Sue Young Histories

Walt Whitman 1819 - 1892

March 17, 2008

Walt Whitman 1819 -1892Walt Whitman 1819 -1892 was a controversial American poet who was in the centre of the New York radical intelligentsia movement in the 1850s. Whitman wrote that ”New York is the most radical city in America.” (Walt Whitman, Edwin Haviland Miller (Ed.), The Correspondence: Volume I: 1842-1867, (NYU Press, 2007). Page 40).

Whitman circulated amongst some of the most radical people of his age. Homeopath and spiritualist James Martin Peebles became his friend and advocate, as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he knew Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and homeopath John Franklin Gray. His close friend and lifelong correspondent John Burroughs was the companion of homeopath Clara Barros.

Whitman received praise and support from the Transcendentalism movement and from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, though his overt sexual themes in his book of poems Leaves of Grass outraged others.

Ralph Waldo Emerson tried to help the almost destitute Whitman to get a job to no avail, however his friend William Douglas O’Connor eventually managed to get him employment:

O’Connor, though, was still upset and vindicated Whitman by publishing a biased and exaggerated biographical study, The Good Gray Poet, in January 1866. The fifty-cent pamphlet defended Whitman as a wholesome patriot, established the poet’s nickname and increased his popularity.

Also aiding in his popularity was the publication of ”O Captain! My Captain!”, a relatively conventional poem to Abraham Lincoln, the only poem to be anthologized during Whitman’s lifetime.

Whitman was an advocate of temperance and a member of the Washingtonian movement and though Whitman was deeply influenced by deism, he was a religious skeptic. Controversial to the end, Whitman opposed the extension of slavery in the United States and supported the Wilmot Proviso but he also criticized the abolitionist movement and the suffrage movement.

In 1852, Whitman wrote, “At this moment, New York is the most radical city in America.

Brooklyn was at various times home to Fourierist reformers such as Ellery Channing, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Isaac Hopper’s dear friend Lydia Maria Child, and the Quaker philanthropist Marcus Spring.

It was also a hotbed for mystical movements such as phrenology, mesmerism, homeopathy, free love, and spiritualism…

As a young man, Whitman became for a short while a prominent voice in Democratic and Free Soil politics. During the 1850s, he was deeply involved in spiritualism, a mystical movement that, along with female suffrage, was mercilessly ridiculed for its appeal to cross-dressers and sodomites—at least in the encoded burlesque of a satire such as Lucy Boston.

Whitman challenged the common belief that only sissies made good mediums for contacting the spirits of the dead, but he never succeed as a spiritualist medium.

However, he added the heady ingredients of Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritualist, and Fourierist imagery to the religious bouillabaisse of his poems, producing a breathtaking narrative that spans the “midnight orgies of young men” and the “journeywork of the stars.”…

Within a few months after the publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s staunch ally, Henry Clapp, was exposed in a scandalous expose of New York’s Free Love League.

Henry Clapp, like the lesbian minister Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, was a member of the Nantucket Quaker Coffin family, which included suffragist Lucretia Mott.

By the time _Leaves of Grass_ was published, either Henry Clapp or a former Quakeress named Mary Gove Nichols had engineered the Quaker doctrine of “God within” or “the inner light” into a defense of individual conscience in the conduct of sexual relationships.

Henry Clapp served as right-hand man to the architect of American Fourierism, Albert Brisbane. Both Fourier socialism and the spiritualist movement had great appeal to radical Quakers, and both were scandalously linked in the public eye with the licentiousness of Free Love…

At the weekly meeting of New York Conference on July 21, 1857, homeopathic physician and spiritualist, Dr. John Franklin Gray, set the question for discussion.

As reported in the minutes, it was “What is the difference between bing a medium, so-called, and those who are not mediums? What is Mediumship, or wherein do Mediums differ from the rest of us?”

One of these to discuss this was Walt Whitman, who spoke at this session as well as the session of August 4…


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