Not many people know that Walt Whitman—arguably the preeminent American poet of the nineteenth century—began his literary career as a novelist. Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times was his first and only novel. Published in 1842, during a period of widespread temperance activity, it became Whitman’s most popular work during his lifetime, selling some twenty thousand copies.
The novel tells the rags-to-riches story of Franklin Evans, an innocent young man from the Long Island countryside who seeks his fortune in New York City. Corrupted by music halls, theaters, and above all taverns, he gradually becomes a drunkard. Until the very end of the tale, Evans’s efforts to abstain fail, and each time he resumes drinking, another series of misadventures ensues. Along the way, Evans encounters a world of mores and conventions rapidly changing in response to the vicissitudes of slavery, investment capital, urban mass culture, and fervent reform. Although Evans finally signs a temperance pledge, his sobriety remains haunted by the often contradictory and unsettling changes in antebellum American culture.
In 1855, Walt Whitman published — at his own expense — the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a visionary volume of twelve poems. Showing the influence of a uniquely American form of mysticism known as Transcendentalism, which eschewed the general society and culture of the time, the writing is distinguished by an explosively innovative free verse style and previously unmentionable subject matter. Exalting nature, celebrating the human body, and praising the senses and sexual love, the monumental work was condemned as "immoral." Whitman continued evolving Leaves of Grass despite the controversy, growing his influential work decades after its first appearance by adding new poems with each new printing.
Walt Whitman worked as a nurse in an army hospital during the Civil War and published Drum-Taps, his war poems, as the war was coming to an end. Later, the book came out in an expanded form, including “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” Whitman's passionate elegy for Lincoln. The most moving and enduring poetry to emerge from America’s most tragic conflict, Drum-Taps also helped to create a new, modern poetry of war, a poetry not just of patriotic exhortation but of somber witness. Drum-Taps is thus a central work not only of the Civil War but of our war-torn times.
Compiled prose works including essays
These reflections by one of America's greatest poets on the nation's most momentous struggle began when Walt Whitman discovered his brother's name in a newspaper list of Union Army casualties. The poet hurried from his Brooklyn home to a Virginia battlefront, where he found his brother, wounded but recovering. Profoundly moved by his experiences in the army hospital, Whitman settled in Washington, D.C., for the rest of the war. There he served as a military hospital volunteer, offering medical and spiritual comfort to sick and dying soldiers. His journal entries express in simple, heartfelt terms his Civil War experiences.
First published in book form in 1875, Whitman's Memoranda recounts soldiers' anecdotes of recent battles and army life as well as their last words and final messages to faraway friends and family. Whitman recorded his impressions of Abraham Lincoln, whom he frequently encountered on the city streets, and his thoughts on the conflict's day-to-day and historical significance. His evocative, poetic reflections offer a unique portrait of Civil War life.
Compiled when the great poet was 70 years old, November Boughs offers verse and prose reminiscences of a singular American life. Walt Whitman's reflections begin with the essay "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," in which he discusses the genesis of his most famous and controversial book, Leaves of Grass. A selection of poetry titled "Sands at Seventy" is followed by a series of essays and recollections that include "Slang in America," "What Lurks Behind Shakespeare's Historical Plays," "The Old Bowery," and notes on the life of the Quaker abolitionist Elias Hicks, whose body — it was rumored — he and a youthful group of friends once attempted to exhume.