This Saturday, May 31, marks the 195th birthday of America’s greatest poet and perhaps even its greatest citizen to have ever lived: Walt Whitman. “Leaves of Grass,” as one contemporary reviewer put it at the time, was “an explosion in a sewer.” The reactions to Whitman’s work, at least in most circles, were largely unpleasant. One reviewer even suggested that Walt Whitman commit suicide.
“Leaves of Grass” was so offensive that it cost Walt several jobs, and by the end of his life, the poet died nearly in poverty, relying on the kindness of Britain’s literary elite just to survive and be buried.
I had the chance to visit the Walt Whitman home on a mini-Sabbatical in 2012. The caretaker there in Camden pulled a letter out and read it aloud to me. It was written by a middle-aged woman from England on September 11, 2001. As she watched the twin towers fall, she was uncertain how to express her grief and outrage—or even where to direct those thoughts. She chose Walt Whitman and eloquently expressed her love of America’s democratic spirit, stating there was no other place for her to lodge her thoughts than with Walt Whitman. The letter was powerful and brought tears to my eyes. [Read more…]