“You have come in time, Walt Whitman,” said Walt Whitman…
Today is the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman, the poet best known for his landmark work Leaves of Grass, which he re-released nine times, usually adding extra poems and sometimes renaming the earlier ones.
It wasn’t that he was fixing the book. The first edition shows Whitman’s talent was already there and fully formed. He just had a lot more to say, and hopefully more books to sell – which leads us to one of the most interesting moments of Walt Whitman’s life, the time he reviewed his own book in the newspapers.
In September 1855, in the pages of the United States Review, he wrote anonymously, of himself, “An American bard at last!” The crux of the review is that Americans up to this point had been trying to write the way Europeans did, with the same style and the same values, rather than producing uniquely American work. This fellow Walt Whitman was changing all that, wrote, well, Whitman.
Here’s how he described himself in the review: “Self-reliant, with haughty eyes, assuming to himself all the attributes of his country, steps Walt Whitman into literature, talking like a man unaware that there was ever hitherto such a production as a book, or such a being as a writer.”
Whitman suggests that the takeaway from his own work is that if people follow his way of thinking about the greatness of humanity and nature and the body, “there shall be taller and nobler crops of humanity on the earth.”
Not exactly the stuff of modesty, and not precisely successful. These reviews didn’t boost sales, so let that be a lesson to any writer thinking of reviewing your own work online… if it didn’t work for Whitman, it might not work for you either.
If you’re in or near the community of Plymouth, North Carolina, you may want to check out the North Carolina Black Bear Festival.
The city bills itself as the originator of National Black Bear Day, which is always the first Saturday in June, and the three day event includes, among other things, lots of tours to see black bears in the wild, which would probably be to the liking of that old nature lover Walt Whitman.
“Walt Whitman and His Poems” by Walt Whitman (Whitman Archive)
“Promoting Himself” (Library of Congress)
North Carolina Black Bear Festival
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Walt Whitman portrait, 1891, via National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution