Walt Whitman

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Walt Whitman Walt Whitman signature.svg
Wax cylinder photograph (1890). Whitman (?) Reads the first 4 lines of the poem "America".

Walter Whitman (born May 31, 1819 in West Hills, near Huntington on Long Island , † March 26, 1892 in Camden , New Jersey ) was an American poet , essayist and journalist. He is considered one of the most influential American poets of the 19th century. His main work is the poetry collection Leaves of Grass ( grass ), which he extended until shortly before his death in 1892 again in 1855 and changed.

Whitman's poetry uses mostly free verse and eschews rhymes. As a poet, Whitman sees himself in a symbiotic relationship with society, whose cultural and social life he takes up in a variety of images and whose worries, attitudes and language shape his poetry. In the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) he celebrates the "common people" as a manifestation of the "genius of the United States". He takes up the social upheavals of his time, such as the emergence of the capitalist market economy or the split in American society, which culminated in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 . Whitman counters the changes with his sometimes nostalgic glorification of family cohesion in the still largely agricultural, nature-loving society of his ancestors. In several poems he uses place names of the indigenous peoples of America for his birthplace and place of life Long Island (Paumanok) and Manhattan (Mannahatta) and places himself and his family in the tradition of the simple life of the indigenous people.

Whitman's two best-known poems include O Captain! My captain! (1865) and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd , which he added to the Leaves of Grass in 1867 .


Walt Whitman, 1855, at the age of 36

Family and early years

Walt Whitman's ancestors immigrated to North America as settlers in the first half of the 17th century. His mother, Louisa Van Velsor (1795–1873), came from the Netherlands, his father, Walter Whitman († 1855), from England. Originally the family owned a large area of ​​land on Long Island. Whitman's father could no longer support his family on his own farm and had become a carpenter. Walt Whitman was the second of nine children.

In 1823 his family moved to Brooklyn , where he attended school from 1825. In 1830 he began working as an apprentice typesetter in Brooklyn. As an autodidact , he read the works of Homer , Dante and Shakespeare . After his two year apprenticeship, he moved to Manhattan , where he worked in various printing houses. In 1836 he returned to Long Island, became a teacher in East Norwich , with further positions until the winter of 1837/38 in West Hempstead , Babylon , Long Swamp and Smithtown . In his hometown of Huntington he published the Long Islander newspaper from 1839 . From 1840 to 1841 he worked again as a teacher and campaigned for votes for Martin Van Buren in the presidential election of 1840 . In 1841 he moved to New York City and worked there for various newspapers. In November 1842 he published Franklin Evans , a " teetotaler novel", and more than 15 other stories and sketches. In 1848 he moved to New Orleans with his brother Jeff to publish the Daily Crescent newspaper , but returned to Brooklyn in May. On the way back he saw the Mississippi River , the Great Lakes, and the Hudson River . After returning to Brooklyn in 1850, he began working as a real estate agent.

Leaves of Grass and Poets of the Civil War

In 1855 he financed the first edition of Leaves of Grass from his own resources , still without the later title, but with a photograph of Whitman on the title page. The second edition of the collection (1856) comprised 34 poems, including Crossing Brooklyn Ferry . This edition also did not sell enough, so Whitman tried again briefly as editor of a daily newspaper, the Brooklyn Times . The third edition of 1860 found a publisher in Boston, Thayer & Eldridge, but the outbreak of the Civil War ruined the publisher. The third edition already comprised 154 poems, including, for the first time, the Calamus poems, which deal with a homosexual love affair, and Starting from Paumanok .

From 1863 to 1873 Whitman lived in Washington, DC First he had looked after his brother, who was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg , and later he worked in various hospitals. He earned his living as a typist for the army paymaster. He reported from the hospitals in newspaper articles in the local press and in New York. His volume of poetry Drum Taps (drumbeats, 1865) made him known as the "poet of the civil war". Poems like beat! Beat! Drums! or Vigil strange I kept on the field one night reflect a realistic picture of the war in view of the defeat of the northern states in the First Battle of the Bull Run :

Beat! beat! drums! - blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley - stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid - mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child's voice be heard, nor the mothers entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums - so loud you bugles blow.

Hit! Beat the drums! Blast, horns, blast!
What negotiation and what complaint!
Do not heed fear, complaints and tears!
Not the request of the father for the son!
The child’s voice and the mother’s pleading drowned out!
Railway makes for the stretchers, the dead should pour for the hearse!
So rough your roar, terrible drums! Your horns, so hard your blowing!

That same year, Whitman was hired by the Home Office , but was later fired by Home Secretary James Harlan for "indecency in his poetry." He published other texts, such as the 1871 essay Democratic Vistas (Democratic outlook) .

Later years

After a stroke and collapse in Washington DC in 1873, Whitman was unable to work because he was temporarily paralyzed. From then on he lived in very modest circumstances. In 1882 his diaries were published. In addition, the publications Prose und Poetry and November-Zweig were published in 1888, and the ninth edition of Leaves of Grass with over 400 poems was published in 1892 . Walt Whitman died on March 26, 1892 at the age of 72 in Camden, New Jersey and was buried there in Harleigh Cemetery.


