of Walter Whitman, a house-builder, and Louisa Van Velsor. In the 1820s and 1830s, the family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Long Island and Brooklyn, where Whitman attended the Brooklyn public schools.
At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer’s trade and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer , Dante , Shakespeare , and the Bible.
Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of seventeen, he began his career as teacher in the one-room schoolhouses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career. He founded a weekly newspaper, The Long-Islander , and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle . In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent for three months. After witnessing the auctions of enslaved individuals in New Orleans, he returned to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848 and co-founded a “free soil” newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman , which he edited through the next fall. Whitman’s attitudes about race have been described as “ unstable and inconsistent .” He did not always side with the abolitionists , yet he celebrated human dignity.
In Brooklyn, Whitman continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson . In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass , which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-two poems, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. During his lifetime, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book. Noted Whitman scholar, M. Jimmie Killingsworth writes that “the ‘merge,’ as Whitman conceived it, is the tendency of the individual self to overcome moral, psychological, and political boundaries. Thematically and poetically, the notion dominates the three major poems of 1855: ‘ I Sing the Body Electric ,’ ‘ The Sleepers ,’ and ‘Song of Myself,’ all of which were merged in the first edition under the single title ‘Leaves of Grass’ but were demarcated by clear breaks in the text and the repetition of the title.”
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a “purged” and “cleansed” life. He worked as a freelance journalist and visited the wounded at New York City–area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to care for his brother, who had been wounded in the war.
Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals; he ended up staying in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass , which Harlan found offensive. After Harlan fired him, he went on to work in the attorney general's office.
In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. A few months later he travelled to Camden, New Jersey, to visit his dying mother at his brother’s house. He ended up staying with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood), which brought him enough money to buy a home in Camden.
In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to his deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass (David McKay, 1891–92) and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye My Fancy (David McKay, 1891). After his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.
Along with Emily Dickinson , he is considered one of America’s most important poets.
William Wordsworth, who rallied for "common speech" within poems and argued against the poetic biases of the period, wrote some of the most influential poetry in Western literature, including his most famous work, The Prelude , which is often considered to be the crowning achievement of English romanticism.
W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats, widely considered one of the greatest poets of the English language, received the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature. His work was greatly influenced by the heritage and politics of Ireland.
Edgar Allan Poe
Born in 1809, Edgar Allan Poe had a profound impact on American and international literature as an editor, poet, and critic.
William Blake was born in London on November 28, 1757, to James, a hosier, and Catherine Blake. Two of his six siblings died in infancy. From early childhood, Blake spoke of having visions—at four he saw God "put his head to the window"; around age nine, while walking through the countryside, he saw a tree filled with angels.
Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. While she was extremely prolific as a poet and regularly enclosed poems in letters to friends, she was not publicly recognized during her lifetime. She died in Amherst in 1886, and the first volume of her work was published posthumously in 1890.
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The Walt Whitman Collection: About
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About Walt Whitman
Walter “Walt” Whitman (1819–1892) is considered by some to be the most influential poet of the United States. Born on Long Island in New York, Whitman is said to have invented contemporary American literature by abandoning the rigid, metrical structures of European poetry, developing an expansionist free verse style. Whitman was a poet, an essayist, and a journalist, but his most famous work is his collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass , which he continued to edit and revise until his death.
About the Walt Whitman Collection
The Walt Whitman Collection at BYU contains a rich array of printed material by and about this important American poet. Its holdings include rare early editions of Whitman’s poetry and prose, including issues of periodicals which published his work. Special Collections also continues to collect modern editions of Whitman’s writing, along with secondary resources like biography and criticism, reference works, and other printed works illustrating Whitman’s legacy in modern culture.
Along with Louisa May Alcott and Herman Melville, Walt Whitman was selected by BYU to be one of the three American literary figures for which the library would form an in-depth collection. BYU actively seeks to acquire all editions of works by Walt Whitman, as well as secondary works about him, including biographies and criticism. The various editions of Leaves of Grass housed in the collection comprise a publishing history in and of themselves.
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Research paper on walt whitman and psychology.
Walt Whitman, a well known literary author of poetry , wrote many pieces of work that reflected strong sexual imagery. This sample research paper on his work and the psychological undertones analyzes the core reasons behind his imagery. If you need editing or writing assistance, consider buying psychology papers from Ultius that you can use as a sample for your own work.
