Way back in the “aughts,” around 2005, I knew that I would have a book coming out the following year. That book was Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories (Houghton, 2006). I also knew that I did not yet have a web site — and that I should have one.
So I hired Lisa Dwyer to build my web site. She and I met and I sketched out what I wanted and we discussed pages and subpages and sub-sub pages and what links I wanted, background colors, fonts, photographs, and a lot of other stuff. Lisa built the web site, and I chose the Authors Guild to host it. I learned how to add and delete and create new pages, sub pages and sub-sub pages. And to create links to hidden PDFs and other such things.
This website served me very well. Librarians, who hire me for presentations, told me how much they loved to use and navigate it and how much they relied on finding what they needed on it.
As time went on, I found that I needed to add many new sub pages to my site. In 2010 I self-published She’s on First. Between 2010 and 2018, I self-published eleven more books. For each of these I added a sub-page and several sub-sub pages. This was a lot of work — more work than I became willing to do, and in 2018, when Scrape, Rattle, and Roll was published, I never got around to adding it to my web site.
In June of 2019 I received an email from the Authors Guild stating that as of September 1, 2019, the Guild would host only sites built on SiteBuilder. I had two choices: (1) find another site, such as WordPress, to host my website; (2) toss out my old website and construct a new one using SiteBuilder, so that my site and email address would continue to be hosted by the Authors Guild.
I didn’t want to have Lisa go through the work of updating and migrating my website to a new server, particularly because I wasn’t enamored of any of the available servers that I had experience with. So, I decided to build my own website on SiteBuilder.
This new website would be much simpler. By choice. I felt I no longer needed all the information that was on my previous site. Instead, I felt I needed only four “pages” on my new site:
About the Author — information about me
Events — information on my public programs: topic, time, and place
Works — a list of my books
Contact — an email contact link
In late July I sat down to construct my website. To my surprise and pleasure, this went very quickly on SiteBuilder. Adding text was easy, adding photos was easy. Adding links was easy. Deciding on theme and layout was simple, and choosing fonts and colors was likewise simple.
In one day, I had constructed three of my four pages. On the second day, I created the fourth page and worked on refining all four pages. On the third day, I was ready to publish.
As web site experiences go, this one was extremely easy and pleasant.
Here’s the link to Barbara Gregorich’s new website.
Sometimes there’s a thread running through your life and it takes you decades to notice it. That’s the case with idioms and me. We’ve had a life-long relationship, but I came to notice this only a few years ago. Well, fifteen or so years ago, but that’s a short time compared to how long idioms have been part of my life.
I remember quite vividly the first time I encountered an idiom. I was maybe five years old, and my grandfather said to me, “There’s no sense in locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen.”
The five-year-old me did not understand what my grandfather was talking about. We had a barn, yes. A small one-stall barn. It housed a cow. Not a horse. Nevertheless, I ran down to the barn, turned the latch on the door, and peeked inside. The cow was still there. The non-existent horse . . . I had no idea. But I did make sure to latch the door as I left. Because, after all, the cow had not been stolen.
Children don’t understand figurative language until they’re six or seven or even eight years old. They take things literally. But because I did not understand what my grandfather meant, his words stuck with me, like some special talisman that I would be able to call on later.
By the time I was in high school, I had long known what idioms were. But that didn’t mean I understood idioms from another language. French, for example. It is with embarrassment and chagrin that I remember one of my assignments from French class. I had to translate a paragraph or two or three of a story, and that evening at home, I struggled mightily with the translation. In fact, I kept changing the English words so often that my eraser wore a hole through the paper.
What I was trying so hard to translate were the words il a jeté un coup d’oeil hors de la fenêtre. Which, to me, were saying: He threw his eye out the window.
How or why the “he” of the story did that, I had no idea. It seemed extremely painful. And, as my erasures testified to, unlikely. Nevertheless, I couldn’t come up with any better translation, so, the next morning, I turned in my assignment.
Only to have my French teacher tell me that il a jeté un coup d’oeil hors de la fenêtre. was an idiom, and that it’s correct meaning was: he glanced out the window.
This experience, coupled with my grandfather’s warning about barn doors, firmly pounded idioms into my brain. Still, I never thought idioms would be part of my future. Until I was just out of college and visiting friends whose four-year-old son, when he heard somebody say “I can’t do that, I’m all tied up,” responded in an instant: I don’t see any ropes.
