In his poems and life, Walt Whitman celebrated the human spirit and the human body. He sang the praises of democracy and marveled at the technological advances of his era. His direct poetic style shocked many of his contemporaries. This style, for which Whitman is famous, is in direct relation to several major American cultural developments. The development of American dictionaries, the growth of baseball, the evolution of Native American policy, and the development of photography all played a part and became essential components of Whitman’s poetry.
Walt Whitman was an avid reader of dictionaries, which he realized were the compost heap of all English-language literature. It was the place where all the elements of literature were preserved, as well as the place out of which all future literature would grow. The nation’s unwritten poems lay dormant in that massive heap of words. Whitman’s own poem, “This Compost,” played on the etymological meaning of the word “compost” with the word “composition”.
The denotative meaning of both of these words is “to place or set together”. To compose is to put together in a new form. To compost is to take apart what was put together, and to break down an old form so that it would supply the parts for a new form (Folsom 15). Whitman was living during a time when it was possible to watch the growth and expansion of the American language, and to see the increasing distance between it and its British source (Allen 53). Whitman was most familiar with the 1847 edition of Webster’s Dictionary.
He depended on this one as he developed his notions of language and as he wrote the first poems of Leaves of Grass. It is in this version of the dictionary that we most clearly find the definitions of words that would become keys for Whitman’s poetic projects (Folsom 14). For Whitman, in certain ways, American culture became a language experiment. His fascination in culture was grounded in what various activities were doing to the language. Whitman was interested in how they were giving America new words, and new ranges of self-expression (E. H. Miller 174-178).
It was through continually expanding dictionaries that Walt Whitman learned about the possibilities of an infinite language from which a new kind of poetics could emerge. When writers mention Walt Whitman’s name, the subject of baseball naturally seems to pop up. They have sensed how the game was related to Whitman. Baseball, as we know it, was born in 1845 with the formation of the Knickerbockers Club in New York. It was then that the first recognizable baseball rules were set down in writing.
As baseball was born, it immediately was bound up in Whitman’s mind with qualities he would endorse his whole life: vigor, manliness, and al fresco health. In 1855, when Whitman’s “Song of Myself” was first printed, baseball was still very new. It was clearly one of the distinctive elements of the American experience that Whitman found worth absorbing into the song of himself, even though the term “baseball” had not yet made its way into the dictionaries. At various times over the years, Whitman would extol many other sports, but there was only one sport he would return to throughout his life, and that was baseball.
To him, baseball was an activity with its own built-in localized slang, and its own essential connections to American culture; a game conceived, developed, and originally played only in the United States of America. Clearly for Whitman, baseball was the sport that coincided with the best aspects of the American character. In it he saw the emergence of national sport–one that had a rhythm and movement distinctly American. In this game, he saw the possibilities for democratic crowds and brotherhood that he would celebrate in his poetry (Folsom 30-53).
Three days before Whitman’s eleventh birthday, Congress passed the Indian Removal Bill. Andrew Jackson, the president who was a former Indian fighter, got what he wanted—the power to take away Indian lands east of the Mississippi River by giving the Indians western lands in exchange. The various skirmishes, court battles, and presidential orders that followed the removal continued through Whitman’s teenage years into early adulthood. By this time, Whitman knew an America where Indians were promised to have western lands forever, and an America that was already hungry to take back the lands it had just given up (57).
Whitman’s association with the American Indian is a deep one which has never been fully investigated. He had a lifelong fascination with Indians that was not uncommon for a writer living during his time. He even expressed his love for a large print of Osceola, the Seminole chief, given to him by the famous artist, Catlin (Allen 522). The Indians, Whitman knew, had been abused and treated unfairly, but he also subscribed to the idea of progress and social evolution and believed that it was inevitable and ultimately valuable that America extends from sea to sea (Folsom 57).
His attitudes toward the Indians were contradictory, but characteristically American—a mix of disdain and admiration. Whitman was aware that American Indians needed to be a part of the song of himself, but he also realized that the celebration of America’s progressive expansion undermined an easy celebration of the natives. In any case, we have seen that he set out to assure that his song absorbed the Indians. What eventually comes through in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a sense of honor betrayed and a gesture toward correcting a mistake by offering a line to the Indian’s bravery.
To give the Indians a line in the song of America seemed to be Whitman’s continual motivation to absorb them into the American song before they vanished forever (70-77). It was through this poem that Whitman was dismissed from his position as clerk with the Indian Bureau (Bloom 120). Whitman saw something in the American Indians that he tried to absorb even as it vanished under the hand of his expanding nation.
There are many technological developments that can be examined in relation to their impact on poetry and poetics in America, but perhaps none is more illuminating than the advent and development of photography, the merging of sight and chemistry, of eye and machine, of organism and mechanism, that became the peculiarly appropriate American instrument of seeing” (Folsom 100). No culture was more in love with science and technology than America was. The camera became the perfect emblem of the joining of the human senses to chemistry and physics through a machine.
Whitman expressed complete acceptance of this science in section 23 of his poem, “Song of Myself” (J. E. Miller 92). Whitman believed that most ordinary painters were put to shame by a good photograph, and that the majority of painted portraits would be set aside by photographs of the same subjects, since photos seemed to render more quickly and accurately the same images of reality that painters trained so long to achieve. This was the key to Whitman’s devotion to photography; it mechanically reproduced what the sun illuminated. For him it was a more honest representation of reality than the paintings of artists.
He felt that artists let their discriminations and blindness alter the world that was before their eyes (Allen 146-148). According to Whitman, the camera teaches us to see beauty where we had not before sought it out, and to see significance in the overlooked detail. In his 1855 preface, Whitman described the emerging American poet as an embodied imagination on the lookout for whatever had been seen before as trivial or insignificant; like the absorptive camera (Folsom 102). Walt Whitman died from a complex of illnesses in 1892, at the age of seventy-two.
He could take satisfaction in a full and complete life (Loewen 38). “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” wrote Whitman in his preface to “Song of Myself” (Marx 20). The four major cultural developments that occurred during Walt Whitman’s lifetime—the development of American dictionaries, the growth of baseball, the evolution of American Indian policy, and the development of photography—definitely contributed to his poetic style. Through these events, not only did Whitman find his poetic subjects, but he also discovered his poetic tools and techniques.