People from Brooklyn #2

When Walt Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass on or around the fourth day of July in 1855, he believed he was embarking on a personal literary journey of national significance. Setting out to define the American experience, Whitman consciously hoped to answer Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1843 essay, "The Poet," which called for a truly original national poet, one who would sing of the new country in a new voice. The undertaking required unlimited optimism, especially considering the fact that Whitman had published only a small handful of poems prior to 1855; however, Whitman felt confident that the time was ripe and that the people would embrace him. This optimism and confidence resulted largely from his awareness of the tremendous changes in the American literary world that had taken place during his lifetime.

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day;
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme—myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme:
The similitudes of the past, and those of the future;
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away;
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them;
The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others.

Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
One advantage of living in Brooklyn was that Whitman saw many of the famous people of the day when they visited nearby New York City. Thus he saw President Andrew Jackson and Marquis de Lafayette. In what was one of Whitman's favorite childhood stories Marquis de Lafayette visited New York and, selecting the six-year-old Walt from the crowd, lifted him up and carried him. Whitman came to view this event as a kind of laying on of hands: the French hero of the American Revolution anointing the future poet of democracy in the energetic city of immigrants where the nation was being invented day by day.
[IMAGE: Steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison]



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