That was when I knew I wanted to write about idioms, in some way, at some time.
That time came when I wrote Dirty Proof, my first mystery novel. My protagonist, Frank Dragovic, is a Croatian-American from Chicago’s South Side, and at appropriate moments he quotes Croatian idioms he learned from his parents and grandparents. My favorite of these is Laz ide na kratke noge, which translates to something like “A lie travels on short legs.” Which is another way of saying that truth will out.
Readers loved the idioms and wrote asking for more.
But before I gave them more Croatian idioms, I wrote two early readers so that children could enjoy learning about idioms. The first of these was Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, which contains not only the title idiom, but also two others: Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched, and You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
While I loved introducing children to these idioms (second graders and up “got” them), what really made me chuckle was when adults would come up to me at the autographing table, pick up a book, read the title story, smile, and say, “So that’s what that means!”
After the publication of the Waltur books and especially after the reactions from adults, I realized that grownups also want to know what idioms mean. And so I put together a presentation that I give at libraries and schools. It’s titled Keeping the Wolf from the Door: A Look at Wise Folk Sayings. I’ve been giving this talk for about ten years.
That, I thought, was the end of my relationship with idioms.
Except that it wasn’t, because in 2018 I published Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers, about the man who created Honolulu Police Detective Charlie Chan, way back in 1925, in The House Without a Key. This, I think, is ironic: another book related in some way to idioms. Nobody beats Charlie Chan at spouting adages/idioms.
Perhaps I should stop the idioms here, with Charlie Chan’s Poppa. Or perhaps I should make hay while the sun shines.
Dirty Proofis full of Croatian idioms, including the author’s favorite, Laz idi na kratke nogi.
Like the Cumberland Gap, Raton Pass played an important role in U.S. history: it allowed travel between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, which was part of Spanish territory in North America. Santa Fe was, in fact, the single most important town in the northern part of the Spanish empire. Because Spain feared that France, Great Britain, or the United States might try to take over the southwest territories, they forbid residents of Santa Fe to trade with these nations.
But in 1821 Mexicans fought the War of Independence, in which they demanded an end to Spanish rule, a redistribution of land, and racial equality. One of the first things the newly independent Mexico did was to open trade between Mexico and the United States.
Immediately the rush was on to reach Santa Fe. In 1821 William Becknell, a Missouri trader, took pack mules and horses loaded with $300 of goods into Santa Fe. He sold the horses, mules, and goods (cloth and tools) for $6,000.
The following year Becknell loaded three large wagons with $3,000 worth of goods. He knew it was impossible to get wagons over steep, narrow, and rocky Raton Pass, so he tried a southern route across the Cimarron Desert. Called Jornado del Muerta by Mexicans, the desert proved a disaster — in order to survive, Becknell and his men had to drink the blood of their mules and kill a buffalo and drink the water from its stomach. To continue the Journey of Death would invite further disaster and, quite possibly, death. The traders turned around and headed north into the mountains to Raton Pass — a much more difficult route, but at least one that had water.
Mountain Range: Raton Mountains, a spur of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Elevation: 7,834 feet
Location: On the border between Colorado and New Mexico. near the Carson National Forest.
In order to get their heavily-laden wagons over Raton, the traders unloaded the goods from each wagon, took each wagon apart, and carried the goods and wagon parts up Raton. Once they reached a wider trail, they reassembled and reloaded the wagons — and proceeded to the next narrowing of the trail, where they repeated the process. Though the trip was extremely difficult, they made a lot of money — $91,000 in sales.
Hundreds of other traders followed Becknell, hauling 6,000 pounds of goods per wagon, traveling the 800-mile Santa Fe trail in approximately 50 days. And they took these wagons over Raton Pass, where they struggled to average a half a mile a day.
The Santa Fe Trail, established by William Becknell, is commemorated by historic markers, including one at Raton Pass.
The Goodnight-Loving Trail, also commemorated by historic markers, allowed goods to move through Raton Pass from south to north — the opposite of Becknell’s direction. In this case, the goods actually moved themselves: they consisted of longhorn cattle.
When the Spanish friars who had set up missions throughout Texas and New Mexico abandoned these buildings, they left behind their cattle, which became wild. When Americans moved into Texas, more than 100,000 head of these long-horned animals roamed the range. Some Texans rounded them up and drove them north to Missouri and Kansas, selling them at high prices. Most of these cattle drivers took the Chisholm Trail north to Kansas. But after the Civil War, Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight headed west, not north.