Often times, a work of art, aesthetic or in print, can have multiple interpretations based on diverse schools of thought. These schools of thought act as lenses that allow us to perceive and interpret art differently. Consider how the Bible, even to this day, has different meanings to both individuals and groups. A pessimistic or optimistic view, for example, could easily be supported from interpreting the text a certain way. One such way of interpreting art has been psychoanalytic theory by Freud, which pioneered the notion that behavior could be explained through internal conflict which results in subconscious expressions of behavior (Wolf, 42). Such a lens can also be applied to Walt Whitman’s poem, Leaves of Grass. While I originally argued that despite initial criticism of his Whitman’s work, eventual acceptance resulted in a positive cultural effect on society; however, this poem has a widely different interpretation when viewed from a psychoanalytic standpoint.
Poetry as Whitman's Form of Psychological Expression
Poetry was Whitman’s form of expression, despite the backlash that he received for it. Growing up in the “early 1800’s in Long Island and having a very restless and aggravating childhood,” Whitman had difficulty finding an outlet for his expression. Whitman’s work was denied by publishers on many occasions for his homosexual language and he was consequently labeled a profane author. Ultimately, however, Whitman did end up publishing his work and it remained in the spotlight even through today. Whitman’s experience can epitomize the paradigm of a writer who prevailed cultural backlash and became successful. A clear interpretation is that he was able to successfully share his work and inspire others, despite the lack of technology back then. Whitman’s work can also be viewed under the lens of internal conflict and sexual expression via Freud’s work as well.
The relationship between psychoanalytic theory and art is not a widely neglected or understudied phenomenon. There are numerous examples where art and psychoanalysis has been fused together. Adrian Stokes argued that “it is often overt conflict that inspires an artist’s imaginative flights” (Stokes, 198). The same internal struggles that influence behavior also influence how art is produced. Moreover, when these fantasies are spontaneously expressed outside the analytic situation in language, that is by the insane or by the poet, it is clear that the words are handled as a material with sensual qualities” (Stokes, 198). These sensual qualities are the result of subconscious psychic processes that help the artist project his inner most feelings. Whitman, along with other poets, did this quite often with their work.
Sexual Imagery in Whitman's Work
In fact, Paula Bennett, in Critical Clitoridectomy: Female Sexual Imagery and Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory, argued that much of Emily Dickinson’s work also included similar sexual imagery that related to Freud’s concepts. For instance, “Clitoral symbols-that is, symbols of small but precious objects-are ubiquitous in nineteenth-century American Women’s writing” (Bennett, 237). While this symbolism may have been considered relatively insignificant in our socially constructed means of interpreting poetry, Bennett noted that these sexual elements have remained consistent. The specificity of words like “heart, dowers, rose, rapture and bud” possess erotic connotations that are impossible to evade when taken into context (Bennett, 239). Surely, Dickinson, like Whitman, also faced scrutiny by her editors and peers. Scrutiny was always harshly delivered when the sexual viewpoints didn’t meet socially acceptable standards.
Walt Whitman’s poem, Leaves of Grass, is filled with language that suggests a sexual interpretation. Despite being labeled as having an “explicitly political project” because of his past involvement with seeing the United States in a troublesome time, sexuality was also a common theme (Oerlemans, 703). For instance, Whitman wrote that “I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it, the distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it” (Whitman). By denying enjoying a fragrance, the context suggests that theme of temptation. Furthermore, the context suggests that he is attempting to enjoy the summer grass and is struggling with the perfumes that are present. Since perfume is worn by people, he clearly is distracted by the fragrance of other people (men or women). This implicitly suggests that desire and temptation are going through his head when attempting to enjoy nature. Also, this relates to the notion that Wolf mentioned regarding a lifelong inner struggle of seldom expressing inner states while analyzing observable behavior [such as observing grass] (Wolf, 43). Thus, Whitman’s writing suggests that his observance of nature was disrupted by the stimuli of perfume on a shelf so much that he chose to write about it.
