Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Whitman, Walter, Sr. [1789-1855]
Author:
Rietz, John
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Appropriate to his politics, Walter Whitman, Sr., the poet's father, was born the day the Bastille was stormed, 14 July 1789, to Jesse W. and Hannah (Brush) Whitman. A free-thinking rationalist who rejected organized religion and regularly read left-leaning books and journals, he was proud to have known Thomas Paine personally, and he took his son Walt to hear Elias Hicks, the Quaker iconoclast, and Frances Wright, the feminist/socialist reformer, when they spoke in New York. All three became family heroes about whom the poet spoke admiringly all his life. But if Whitman readily embraced his father's radical politics, he was reluctant to recognize the more general influence of his father's troubled personality.

On 8 June 1816 Walter Whitman married Louisa Van Velsor, with whom he had nine children, the second being the poet, his namesake. The Whitmans had lived in Huntington and West Hills, Long Island, since their Puritan forebears settled there in the seventeenth century, but in 1823 Walter Whitman moved his family to Brooklyn, where they changed addresses frequently. He was a skilled, hardworking carpenter who, once in Brooklyn, tried to better the family's fortunes through real estate speculation: buying a lot, building on it, moving his family there for a few months, and then selling and moving again once he had built the next house. His business ventures failed perennially.

Even before his worldly failures made him bitter, however, Whitman's father was, by all accounts, moody, dour, and inflexible, and the one surviving photographic portrait seems to reflect such a temperament. In "There Was a Child Went Forth" (1855), the father is described as "strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger'd, unjust," a man associated with "[t]he blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure," a fair description of the poet's own father. That slight, indirect, and unflattering reference is typical of Whitman, who rarely spoke of his father—far less often, certainly, than he spoke of his mother, whose gentle, affectionate disposition he openly admired and emulated. Clearly, the poet wanted to see himself as being more like his mother and struggled against the latent tendency towards brooding rigidity he inherited from his father. That interior struggle was not only outwardly manifest in conflicts between the poet and his father in the 1840s but was also reflected in Whitman's fiction from that period; stories like "Bervance: or, Father and Son" (1841) and "Wild Frank's Return" (1841) express Whitman's sense of suffocation and resentment in melodrama: a protagonist son is rejected by a cruel father who is later filled with remorse when that rejection results in the son's utter destruction (e.g., insanity or hideous death).

Their antagonism (and Whitman's apparent desire for self-destructive revenge) seems to have eased when, in the late 1840s, Whitman began to take control of the family as his father's health failed. That reversal, made complete by his father's death on 11 July 1855, seems to have been liberating, perhaps even freeing him to launch his poetic career. When, in the opening lines of the Preface to Leaves of Grass (published just a week earlier), Whitman spoke of the son who calmly observes the father's corpse being borne from the house, essentially dismissing it as irrelevant, he was announcing the triumph of the sunny, healthy poetic persona over the brooding and unstable shadow he had repressed. Images of the father became as scarce in the subsequent poetry as they had been pervasive in the earlier fiction, and it was at this time, too, that he first cast off his father's name and signed his work "Walt" rather than "Walter." Only late in life could Whitman acknowledge, "As I get older, and latent traits come out, I see my father's [influence] also" (Daybooks 3:658).

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Molinoff, Katherine. Some Notes on Whitman's Family. Brooklyn: Comet, 1941.

Whitman, Walt. Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1978.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. Vol. 1. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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