In June of 1866 Goodnight and Loving set out with eighteen armed cowboys and 2,000 head of cattle. They drove the cattle west, straight across the dangerous Llano Estacado. Unlike William Becknell, Goodnight and Loving were able to cross the harsh land. However, they did lose 200 head of longhorns which, water-starved, stampeded when they smelled the Pecos River. The cattle rushed headlong over the bluffs, falling into the Pecos, where 200 of them drowned.
After regrouping, the cowboys and herd moved west, where Goodnight and Loving sold most of the longhorns to the Army at Fort Sumner, in New Mexico Territory. Goodnight went back to Texas with the profits, while Loving headed north to Raton Pass, driving the remaining 800 head of cattle. He sold them in Denver, then returned to Texas.
For opening up travel and transportation between east and west, north and south, Mexico and the U.S., Raton Pass is an important part of U.S. history.
Sometimes what is obvious to fans isn’t necessarily obvious to the writers. I speak of pigs.
Yes, pigs: one of the most populous large mammals in the world, with more than one billion of them rooting around at any given time.
I grew up with pigs. Sort of. My uncle owned a dairy farm on which he also raised pigs. Along with my cousins, I slopped the hogs each day, carrying heavy buckets of food scraps (Phew!) and dumping them over the rail and into the hog troughs. So, yes, I know about swine.
In fact, swine barged into my first early reader, Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories [Houghton, 2005]. Although that book contained three stories, each about an idiom (don’t buy a pig in a poke; don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched; you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink), readers both juvenile and adult never ooh-ed and ahh-ed about the chickens or the horse — it was the pig they went gaga over.
While the success of that book led me to write another, Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories [Houghton, 2006], it never led me down the path of writing about pigs. That is, I never said to myself: Gee, readers seem to love pigs, maybe I should create a pig character in something I write.
I wasn’t aware of the pig character. But the pig character, it seems, was aware of me.
Biding its time.
Which is why, as I was writing my second mystery novel, Sound Proof, a pig suddenly, unexpectedly, and definitely popped up behind my detective as he was studying an anomaly on the back porch of a farmhouse.
I did not consciously create this situation: the pig just popped up. The story is set on a farm, and the pig lives on the farm. His name is Richard. He roams around creating havoc here and there. Richard is a pet pig, belonging to the music festival organizer, Mary Ployd. In fact, Mary is secretly convinced that it will be Richard, not Frank Dragovic, who solves the mystery of who has been stealing guitars and dulcimers from the festival each year. Never mind that Frank’s also working on solving a murder — Mary is far more interested in the stolen instruments.
So Richard barged into my book and tried to steal the leading role (I prevented this). Writing all of this came natural to me, I guess, because pigs were part of my childhood.
What I didn’t expect, however, was the fact that almost everybody who read Sound Proof would say to me, “I loved the pig.”
Obviously, the 500-pound Richard made a huge impact on fans.
But this is just background to what I really discovered about mystery fans and pigs.
A couple of months ago I purchased a program called KDP Rocket, which allows me to come up with more relevant keywords and categories for the books I self-publish, thus presumably increasing my sales.
One of my original keywords for Sound Proof was simply “pigs,” because Richard plays a role in the novel. But with KDP Rocket, I could type in various phrases to see which garnered more reader hits. So there I sat at my keyboard trying various phrases.
And I thought, Why not try pigs in mystery. It seemed a bit far-fetched, I know. I mean, how many times would somebody search for such a phrase on Amazon?
Well, the very first thing I learned was that I have eighty-three competitors! Eighty-three! Eighty-three other people have somehow or other written about pigs in their mystery novels! Not just present-day mysteries, but mysteries set in the time of the Roman Empire. And these novels sell well.
Perhaps because of the pigs, perhaps for other reasons.
I also learned that people search for pigs in mystery maybe 100 times a month on Amazon
Totally convinced, I changed my pig keyword to pigs in mystery.
All I have to do now is rewrite my promotional material to feature the pig. Frank Dragovic isn’t going to like that. But hey, he’s still one up on Richard because he, Frank, solved the mystery.
