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I.- A Glimpse of the Man
“ Convict Whitman of any narrowness or partiality whatever and you strike him a fatal blow. The one thing he must be to make good his claim is to be all-inclusive of humanity."- John Addington Symonds.
“Walt Whitman is the best, most perfect, example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense."--Richard Maurice Burke.
Walt Whitman is an offshoot of some of the oldest American families. For many generations his ancestors had lived upon Long Island and were Dutch and English. Upon one side an ardent Quaker strain is found.
Born in 1819, his death in 1892 found an old man who had breathed to the full the richest maturity of a marvelous century. The experiences of the poet's life were well adapted to that ideal of inclusive knowledge and sympathy which controlled his thought. He spent most of his life in the great cities of New York, Brooklyn, Washington, and Camden, where the surging of multitudinous human interests fascinated and awed him unceasingly.
For several years he wandered in the then Far West, living in New Orleans for some time, but experiencing many forms of rough life through the pioneer wilds of the Mississippi Valley. Even earlier he had taught school in the country regions of the East, seeing the life of all as only the “boarding around" custom of those days made possible.
In occupations he was as inclusive as in all else; farmer, teacher, traveler, printer, editor, carpenter, mechanic, writer, nurse in army hospitals, clerk in government offices—he was all of these at times, and never allowed any activity to preoccupy him so that he was not first of all a lover of human beings.
Wherever there was humanity, his affections were enlisted.
The less a man or woman was conventionalized or artificially cultured, the more his interest was aroused. Manhood in spontaneity, and natural vigor always impressed him with reverential respect. With this attitude, all occupations and all experiences became rich harvests of broadened sympathies and living knowledge.
The army hospital service of Walt Whitman served a needed purpose in uniting him to the people of his day and country.
His passion of passions was love of America and of his countrymen. But the publication of “Leaves of Grass,” in 1855, had brought upon him the most severe criticism.
Contempt or disgust had met his new outlook and new method. The devoted nurse, loving and beloved of the boys in blue, was a figure which gradually took the place in popular thought of the shameless ignoramus whom they pictured as the author of the “Leaves."
Those who came in personal contact with Whitman were always impressed with the calm greatness, spotless cleanliness, and quiet tenderness of the man. This impression which the personal friend could gain all the world may feel in equal measure through a study of the records of his life among the wounded soldiers,
He goes among them first seeking a brother whom report has placed in serious danger. He cannot, after seeing the distressing need, leave the others, and for several years, until his own health is undermined, he gives himself entirely to the men.
He does not serve as official nurse or in any regular capacity, but reserves himself for the innumerable offices which others cannot render. He is always freshly dressed, strong voiced, full of cheer. He knows when discouragement and loneliness are causing deeper wounds than bullet gash. He knows when the strong natured man yearns for the kiss and caress as much as a child in arms, and gives such gracious benediction with ready tenderness.
He is absolutely fearless, going amid contagion from which others shrink, with scarcely a thought, because he “felt to do so."
This boyish confession to his mother reveals much: “Mother, I have real pride in telling you that I have the consciousness of saving quite a number of lives by keeping the men from giving up, and being a good deal with them. The men say it is so, and the doctors say it is so, and I will candidly confess I can see it is true, though I say it myself. I know you will like to hear it, mother, so I tell you.'
The physical perfection of Walt Whitman was always remarked by those who saw him prior to this hospital experience. Thereafter, while the outline and general bearing always gave the impression of a fine physique, he was in reality partially paralyzed and much of an invalid.
So large a part of Whitman philosophy had centered in a glorification of humanity as an incarnation of strength and power that it was peculiarly hard that he should have lost his physical robustness. In spite of this and in spite of poverty also, the man did not lose in poise or sweetness of spirit.
“Specimen Days” was written during the pressure of these misfortunes.
Burke says of this: “It is the sanest and sweetest of books, the brightest and halest diary of an invalid ever written.' Up to the last his courage and charity never wavered.
He was as pleased as a child over any word which indicated appreciation of his work, but was never troubled or at all affected by censure or misunderstanding.
He regarded his writing not as literature, but as the expression of a religion. It was a
cause" to him, and all that indicated an understanding of his thought rejoiced him as an advancement of this cause.
Friends came slowly. Emerson, however, welcomed the new writer at the outset with full appreciation.