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vii introduction by Zachary Turpin walt whitman towers over poetry today, thanks to his masterwork, Leaves of Grass. Arguably no other American book has had a more profound influence on literature; with very few exceptions, every poet of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries owes something to Whitman, from Edgar Lee Masters to Anne Sexton, Hart Crane to Juan Felipe Herrera, Allen Ginsberg to Ai. As he would say, “I moisten the roots of all that has grown.” At times, the entirety of modern poetry has been variously credited to (or blamed on) Whitman, the sheer improbability of which has had poets shaking their heads for generations. “One Whitman is miracle enough,” gushed Randall Jarrell, “when he comes again it will be the end of the world.” Even naysayers like Ezra Pound had to admit that the poet “broke the new wood.” A workaday Brooklyn housebuilder-turned-bard, Whitman now rests in the American pantheon, a house he helped to build. His poetry permeates the American bookstore, the college curriculum, the culture itself, just viii as the name “Walt Whitman” permeates New England, plastered across high schools, bridges, avenues, tunnels, historic sites, walking tours, pubs, parks—indeed, a significant fraction of America bears his name, for as Pound said, “He is America.” But because the Good Gray Poet’s influence is so radical, it is easy to forget that he almost didn’t become a poet in the first place. At times, the young Whitman seems to have been unconvinced of his calling. At one point, he seriously considered becoming an orator, though he had no gift for it, and he knew it. At another, he enjoyed a decent living as woodworker, contractor, and job printer, even as Leaves of Grass gestated in his mind; he might have built houses indefinitely, had the market and his work ethic ever properly aligned. It was a good living. Yet his brother George later recalled of this time that Walt wanted more than a mere livelihood: “He never would make concessions for money—always was so. He always had his own way, or took it. There was a great boom in Brooklyn in the early fifties, and he had his chance then, but you know he made nothing of that chance. Some of us reckoned that he had by this neglect wasted his best opportunity, for no other equally good chance ever after appeared.” Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we may all thank our lucky stars that Whitman missed his “best opportunity” to be a housebuilder . At the time, though, it must have been a major blow to him.Whitman was short on cash and, undoubtedly, torn between the building he did by day and the writing he ix did by night. Would his little “leaves” ever amount to anything ? Would he? What was likeliest to keep him and his family going? (Like many contractors of his day, Whitman and his family lived in the houses they made; they rarely called anyplace home for more than a few months.) Later in his life, these years of self-uncertainty were largely and perhaps conveniently forgotten. As many Americans do in their thirties,Whitman agonized over his true calling. Because he had been in the newspaper business since the age of twelve, writing probably seemed the likeliest way to get steady work; by the early 1850s, he’d been employed by more than twenty newspapers, founding several himself. But while he loved the papers and thought of himself as a newspaperman, there is little indication that Whitman saw himself being a journalist forever. His editorial duties wore on him. “The stamp of the daily newspaper,” he wrote privately, was hardly worth a cent, something “to be dismissed as soon as the next day’s paper appears.” It evaporated, leaving nothing to the ages. Whitman had a mind to create something more lasting, something more original, but what? A poem? A play? An opera? It may surprise readers to know that as he began writing what would end up as Leaves of Grass, Whitman seems to have had little or no idea in what genre he was writing or much concept of what his jottings would become. Leaves of Grass was what America was—an impulse evolving into a shape, an experiment. In notebooks x crammed with snippets and false starts, he ponders what form might capture the surge within: “Novel?—Work of some sort[,] Play?—instead of sporadic characters— introduce them in large...


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