I often hear people use the expression “royal blood,” as in “she has royal blood in her veins.” They say this in all seriousness — as if there is such a thing as royal blood, identifiable under the microscope. I’d like to think they use this expression unthinkingly, but I suspect otherwise.
Here’s a poem I wrote during an irate moment when I read in a serious book on genealogy that somebody had “royal blood.”
Royal blood my ass.
Myth — poison strewn about by the ruling class, like grain to chickens.
Though science yields no proof, brain-weakened peeps believe in blue blood, deemed superior to the red that flows without recompense to keep the blue enthroned.
Arise! Fly this coop of lies!
Royal blood? Show some common sense.
Crossing the Skyway is Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poems. Some day she will publish a second collection.
During Thomas Jefferson’s second term, Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, forbidding Americans to trade with Great Britain or its dominions such as Canada. This meant that citizens would have to buy products manufactured in the United States rather than less expensive ones made abroad.
The passage and enforcement of the Embargo Act caused economic hardship for many Vermonters, who had an established route of trade with Canada and had been trading with Montreal merchants for several generations. Herding their cattle northward, Vermonters traded them for silk, lace, and whiskey. Hauling home the trade goods, they then sold them throughout New England. Many Vermont traders were so infuriated by the Embargo Act that they refused to obey the law and thus became smugglers.
At first the smugglers used ships to sneak in Montreal goods: sailing a ship on Lake Champlain was much easier than carrying crates on horseback or foot through thick forests and over hard mountains. But the government appointed law officers, called revenue men, to capture and imprison the smugglers. In June of 1808 ten revenue officers under the command of Chief James Watson stopped the Black Snake, a boat carrying smuggled goods on Lake Champlain. The smugglers fired on the revenuers, who shot back. One officer was killed and Chief Watson was badly wounded. The other side fared worse: one smuggler was killed, two badly wounded, five captured — and the government confiscated the Black Snake. The prisoners were tried for murder and smuggling: one was executed and four went to prison for life. But Sandy McPherson, the captain of the Black Snake, eluded capture.
After capturing the Black Snake the government agents guarded Lake Champlain so well that smugglers dared not use their water route — they resorted to the slower, more difficult method of smuggling goods over land. In order to do that, they had to cross the Green Mountains at some point. The pass they chose was a high, dangerous one between Mount Mansfield and Sterling Peak. (Mount Mansfield is Vermont’s highest peak, standing at 4,383 feet.) In places the notch was so narrow that people and horses edged single file along a ridge with 1,000-foot drop-offs.
Not only were there drop-offs: there was snow. Because passes are lower than the surrounding mountains, they fill with snow. And fill. And fill. The normal snowfall in Smugglers Notch, for example, is 271” a winter — that’s almost 23’ of snow, as high as a two-story house. To be trapped in a mountain pass filled with snow and to be unable to walk across that snow would mean death. The smugglers were experienced winter travelers: they wore snowshoes.
If the smugglers thought that nobody would find them or the smuggled laces, silks, and whiskey that they hid in the notch’s many caves, they were wrong. Henry Matthews, recently graduated from the University of Vermont, joined the revenue service: after Chief Watson was wounded in the battle with the Black Snake, Matthews was put in charge of finding Sandy McPherson and his gang. Henry Matthews did not suspect how personal this assignment would become.
According to local history pamphlets and magazine articles, the following story is true. A young woman named Anna Barry lived in Burlington with her father and their large Newfoundland dog, Wolf. During the summer of 1808 Sandy McPherson asked Mr. Barry to help the smugglers by hiding their goods on his property. Anna’s father refused. McPherson vowed revenge. He waited until a day in August when Mr. Barry and Wolf were gone. Then he forced his way into the house and demanded that Anna tell him where her father kept his money. When she wouldn’t tell him, McPherson kidnapped Anna and left a ransom note asking $1,000 for her return. Anna Barry was Henry Matthews’ fiancé.
Northern Vermont was a land of rugged mountains and rushing rivers, with yowling catamounts prowling the thick forests. McPherson must have felt that nobody could find him and the cave in which he kept smuggled goods. That night he took Anna to the cave, a huge twenty-foot by thirty-foot room hidden from the outside by jutting rocks. Boxes of smuggled goods were piled high inside the cave, which was in Smugglers Notch. McPherson, Anna, and several other smugglers spent the night there.