Contextual Sexual Imagery
Another great example of Whitman’s sexual imagery comes directly from his context. For instance, when further discussing nature, he strangely introduces “A few light kisses…a few embraces…a reaching around of arms,” words very vague when taken into the context of trees and hills (Whitman). Such direct evidence portrays his sexual imagery of flirting. Another example is at the conclusion where he interjects, “urge and urge and urge” (Whitman). Once again we see this theme of temptation present when he is discussing nature. His stimulus of nature is directly correlated with emotions that humans typically feel towards one another. Indeed, this example correlated with Freud’s notion that many psychoanalytic aspects can easily be discovered through literature as well as clinical cases (Wolf, 46). While reactions such as solace, peace, depression and melancholy are typically induced from natural view like landscapes, Whitman clearly introduced emotions like temptation, which are more closely associated with sexual intimacy.
Interestingly enough, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is an isolated incident where direct homoerotic language is not introduced. Steven Herrmann noted that Whitman came to terms with his homoeroticism “after a period of moral reflection on the anxiety and shame he had felt for having hid his homosexuality during the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass” (Herrmann, 19). In fact, it was Whitman’s earlier works that included this homoerotic language that almost stopped him from being able to publish his work widely (Bisharat, 3). Therefore, we see evidence of Whitman directly changing his own work to avoid criticism. Other writers with sexual imagery faced this same scrutiny in their work as well: Emily Dickinson’s editors “neutralized the poem’s sexual content in the process” of editing as well. (Bennett 239). Hermmann finally noted that Whitman’s aspect of sex remained in his work solely because Ralph Waldo Emerson persuaded him to keep it for “the betterment of society” (Herrmann, 20). Therefore, Whitman’s use of sexual imagery is epitomized by the fact that we used it in conjunction to the reaction he was getting from others.
Freud's Perspective on Sexually Suggestive Themes
Freud argued that the use of sexually suggestive themes and language is the result of the author censoring his own work. Just as Emerson persuaded Whitman to exclude homoerotic content and Dickinson’s editors neutralized her poetry, the author also has an internal filter. In describing literature, Freud argued that:
"He [the author] represents his most personal wishful fantasies as fulfilled; but they only become a work of art when they have undergone a transformation which softens what is offensive in them, conceals their personal origin and, by obeying the laws of beauty, bribes other people with a bonus of pleasure" (Wolf, 46).
Just as many authors struggle to find the right words to deliver a powerful work, they also simultaneously work towards applying social filters while not revealing personal internal conflicts . This is more obviously revealed by the fact that some of Whitman’s poems, like Songs of Myself and The Sleepers, have strong sexual content that utilize language like “manly love” and “sexual love” (Miller, 1998). Therefore, we see clear evidence that Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective is engrained in Whitman’s work.
Portraying Man's Primitive Sexual Urges
Taking into account the sexual nature and relative consistency among some of Whitman’s works, the primitive nature of human beings is revealed. With respect to the times that Whitman represents (early to mid twentieth century), it was considered taboo to openly discuss sex, let alone homoeroticism. Whitman’s work, therefore, reveals that Freud’s emphasis of the primitive nature of human beings gains merit. As most artists gain inspiration from emotional and internal experiences, Whitman’s were indeed strong enough for him to consistently maintain sexual themes. Such internal conflicts of homoeroticism remained central throughout Freud’s numerous volumes. Clearly, internal sexual conflicts are relevant examples of how outward behavior can be influenced. Although some of Freud’s work did not gain scientific merit, his concepts and studies of homoeroticism among authors remained true.
The psychoanalytic lens also illuminates the text very differently. By taking into account internal conflict, the poetry can be analyzed more so as a study of the author as a person rather than his work. By finding consistent elements, like sexual imagery, we gain insight about Whitman’s personal conflicts. Analyzing Leaves of Grass by its context of an inspired author merely allows us to investigate the themes of natural beauty, lyrical genius and cultural value to society. However, the psychoanalytic lens allows us to uncover much more rich themes: sexuality, personality [of Whitman], socially acceptable standards and the evolution of his writing. Behind the author who merely chose to or not to voice his homoerotic language, we can understand that behind the author there is a natural human being who also participated in the struggle of subconscious dilemma regarding sexuality. Analyzing these overarching and complex themes is much more beneficial in exploring the author’s mindset in writing certain poetry.
