America's poet remains a vital voice


150th aniversary of `Leaves of Grass'

Back Story

Taking Note of History

July 09, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Verlyn Klinkenborg, writing in The New York Times earlier this week, recalled Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass on the 150th anniversary of its publication.

Whitman, considered perhaps the nation's greatest poet, even helped set the type of his most enduring work, first published on July 4, 1855.

For the next 37 years, the Good Gray Poet, as Whitman became known, expanded Leaves of Grass from the original 12 poems published in 1855 to the 389 in the eighth and final edition at his death in 1892.

Ralph Waldo Emerson called it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I find incomparable things incomparably said."

"It's a poem, I'm tempted to say, that still surprises, all the compliment being contained in the word `still', as if America had outrun Whitman long ago and left him breathing hard along the side of the road," Klinkenborg wrote. "But wherever we pull up in our own race ... there is Whitman, as loose-limbed and joyous as ever, moved more by the ecstasy of perception and empathy than by any physical effort. There is no catching up with him. He is always ahead of us."

From 1884 until the end of his life, Whitman lived in a small two-story frame house, the only one he ever owned, at 328 Mickle St. in Camden, N.J.

In addition to being a poet, Whitman had worked as a newspaperman, editor, itinerant school teacher, printer, housing speculator and government worker. During the Civil War, he nursed and consoled wounded and dying soldiers.

During his years in Washington, Whitman recorded in his diary President Lincoln's daily passage during the summer months to the Soldiers' Home, a tree-shrouded military installation three miles north of the city where he was able to sleep.

Lincoln was sometimes on horseback or in an open landau, and the two developed a nodding acquaintanceship.

For years after Lincoln's assassination, Whitman lectured widely on the president's death.

Folger McKinsey, known as "The Bentztown Bard," was The Sun's staff poet and feature writer from 1906 to 1948. In his youth, he had been a protege of Whitman.

McKinsey persuaded the great poet to travel to his hometown, Elkton, and lecture on Lincoln on Feb. 2, 1886.

"Walt Whitman, the greatest celebrity in the American literary world, lectured in this town on the `Death of Abraham Lincoln,' on last Tuesday night to a well-filled house and to the gratification of those who were capable of understanding and appreciating his peculiar, though by no means eloquent style," reported The Cecil Democrat.

After concluding his talk, Whitman was taken to the Howard House where he was feted by members of the Pythian Journalists' Club.

"Mr. Whitman seemed to have revived from the solemnity of his lecture immediately after he became a guest of the club and his jolliest humor was upon him," wrote a reporter for The Cecil Whig.

Whitman's last words uttered to several friends in the early evening of March 26, 1892, were, "Wary, shift!"

Whitman was buried in the granite tomb he had designed and had constructed in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery.

Robert Green Ingersoll, a forgotten 19th century iconoclast and orator, gave the funeral oration, calling Whitman a "poet of humanity and sympathy."

"He uttered the great American voice, uttered songs worthy of the great republic," Ingersoll boomed to several thousand gathered mourners. "No man has ever said more for the rights of humanity - more in favor of real democracy or real justice. He neither scorned or cringed - was neither tyrant or slave. He asked only to stand beneath the great flag of nature, the blue and the stars."

At the poet's death, McKinsey was on the staff of the Frederick Daily News.

In The Sun's account of Whitman's funeral, there was a description of the many flower arrangements, including one sent by the young Frederick reporter:

"Folger McKinsey, of Frederick, Md., sent a bouquet of wild flowers with a letter stating that they had been gathered from the grave of Francis Scott Key in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick."

Sun librarian Elizabeth Lukes contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.