According to legend, Mr. Barry returned home that evening with Henry Matthews. As soon as they saw what had happened, they found the kidnapper’s footprints and commanded Wolf: Find Anna. Putting his nose to the scent, Wolf followed the trail, leading Henry Matthews and Mr. Barry to the secret cave by morning. Matthews found a way through the rocks into the cave. He saw the boxes of smuggled goods; he felt the warm ashes of a recent fire. But he did not find Anna.
Mountain Range: Green Mountains Elevation: 2,162 feet Grade: 7-15% Location: Vermont, in the Mount Mansfield National Forest, in Smuggler’s Notch State Forest.
Early that same morning, Sandy McPherson had set off through the wilderness with Anna. For two full days they traveled through thick forest until they reached the house of Jake Glass and his wife Molly, both of whom were fellow smugglers. McPherson left, ordering Jake and Molly to keep Anna prisoner.
Barry and Matthews and Wolf continued the search, but eventually Wolf lost the trail. While Mr. Barry continued to search for his daughter, Matthews felt it was his duty to seize the smuggled goods. Taking several men with him, he returned to the cave, captured three smugglers without firing a shot, and confiscated the goods.
Anna did not wait for somebody to rescue her. She watched and waited. After Jake Glass went hunting one morning, Anna locked Molly Glass into a room, gathered food and a blanket, and escaped into the forest, heading in the direction she thought home. For two full days she walked and slept beside fallen logs until, finally, she met an Indian who led her to a white settler’s house. The settler took Anna back to Burlington, where she was reunited with her father, Henry Matthews, and Wolf.
Although every sign warned him to stop smuggling, McPherson thought he was smarter than the revenuers. In September he and six other smugglers returned from Montreal with seven horses loaded with goods. McPherson knew that his Smugglers Notch cave was no longer secret, but he must have thought he could spend one night there anyway.
Close on McPherson’s trail, Henry Matthews and his men surrounded the cave in the middle of the night. When they closed in on the smugglers at daybreak, the revenue men were driven back by gunfire and several were wounded. All morning, afternoon, and evening the gun battle continued. Matthews requested reinforcements from Burlington: he also requested a keg of gunpowder.
Still according to legend, during the middle of the second night Henry Matthews carried the powder keg close to the cave. Then he lit a long fuse and ran. The blast shook the earth, bringing down part of the mountain and killing the smugglers, who were buried with their goods beneath thousands of tons of rock.
Due to the presence and actions of the revenue men, smuggling along the Vermont-Canadian border stopped for nearly a century. In 1809 the unpopular Embargo Act was done away with. But the mountain pass has kept the name it received back then — Smugglers Notch. Escaping slaves used the notch to reach Canada and freedom. During the years of Prohibition, when alcohol was illegal in the United States, Canadian whiskey was smuggled south through the notch, which by that time had a road running through it.
Today Smuggs, as the locals call it, is a highly popular skiing area as well as an official state scenic drive.
I wrote the following piece for Redline: Contemporary Marxist Analysis, and it was published on their site May 1, 2019. I am reprinting the piece as it appeared, with standard English (i.e., not American) spelling.
This month marks the bicentennial of the birth of the great US poet Walt Whitman. The author of the essay below is a Chicago-based historian, novelist, essayist, poet and public speaker – and regular reader of Redline.
Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, on Long Island, New York, on May 31, 1819, in a two-storey house his father, a carpenter, built in 1816. The family roots on Long Island went back to the early 1600s, but there was a qualitative difference between Walter Whitman Senior and his son Walt on one side, and all previous generations of Whitmans on the other. Walter Whitman Sr was born in 1789, the first generation of a new nation. Walt was the second generation of Whitmans born in that new nation.
Beginnings of US literature In that new nation literary men and women were concerned that there was yet no national literature: nothing that reflected an American outlook as opposed to a European outlook. James Fenimore Cooper was one year away from publishing his first book and four years away from publishing The Pioneers, the first of five novels that came to be called The Leatherstocking novels, considered the very first examples of literature that was reflective of the American experience, not a European one.
Edgar Allan Poe was nearly a decade away from his first publication, and even further away from his works of literary criticism, his poetry, and his short stories. Ralph Waldo Emerson would not publish his seminal essays (which included “Self-Reliance” and “Nature”) until the early 1840s. Nathaniel Hawthorne would publish his stories of the legacies of Puritanism during the 1840s, The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and The House of the Seven Gables (depicting the weight of the past upon the present) in 1851. Henry David Thoreau would move to Walden Pond on July 4, 1845. And Herman Melville would publish Moby Dick in 1851.