Non-Academic Applications of Whitman's Work
The psychoanalytic perspective of Whitman’s poetry has numerous applications outside of the academic environment. For instance, taking into account the sexual nature of other individuals during conversation, we can gain insight into true feelings that others may not say outright. By utilizing this lens of criticism, we can gain insight into the primitive nature of other people. Furthermore, analyzing writing can be an asset to therapists in a clinical setting. For instance, if a patient is having a difficult time being open regarding personal sexual conflict, an open ended writing session could prove beneficial for the therapist. By analyzing the psychoanalytic elements of a patient’s writing, the therapist may gain deeper insight into the mind of the patient. Therefore, utilizing the critical lens of psychoanalysis could prove beneficial in clinical and personal settings.
While Leaves of Grass delved into the topic of self expression and cultural value, the critical lens of psychoanalysis brought much richer insight into the personal life of Whitman. Along with Whitman, authors like Emily Dickinson also had elements of sexual imagery as well. Freud noted how literature had been a beneficial form of study for the development of his concepts and theory. Surely enough, Leaves of Grass contained sexual imagery that was relatively unrelated to the landscape he was describing. Moreover, many other works by Whitman had homoerotic elements. This supported Freud’s notion that human beings are being constantly bombarded with internal conflicts regarding taboo sexual topics like homosexuality . This critical lens of analysis gave much more insight into the author who struggled with socially acceptable standards, the recommendations of his peers and his own internal stigmas. This aspect is very applicable to the field of clinical therapy and in our own personal lives as well. Psychoanalytic theory, thus, served as an integral lens to review Whitman’s work.
Bennett, Paula. "Critical Clitoridectomy: Female Sexual Imagery and Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory." Signs 18.2 (1993): 235-259. Web. 10 March 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174975>
Herrmann, Steven. "Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Imagination." Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 1.2 (2007): 16-47. Web. 10 March 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jung.2007.1.2.16>
Miller, James. Sex and Sexuality. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998. Print.
Oerlemans, Onno. "Whitman and the Erotics of Lyric." American Literature 65.4 (1993): 703-730. Web. 10 March 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2927289>
Stokes, Adrian. "Form in Art: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 18.2 (1959): 193-203. Web. 10 March 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/427266>
Whitman, Walt. "Leaves of Grass." Introtopoetry.tumblr.com.12 February 2011. Tumblr. Web. 10 March 2011. <http://introtopoetry.tumblr.com/>
Wilcox, Louise. "Walt Whitman." The North American Review 183.597 (1906): 281-296. Web. 10 March 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25105615>
Wolf, Ernest. "Psychoanalytic Psychology of the Self and Literature." New Literary History 12.1 (1980): 41-60. Web. 10 March 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/468804>
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Walt Whitman and His Literary Legacy Essay (Biography)
Introduction, works cited.
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Walt Whitman was an American journalist and poet born in 1819 in West Hills, New York and who died in 1892 in Camden, New Jersey. During his life, Whitman served the community in numerous ways, for example, he was working as a teacher, volunteer nurse, journalist, essayist, and a government clerk (Bloom 16).
Whitman was a classical scholar who influenced the development of poetry through his numerous works that are relevant even today. He started writing and publishing his poems at a time when people did not enjoy the freedom of expressing their thoughts freely.
Nearly all of Whitman’s literary works evoked different reactions of social masses which caused Whitman to be given some of his famous nicknames such as the “Father of Free Verse” and “The Bard of Democracy”. The author’s life was stained by numerous disputes regarding his sexuality (Symonds 43). This issue provoked so much interest that biographers analyzed his poems as a way of understand his feelings.
They still continue to describe his sexuality as bisexual, although there is no clear evidence that Whitman had any sexual experiences with men. Whitman’s life was dominated by poetry and politics, especially during the industrialization era when he strongly opposed slavery. He was a staunch campaigner of democracy, as he used his influence to advocate for abolishment of slavery (Bloom 21).
Walt Whitman hailed from a family with eight children and it faced numerous economic challenges. The poor economic background of the family resulted from poor investment decisions made by the parents. The author described his upbringing as one characterized by ceaseless motion, worry, and lack of happiness.
