A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman (Historical Guides to by David S. Reynolds

By David S. Reynolds

Few authors are so well matched to old research as Whitman, who's commonly thought of America's maximum poet. This consultant combines modern cultural reviews and ancient scholarship to light up Whitman's assorted contexts. The essays discover dimensions of Whitman's dynamic dating to working-class politics, race and slavery, sexual mores, the visible arts, and the belief of democracy. The poet who emerges from this quantity is not any "solitary singer," distanced from his tradition, yet what he himself referred to as "the age transfigured," totally enmeshed in his occasions and addressing concerns which are nonetheless very important this present day.

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I am the God of revolt—deathless, sorrowful, vast" (NUPM, IV:130o-13om). It is an intense and explosive conflation, this joining of the angry black slave and the rebellious angel. In combining them and in expressing sympathy for the resultant figure of rebellion ("I do not deny him"), Whitman creates an incendiary image, one that was particularly volatile in the mid-185os. Slave revolts in the South—already numbering in the hundreds—were multiplying (in the year following the publication of this poem, there would be slave revolts in twelve states), and a racial war threatened, the very kind of war that John Brown would try to precipitate a couple of years later with his raid on Harpers Ferry.

CH, 22. 49. CH, 32, 61. 50. WCP, 1327. 51. "By Blue Ontario's Shore," LGC, 351 (emphasis added). 52. , Whitman in His Own Time (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991), 334. 42 Walt Whitman 53. : Greenwood, 1974), 444. 54. WWC, I:212. 55. NUPM, I:1554. 56. NUPM, I:353. 57. LGC, 134. 58. WWC, I:417. 59. LGC, 660. 60. New York Saturday Press, January 7,1860. 61. NUPM, I:417. 62. William Thayer and Charles Eldridge to Whitman, letter of February 10,1860. Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress. 63. LGC, 310.

Though excessive and not wholly warranted, such outbursts reflected Whitman's desire to look outside the party system for hope and restoration. Faced by what he considered the disunity and fragmentation of American society, he offered his poetry as a gesture of healing and togetherness. In the 1855 poems he brought together images and devices from every cultural arena. From Manhattan street life, he borrowed much from the real-life figure of the b'hoy (slang for boy). 29 In reality, he was few of these things: he was no breeder, for he almost certainly had no children; he was only a convival drinker; and he was turbulent only on those rare occasions when his temper got the best of his generally calm demeanor.

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