As soon as they were published, individual poems in Whitman's work caused offense as "immoral". The revealing poems of the Calamus group were interpreted and censored as depicting imaginary or real homosexual relationships or expressions of bisexuality . Whitman himself had expressed himself cautiously or negatively about his personal relationships or had not answered relevant questions. It also remains unknown whether he really was, as he claimed of himself, "the father of six children".

We two boys clinging together,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm'd and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, [...]

We two boys, grasping each other firmly, neither letting
the other,
through the streets up and down, northward, southward, always
enjoying strength, closing hands,
testing courage, bravely praising, grasping
fresh, rambling widely;
Without fear with sharp weapons
Against miserly and priests; Eat, drink, love, sleep,
and then pull yourself up again [...]

Whitman with Peter Doyle, around 1869

To this day, the discussion about Whitman's sexual orientation is controversial. Opinions range from being appropriated as “ our great gay poet ”, who censored his own work for fear of being outed , to describing Whitman as a womanizer because of the “phallic symbolism in his poetry”. The classification of historical personalities in modern concepts of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender , which were not even known during the life of the person, is scientifically controversial.


Emerson's letter to Whitman

As early as June 21, 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the first edition of Leaves of Grass as "the most extraordinary example of spirit and wisdom that America has ever produced." It was not until the late 1860s that its author became better known: in 1866, William Douglas O ' Connor in The Good Gray Poet Whitman ranks with the greatest writers in world literature and defended him against accusations of immorality. In 1867, Whitman's friend John Burroughs published his Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person .

“I think Walt Whitman is such a [genius] person. I think America is depicted in it; and that democracy, which right now is undergoing a test for better or for worse in a whirling vortex (the outcome of which no one can predict), is embodied in him and through him for the first time in poetry finds it magnificent and fully expressed. "

In 1868, William Michael Rossetti published the first “clean” version of the poems in Great Britain.

Whitman wrote his verses partly in the rhythm of the old biblical language conventions, partly in a blank verse like from the 17th century. William Somerset Maugham sees his particular merit in the fact that this poet did not see poetry as something romantically aloof, but instead placed it in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life.

"It's powerful democratic poetry, it's the authentic battle cry of a new nation and the solid foundation of national literature."

- W. Somerset Maugham, Books and You, 162


In the film The Club of Dead Poets , the teacher John Keating ( Robin Williams ) quotes lines of poetry from Whitman, for example the verse I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world (Song of myself, 52), and suggests that his students him with “ Captain, my captain! “Address.


Walt Whitman's first notebook
  • Blades of grass (original title Leaves of Grass ). First edition 1855
  • Manly Health and Training. 1858
    • The handsome man. The secret to a healthy body. Translated from the English by Hans Wolf, dtv Verlagsgesellschaft, Munich 2018
  • Children of Adam . 1860
  • Democratic views (AKA Democratic Vistas ). 1871
  • Memoranda. During the war . 1875/76
  • Drum taps . 1865
  • Specimen days and collect . 1882
  • Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An AutoBiography . Roman published anonymously in 1852; Assigned to Whitman in 2017 and rediscovered
    • Life and Adventures of Jack Engle . Novel. Translated from the English by Jürgen Brôcan , dtv Verlagsgesellschaft, Munich 2019

Posthumous edition

  • The complete poetry and prose . 1948

Translations into German

  • Poems of dreams and deeds . 1915
  • Chants and inscriptions . Kurt Wolff Verlag, Munich 1921
  • Singing by myself (from blades of grass ). Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 1946
  • Blades of grass . Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin 1957
  • Walt Whitman's work (selection). Dromer, Munich and Zurich 1960
  • Georg Goyert : blades of grass . Blanvalet Verlag, Berlin 1948
  • Erich Arendt and Helmut Heinrich: poetry and prose . Volk und Welt publishing house, Berlin 1966
  • Children of Adam from Leaves of Grass , transferred by Kai Grehn , illustrated by Paul Cava . edition GALERIE VEVAIS 2005.
  • Grass leaves , translated by Jürgen Brôcan . Hanser, Munich 2009




  • Hans-Joachim Lang : To understand the works (epilogue). In: Walt Whitman: Blades of Grass . Rowohlt, Reinbek 1968. pp. 275-285.
  • Kai Sina: "We are many". On the concept of poetic collective speech in Goethe , Emerson and Walt Whitman . In: Comparatio. Journal for Comparative Literature , Vol. 5 (2013), Issue 2, pp. 181–203, ISSN  1867-7762
  • Jim Garrison: Walt Whitman, John Dewey , and primordial artistic communication . In: Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society , Vol. 47 (2011), Issue 3, pp. 301-318, ISSN  1558-9587


