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Walt Whitman

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Family Origins

Walt Whitman, arguably America's most influential and innova-tive poet, was born into a working class family in West Hills, New York, a village near Hempstead, Long Island, on May 31, 1819, just thirty years after George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the newly formed United States. Walt Whitman was named after his father, a carpenter and farmer who was 34 years old when Whitman was born. Walter Whitman, Sr., had been born just after the end of the American Revolution; always a liberal thinker, he knew and admired Thomas Paine. Trained as a carpenter but struggling to find work, he had taken up farming by the time Walt was born, but when Walt was just about to turn four, Walter Sr. moved the family to the growing city of Brooklyn, across from New York City, or "Mannahatta" as Whitman would come to call it in his celebratory writings about the city that was just emerging as the nation's major urban center. One of Walt's favorite stories about his childhood con-cerned the time General Lafayette visited New York and, select-ing the six-year-old Walt from the crowd, lifted him up and car-ried him. Whitman later came to view this event as a kind of laying on of hands, the French hero of the American Revolution anointing the future poet of democracy in the energetic city of immigrants, where the new nation was being invented day by day.

Walt Whitman is thus of the first generation of Americans who were born in the newly formed United States and grew up as-suming the stable existence of the new country. Pride in the emergent nation was rampant, and Walter Sr.--after giving his first son Jesse (1818-1870) his own father's name, his second son his own name, his daughter Mary (1822-1899) the name of Walt's maternal great grandmothers, and his daughter Hannah (1823-1908) the name of his own mother--turned to the heroes of the Revolution and the War of 1812 for the names of his other three sons: Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827-1863), George Washington Whitman (1829-1901), and Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833-1890). Only the youngest son, Edward (1835-1902), who was mentally and physically handicapped, carried a name that tied him to neither the family's nor the country's his-tory.

Walter Whitman Sr. was of English stock, and his marriage in 1816 to Louisa Van Velsor, of Dutch and Welsh stock, led to what Walt always considered a fertile tension in the Whitman children between a more smoldering, brooding Puritanical tem-perament and a sunnier, more outgoing Dutch disposition. Whitman's father was a stern and sometimes hot-tempered man, maybe an alcoholic, whom Whitman respected but for whom he never felt a great deal of affection. His mother, on the other hand, served throughout his life as his emotional touchstone. There was a special affectional bond between Whitman and his mother, and the long correspondence between them records a kind of partnership in attempting to deal with the family crises that mounted over the years, as Jesse became mentally unstable and violent and eventually had to be institutionalized, as Hannah entered a disastrous marriage with an abusive husband, as An-drew became an alcoholic and married a prostitute before dying of ill health in his 30s, and as Edward required increasingly dedi-cated care.

A Brooklyn Childhood and LongIsland Interludes

During Walt's childhood, the Whitman family moved around Brooklyn a great deal as Walter Sr. tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to cash in on the city's quick growth by speculating in real es-tate--buying an empty lot, building a house, moving his family in, then trying to sell it at a profit to start the whole process over again. Walt loved living close to the East River, where as a child he rode the ferries back and forth to New York City, imbibing an experience that would remain significant for him his whole life: he loved ferries and the people who worked on them, and his 1856 poem eventually entitled "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" ex-plored the full resonance of the experience. The act of crossing became, for Whitman, one of the most evocative events in his life--at once practical, enjoyable, and mystical. The daily com-mute suggested the passage from life to death to life again and suggested too the passage from poet to reader to poet via the vehicle of the poem. By crossing Brooklyn ferry, Whitman first discovered the magical commutations that he would eventually accomplish in his poetry.

While in Brooklyn, Whitman attended the newly founded Brook-lyn public schools for six years, sharing his classes with students of a variety of ages and backgrounds, though most were poor, since children from wealthy families attended private schools. In Whitman's school, all the students were in the same room, ex-cept African Americans, who had to attend a separate class on the top floor. Whitman had little to say about his rudimentary formal schooling, except that he hated corporal punishment, a common practice in schools and one that he would attack in later years in both his journalism and his fiction. But most of Whit-man's meaningful education came outside of school, when he visited museums, went to libraries, and attended lectures. He always recalled the first great lecture he heard, when he was ten years old, given by the radical Quaker leader Elias Hicks, an acquaintance of Whitman's father and a close friend of Whit-man's grandfather Jesse. While Whitman's parents were not members of any religious denomination, Quaker thought always played a major role in Whitman's life, in part because of the early influence of Hicks, and in part because his mother Louisa's family had a Quaker background, especially Whitman's grand-mother Amy Williams Van Velsor, whose death--the same year Whitman first heard Hicks--hit young Walt hard, since he had spent many happy days at the farm of his grandmother and color-ful grandfather, Major Cornelius Van Velsor.

Visiting his grandparents on Long Island was one of Whitman's favorite boyhood activities, and during those visits he developed his lifelong love of the Long Island shore, sensing the mystery of that territory where water meets land, fluid melds with solid. One of Whitman's greatest poems, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," is on one level a reminiscence of his boyhood on the Long Island shore and of how his desire to be a poet arose in that landscape. The idyllic Long Island countryside formed a sharp contrast to the crowded energy of the quickly growing Brooklyn-New York City urban center. Whitman's experiences as a young man alternated between the city and the Long Island countryside, and he was attracted to both ways of life. This dual

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