In short, the new nation’s first ‘national’ literature reflecting American growth, character and conflict was written during the period that Whitman was growing up. The ferment of American literature in those years, the different directions it took and the different values and outlooks it reflected, was new and exciting. It helped shape people’s interpretations of their history, their worth, their failings and their possibilities. A different kind of fermentation was taking place with social structure as utopian socialist societies sprang up everywhere, starting in 1824 and continuing strongly through the 1850s. Among these were George Rapp’s Old Economy Village; Robert Owen’s New Harmony; Adin Ballou’s Hopedale Community; Amos Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands; the Fourier-influenced Clermont Phalanx and scores of others.
When Walt was four years old, the family moved to Brooklyn due to their worsening economic situation. The young boy grew up in poverty or near-poverty. At the age of eleven he was withdrawn from formal schooling and went to work to help support his family. He worked first as an office boy and then as a printer’s apprentice, learning how to typeset and how to run a printing press – skills that would later serve him well.
Opera and oratory In his teens Whitman learned even more about writing, printing and publishing, moving from one newspaper job to another as circumstances dictated. While living on his own in New York City he frequented the public library, joined a debating society, and published some sentimental, conventional poetry. Every chance he had, he went to the opera (using his journalist’s pass) and rode the ferry, both of which gave him great joy. The oratory skills he learned in the debating society would influence the lines of Leaves of Grass. He practised his debate topics while walking along the oceanside, and he practised lines of Shakespeare as well.
The American public was familiar with oratory, going often to hear public debates on political topics. Among the great debaters of the day was Daniel Webster, nicknamed The Great Orator. Whitman loved oratory, and its cadence and repetition would be heard in “Song of Myself,” just as in the next century it would be heard in the impassioned speeches of United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1836, at the age of seventeen Whitman returned to Long Island to live with his family, which had moved back earlier. There he worked as a teacher in 1837 and 1838, after which time he moved back to the teeming city of New York. All his life, Whitman felt at home both in the country and in the city, and he loved each, embracing the flora and fauna of rural areas as well as the back-to-back buildings, shops, and houses of the crowded city. Although he would later be influenced by Transcendentalism, he, unlike the Transcendentalists, did not see cities as unnatural. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he would write:
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses!
Journalist and editor In New York City Whitman continued to work in all aspects of the newspaper business, from owning his own newspaper to writing articles, to typesetting them to printing them to delivering them. As judged by Annette T. Rubinstein in American Literature: Root and Flower, the articles that Whitman wrote were undistinguished and undistinguishable from what others were writing. There was nothing distinct about them: nothing that indicated the torrent of words, emotions, lists, observations, and encouragements that would burst forth in 1855.
From 1846 to 1848 Whitman was editor of the newspaper The Brooklyn Eagle, founded in 1841. While reporting daily news, The Eagle was also a strong supporter of the Democratic Party which, during the 1840s, engineered compromises with slaveholders so that slavery could be expanded in part of the nation and the strength of the slaveholders in Congress not diminished. Whitman was fired from his job as editor of The Brooklyn Eagle because he supported the Free Soil Party and the owner did not. Whitman in fact became a delegate to the founding convention of the Free Soil Party in 1848. (the FSP was a short-lived party that existed to oppose the extension of slavery into new, western territories of the USA. It was led by a former US president, Martin Van Buren.)
The Free Soil Party ran candidates in the 1848 and 1852 elections, but then disintegrated as many of its members joined the Republican Party, founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery party. The great William Lloyd Garrison, who helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and was an active supporter of and participant in the women’s rights movement, scoffed at the Free Soil Party, calling it “white man-ism” to indicate that its proponents were concerned more with allowing white men to farm without the competition of slavery than they were with abolishing slavery or fighting for equality for African-Americans.
Carpenter After being fired from The Brooklyn Eagle Whitman worked as a carpenter from 1848-1854, building small houses that working people could afford, and doing various other kinds of carpentry. Around 1850 something made him decide to focus on poetry. He worked and worked on what he was trying to say and in 1855 he offered his poetry to the world in a small book (fewer than twenty poems) that could be carried in one’s pocket. This book had no title, but it did contain a now-iconic photo of Whitman wearing workman’s clothing, one hand in his pocket, one on his hip, looking out at the reader with confidence and perhaps with a challenge (see photo at top of article).
