Has there ever been a poet so thoroughly American as Walt Whitman (1819- 1892)? His book of verse, Leaves Of Grass (1855), holds the essence of being an American. It also reflects on the ways in which our country’s ideals have been forsaken. Whitman’s personal life suffered much because of our American Puritan taboos against sex.
For too many people, and you know who I mean, Whitman is also the USA’s biggest embarrassment. He writes that for our democracy to be true, the American ideal of universal equality must embrace LGBTQ people.
Whitman is a subversive and radical poet. American school children for the past 60 years have been carefully protected from exposure to him. I did not read Whitman until I was finished with college, when my mother, of all people, gave me a volume of Leaves Of Grass as a gift. It was a handsome green leather bound edition with gorgeous color plates. I still own it.
Whitman was 36 years old when he self-published Leaves Of Grass, having opened up his soul for his daring labor of love. It was met with great hostility. The rejection was devastating for Whitman. But over the decades it became one of the most beloved books in the USA, a masterpiece that is still bold and fresh and replete with “incomparable things said incomparably”.
21 years after Whitman’s death, Everyman’s Library published the most beautiful edition of the Whitman classic. This is the one I received, a rare 1913 edition has 24 color plates by the English artist Margaret C. Cook.
From Cook’s illustrations you get Whitman’s insurgent insistence, as a queer man and a lover of all life, that romantic and erotic love transcends the tight parameters of the hetero-normative, and that the heart, too, contains multitudes.
A leaf for hand in hand;
You natural persons old and young!
You on the Mississippi and on all the branches and bayous of the Mississippi!
You friendly boatmen and mechanics! You roughs!
You twain! And all processions moving along the streets!
I wish to infuse myself among you till I see it common for you to walk hand in hand.