The economic situation in Whitman’s family meant that there were limited life opportunities for him and his siblings (Bloom 26). Thus, he had to look for a job after finishing school. He worked in various places including his job as a trainee and printer at a local newspaper called Patriot . This job helped to shape Whitman’s career as a poet and journalist.
While working for the newspaper, Whitman had learnt how to use a typesetter, and gained a lot of knowledge about the printing press. He did not stay with this employer for long, and moved to another newspaper in Brooklyn called Long-Island Star . While in Brooklyn, Whitman visited the local library on a regular basis to read, as well as participate in debate and theatre performances (Meltzer 100).
Aspiring poets respected Whitman a lot for his lifestyle and beliefs, for example, in his youth, Whitman chose not to consume alcohol (Meltzer 109). Through his poems, Whitman encouraged readers to stay away from the temptations of alcohol, as it had serious effects. Whitman admitted to have written The Inebriate under the influence of alcohol.
He felt embarrassed by the poem because of the numerous contradictory phrases it contained (Symonds 48). Since then, Whitman decided to consume only alcohol free drinks. Whitman was a religious man, and believed in God. Through his works, Whitman advocated for equality among all believers. He believed that all religions were equal and none should feel superior over the other.
Some of the poems that emphasized his belief in God include Song of Myself , and With Antecedents (Symonds 53). However, it was hard for Whitman to avoid skepticism, as he did not believe in any religion despite accepting all of them.
One of the characteristic features of Whitman’s poems was the use of an expressive style, images and symbols. Ordinary poems did not have these elements. Although there were poets who used expressive style in their writings before Whitman, many people consider him as the one responsible for popularization of this style (Meltzer 126).
Whitman believed that the ideal recipe for a poet to succeed was a shared passion for poetry between poets and the readers. He expressed his thoughts about the success of poets in his collection of poems called the Leaves of Grass . According to Whitman, there is a dependent relationship between poetry and society.
The society helps influence the development of poetry by providing an audience, while poetry helps instilling positive ideals in society through information and knowledge (Bloom 30). Whitman underlined this concept in one of his poems called the Song of Myself .
His writing style also incorporated first person recitation. Whitman had a strong ability to create poems in singular form. This earned him a title among the American readers of the “Poet of Democracy”.
The writer used Leaves of Grass to divulge the character and identity the American people. Through his poems, Whitman gave a detailed account of the civilization era in the United States of America. Leaves of Grass is one of the most important reference resources for history students, who study events that marked the civilization of America (Meltzer 132). Despite his success as a poet, Whitman was not much into poetry.
He realized that he had the ability to bring change in the society by pursuing a different dream. Thus, he started his career as a poet. Whitman used a variety of themes in his poems to discuss various issues that affected the society. One the themes that he used in his poems was sexuality. This theme resulted in widespread criticism from readers over the offensive topics discussed by this theme.
The manner in which Whitman discussed human feelings elicited questions about his sexuality that remains a mystery to date. Many people believe that his controversial themes helped a lot in shaping a realist society that accepts everyone despite their perfections and imperfections (Symonds 61).
Whitman helped to create a positive mentality about diversity through his poems. Readers of these poems have managed to carry on his teachings into the modern society.
Walt Whitman was one of the most influential people in the field of fictional writing. His legacy still lives on many years after he passed on. According to Whitman, there is a dependent relationship between poetry and society. Whitman is remembered for his role in introducing a new style of writing poems, and his fight for democracy in the United States of America.
Whitman also inspired many people with his lifestyle and beliefs. Most of Whitman’s admirers believe that he is the best poet that America had at that time. Many modern poets still promote the legacy that Walt Whitman left through their poems. Throughout his life, Whitman served his community in numerous roles, and through his work, he advocated for equality among all religions and all people. He believed that all were equal.
Bloom, Harold. Walt Whitman . New York: Info Base Publishing, 2009. Print.
Meltzer, Milton. Walt Whitman: A Biography . New Jersey: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002. Print.
Symonds, John. Walt Whitman: A Study . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.
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IvyPanda. (2023, October 31). Walt Whitman and His Literary Legacy. https://ivypanda.com/essays/walt-whitman-essay/
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IvyPanda . "Walt Whitman and His Literary Legacy." October 31, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/walt-whitman-essay/.
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IvyPanda . (2023) 'Walt Whitman and His Literary Legacy'. 31 October.
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