Poetry News

Tina Jordan Paper-Chases NYT's Bedside Vigil for Walt Whitman

By Harriet Staff

Did you know that the New York Times and, indeed, the nation were so enraptured by Walt Whitman that the newspaper reported about the status of his health from the moment he caught a chill to his death just a few months later? In her article, Tina Jordan writes, "Germany had Goethe. India had Tagore. For France, it was Victor Hugo. When nationalism swept the world in the 19th century, country after country, along with flag and anthem, demanded a guiding literary voice to stand as an avatar for the country as a whole — a national poet. In America, no one embodied this role like Walt Whitman." From there:

“I think Walt Whitman went to the help-wanted section and found a squib that said, ‘Wanted: National Poet’,” the novelist Allan Gurganus once said in a PBS interview. “And he was innocent enough to believe that if he could just write a poem that incorporated everything he felt and suspected and hoped for from America, that he would have the position. And you know, by God, he did it.”

Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” his landmark collection of verse, did the trick. First published in 1855 and revised extensively during his lifetime (The Times reviewed it in its second edition in 1856), it aspired to speak for the collective, for the nation as a whole.

By the 1890s, Whitman was so cherished a cultural figure that newspapers constantly reported on many aspects of his life: birthday parties, literary friendships, his health (one story from 1890 was headlined “Walt Whitman Has a Bad Cold”). In those days, of course, people — particularly elderly people — often died from minor illnesses, so such a story was not unusual.

Read on at the New York Times.


Originally Published: December 20th, 2018