The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

I. Whitman

§ 10. New Friends

Meanwhile Whitman was widening the circle of his acquaintance. Emerson not only called on him frequently when in the city but sent Alcott, Moncure Conway, and Thoreau to do likewise. Lord Houghton also came, and Bryant crossed the river to share with him long walks into the country. These were the days of Whitman’s Bohemianism. A negligent, open-throated attire and great soft hat that one might associate with a carpenter or a sailor he insisted on wearing, Richter-like, wherever he went. In the earlier years of his journalism he had worn a high hat, cane, and boutonnière; now the dandy had given place to a man dressed in a habit more in keeping with his new rôle as the national bard of democracy en masse. The affectations in his dress were, however, of less importance than the inner character of the man. And that character was one of great human sympathy and magnetism, possessing a charm which those who felt it most were least able to explain. He spent, as from childhood he had done, much time among the people—boatmen, pilots, omnibus drivers, mechanics, fishermen—going anywhere to “feed his hunger for faces.” He visited prisons, attended the sick in hospitals, drove all one winter the stage of a disabled driver, and mingled as a meditative observer among the liberal-minded and light-hearted Bohemians at Pfaff’s restaurant. In 1860 he went to Boston and published, through Thayer and Eldridge, his third edition, full of the echoes of this life, in which he had not always been a mere observer. Until the war drove its publishers to the wall, the book had a fair sale. The poems of two new groups—Enfans d’Adam, celebrating the love, usually physiological, between the sexes, and Calamus, celebrating that “adhesiveness” or “manly attachment” which Whitman then considered the true cement of a democracy—have in the past provoked much severe criticism and indignant defence, and the former were the occasion, at various times, of a threatened official prosecution, of a temporary exclusion of the book from the mails, and of the author’s being dismissed from a government clerkship. Emerson had urged Whitman to be more tactful and worldly-wise, but the latter’s inner conviction that he was right and his stubborn determination to go ahead in the chosen course blinded him to the value of tact and condemned him to suffer from a reputation that he did not really deserve. Whatever may be the true interpretation of these poems, one finds it difficult to understand either the character or the writings of Whitman unless one’s eye is kept on the chronology of his publications, a feat which his method of grouping has rendered rather difficult; for he was a growth, as his poems were, in which a heroic and loving soul gradually freed itself from the passions of a very human and earthly body. His reaction from the asceticism of his adolescence was strong, tumultuous, almost tragic, but it was only a reaction; and when the war had passed over him with its purification and its pain, and when he had suffered severely in his personal affections, he sang more and more of the soul.