  • Gay W. Allen: Walt Whitman . University Press, Detroit 1969 (EA 1958)
    • German: Walt Whitman in personal testimonies and image documents (Rowohlt's monographs; vol. 66). Rowohlt, Reinbek 1961.
  • Gay W. Allen (Ed.): Walt Whitman Abroad. Critical essays from Germany, France, Scandinavia, Russia, Italy Spain and Latin America, Israel, Japan, and India . Syracuse University Press, New York 1955.
  • John Burroughs : Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person . Haskell House Publ., New York 1971 (unchanged reprint of New York 1867 edition)
  • John Burroughs: Whitman. A study . Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Mass. 1896.
  • Henry Seidel Canby: Walt Whitman. An American; a study in biography . Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Mass. 1943.
    • German: Walt Whitman. An american . Blanvalet, Berlin 1949.
  • Walter Grünzweig : Constructing the German Walt Whitman . Univ. of Iowa Press, Iowa City 1994. ISBN 0-87745-482-5 .
  • Walter Grünzweig: Walt Whitman. The German-speaking reception as an intercultural phenomenon . Fink, Munich 1991, ISBN 3-7705-2664-3 .
  • FO Matthiessen : American Renaissance. Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman . Barnes & Noble, New York 2009, ISBN 978-1-4351-0850-9 (reprinted from New York 1941 edition).
    • German: American Renaissance. Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman . Metopen-Verlag, Wiesbaden 1948 (translated by Friedrich Thein).
  • Joseph Jay Rubin: The historic Whitman . Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park 1973, ISBN 0-271-01117-3 .
  • Michael Robertson: Worshiping Walt. The Whitman Disciples . Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, ISBN 978-0-691-14631-7 .

Web links

Commons : Walt Whitman  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Walt Whitman  - Sources and full texts
Wikisource: Walt Whitman  - Sources and full texts (English)

Individual evidence

  1. ^ David S. Reynolds: Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography . Vintage Books, New York 1995, ISBN 0-679-76709-6 , pp. 5 ( limited preview in Google Book search).
  2. ^ Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose . Vintage Books, New York 1982, ISBN 978-0-940450-02-8 , pp. 5-6 .
  3. ^ David S. Reynolds: Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography . Vintage Books, New York 1995, ISBN 0-679-76709-6 , pp. 19 .
  4. Justin Kaplan: Chronology . In: Walt Whitman. Poetry and Prose . Vintage Books, New York 1982, ISBN 978-0-940450-02-8 , pp. 420 .
  5. ^ Garrett Peck: Walt Whitman in Washington, DC: The Civil War and America's Great Poet . Arcadia Publishing, Mount Pleasant, SC 2015, ISBN 978-1-62619-973-6 .
  6. Walt Whitman: Beat! beat! drums! (Version 1891/92) . In: Poetry and Prose . Vintage Books, New York 1982, ISBN 978-0-940450-02-8 , pp. 420 .
  7. ^ Translation in the Gutenberg project , accessed June 6, 2019
  8. knerger.de: Walt Whitman's grave on Harleigh Cemetary
  9. ^ Jerome Loving: Whitman: The song of himself . University of California Press, Berkeley - Los Angeles - London 2000, ISBN 978-0-520-22687-6 , pp. 123 .
  10. ^ Walt Whitman: We two boys together clinging (Calamus, version 1891/92) . In: Poetry and Prose . Vintage Books, New York 1982, ISBN 978-0-940450-02-8 , pp. 282 .
  11. Walt Whitman: Blades of Grass . Leipzig 1904, p. 139–140 ( zeno.org [accessed June 7, 2019]).
  12. ^ A b John G. Champagne: Walt Whitman, our great gay poet? In: Journal of Homosexuality . tape 55 (4) , 2008, pp. 648-64 , doi : 10.1080 / 00918360802498617 .
  13. ^ David S. Reynolds: Walt Whitman . Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0-19-517009-2 .
  14. ^ William Douglas O'Connor: The Good Gray Poet . In: Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price (Eds.): The Walt Whitman Archive . 1866 ( whitmanarchive.org [accessed June 7, 2019]).
  15. ^ John Burroughs: Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person . 1867 ( whitmanarchive.org [accessed June 7, 2019]): “I consider Walt Whitman such an individual. I consider that America is illustrated in him; and that Democracy, as now launched forth upon its many-vortexed experiment for good or evil, (and the end whereof no eye can foresee,) is embodied, and for the first time in Poetry grandly sad fully uttered, in him. "
  16. ^ W. Somerset Maugham, Books and You, Zurich 2007, pp. 160f
  17. ^ Club of the Dead Poets: The barbaric YAWP (English) on YouTube
  18. Walt Whitman: Song of myself (52): The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me (version 1891/92) . In: Poetry and Prose . Vintage Books, New York 1982, ISBN 978-0-940450-02-8 , pp. 247 .
  19. Dead Poets Club: Captain, my Captain! (English) on YouTube
  20. Texas graduate student discovers a Walt Whitman novel lost for more than 150 years - The Washington Post. In: washingtonpost.com. Retrieved February 22, 2017 .
  21. Without ISBN. Lang was one of the most accomplished Americanists of the 1950s and 1960s; additional Timeline and more Lit. on WW that goes beyond Allen 1961. Another afterword, by Gustav Landauer , is found in the 1985 Diogenes edition of “Grashalme”. ISBN 3-257-21351-4 .
    First complete edition of the poems by Jürgen Brôcan, Hanser, Munich 2009 udT Grasblätter ISBN 978-3-446-23410-9