Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

Drum-Taps

Whitman worked out lists of expressions for grief, suffering, and compassion to help formulate his poems of the Civil War. His Drum-Taps, the most important book of poetry to emerge from the war period, included accounts of calls to arms and of the personal heroism and comradeship of battlefields and encampments. At the book's core was “The Wound-Dresser,” Whitman's somber testament to the terrible afflictions of men in army hospitals and the quiet courage of those who daily cared for them. In his elegiac “Ashes of Soldiers,” shown in Whitman's hand, the poet mourned the dead from all regions of the country and captured the high cost in sorrow paid to preserve unity.

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Two Laments

By the time Whitman's Drum-Taps was published in May 1865, the Civil War had ended, and President Lincoln was dead. Whitman quickly prepared a Sequel booklet of eighteen poems, including his two famous Lincoln laments, which was never issued as a separate volume. Instead, he bound it in with this second issue of Drum-Taps. The second edition includes “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom'd,” Whitman's great elegy on universal death and national healing, using the eternal images of lilac, star and thrush. However, it was the more traditional, rhymed dirge, “O Captain, My Captain,” that the public loved. It is shown in a proof sheet for a reprint, with Whitman's corrections.

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Discover!

“I see the President almost every day”

Walt Whitman first saw Abraham Lincoln in person in New York in 1861, as the newly elected President passed through on his way to Washington. The poet often witnessed the leader of the country as the two moved about the nation's capital, and he confessed to an intense personal admiration for the man. Whitman attached a note to this engraving of Lincoln observing that it was “one of the latest taken before he was shot [&] the most satisfactory picture of A. L. I have ever seen . . . looks just like I saw him last on the balcony of the National Hotel.”

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Death of Lincoln

Whitman wrote a series of newspaper pieces on the war. These he reworked with his notes into Memoranda During the War (1875-1876). In 1879 he gave his first oration entitled “Death of Lincoln,” on Lincoln's meaning to the nation. It included a dramatic account of the assassination at Ford's Theatre. As a young man Whitman aspired to be an orator, and the Lincoln lecture helped fulfill this ambition. He gave the reading several times between 1879 and 1890, in Boston, Philadelphia, Camden, and New York—most memorably at Madison Square Theater in April 1887.

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Prophet for the Nation

In 1871 Whitman published two pamphlets dealing with questions of national character and the soul. The visionary title poem of Passage to India began with New World exploration and development, then moved on to mystical and universal meanings. Democratic Vistas was a harsh critique of American corruption and materialism. In it Whitman voiced hope of redemption through renewed commitment to spirituality and egalitarian ideals. He later incorporated revised versions of both these works into other publications.

Walt Whitman. Democratic Vistas. Washington, D.C.: J.S. Redfield, 1871. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (36)

Travel Lines

Whitman was optimistic about the democratic promise of the American West. His first tour of the country outside the East was in 1848, when he and his brother Jeff went to New Orleans, where Whitman worked briefly on the local Crescent newspaper. The two returned via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and the Great Lakes and saw Niagara Falls. In 1879 Whitman traveled to the Great Plains and the Rockies. He exulted in the panoramic and sublime landscapes and wrote about the experience from St. Louis in this letter to friend Peter Doyle. In 1880 he toured Canada with his close confidante Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke. On the map above is a catalogue of Whitman's travels in North America.

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