In all future editions, this book would bear the title Leaves of Grass, and its first poem was always “Song of Myself.” The book title was a double-entendre. Throughout the poems Whitman refers to grass and blades of grass. The latter represent individuals: each unique, but together with others creating a sward, a field. . . the surface of Earth. In the publishing world of the 1850s, what is today called “slush” (unwanted manuscripts that are usually poorly written) was then called “grass.” And “leaves” have always been pages. Whitman was no doubt aware that he was calling his book Pages of Poor Writing. He must have been laughing at the publishing world while doing so, because Whitman believed thoroughly and deeply, with every fibre of his being, that he was offering not dross, but gold.
Free verse The poems in Leaves of Grass are written in free verse, and although Whitman was not the first poet to write unrhymed, unmetered poetry, he is nevertheless credited as being the father of free verse because of his profound effect on poetry. Critics agree that Leaves of Grass was not just the first work of modern poetry, but also one of the best. While extolling the rural, the bucolic, the natural, and the self, it breaks with all previous poetry not only because the lines lack rhyme and metre, but also because the subject matter does not centre on (or even concern) a person of status, and because the language used is not stilted, “elevated” language (which makes some people detest poetry) as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to a Skylark”: Hail to thee, blithe Spirit / Bird thou never wert.
Whitman himself attributed the style of these poems to the opera, stating that he could not have written them had he not immersed himself in opera. Opera, he said, freed him from the “ballad style” of poetry because it freed him from reliance on rhyme and metre. He attributed the content of the poems to the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays he read in 1854. In that year Whitman was in Brooklyn, working as a carpenter. Each morning he set out for work the same way thousands of other workers did, carrying a tin pail with his meal in it. But along with his food, Whitman always took a book, and he spent his meal time both eating and reading.
Once he started to read Emerson in 1854, Whitman couldn’t stop. He read nothing but Emerson that year. In “Nature” Emerson explains the foundation of Transcendentalism: that the “divine” is not a deity, but rather the oneness of a person with his or her physical surroundings – the natural world. These essays galvanized Whitman and the poetry poured out of him. Taking a leaf out of Thoreau’s experience with self-reliance, Whitman, too, set out to be self-reliant. He set the type of Leaves of Grass himself and paid for the publication of all 750 copies of the first edition, which he introduced to the world on July 4, 1855. Later Whitman told novelist John Townsend Trowbridge that Emerson’s essays helped him “come to himself” and “find himself.” As Whitman summarized it: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, and Emerson brought me to a boil.”
Even though Whitman didn’t put his name on the cover of his book, he did name himself within the poems as “Walt Whitman” describing himself as “rough . . . disorderly . . . fleshy and sensual . . . no stander above men or women or apart from them.”
And he sent a copy of his book to Emerson.
Upon reading Leaves of Grass, Emerson praised it, writing to Whitman: “I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. . . . I give you joy of your free and brave thought. . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson encouraged others to read it. The book was admired by well-known figures such as Amos Bronson Alcott: educator, reformer, and father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. Horace Greeley, publisher and editor of the New-York Tribune admired Leaves of Grass, as did that most self-reliant of Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau.
But the book was judged obscene by many because of its focus on the body, sensual pleasures, and sex, and for its irreverence toward and disrespect of organized religion:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
Perhaps even worse for the self-appointed keepers of morality was the fact that Whitman did not merely celebrate himself and his own sensuality: he urged others to do the same. That invitation is extended in the first three lines of “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
For those who were not convinced of original sin or perhaps even of a mystical deity, Leaves of Grass must have come as a torrent of rushing, sparkling, life-giving water, telling readers that the body is not sinful, that sex is joyful, that love is to be celebrated in all its forms by both women and men.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Bold To write about these topics in this manner in 1855 was, to say the least, bold and defiant. Whitman’s epic of the vast sprawl that was the United States, with its different classes and colors and occupations, grabbed the imagination and heart of many. The first edition of Leaves of Grass sold out and Whitman printed another. In fact, he spent his entire life rewriting and revising the poems in Leaves of Grass, publishing new editions of his seminal work. What started out as a small book of fewer than twenty poems grew to a book of 200 poems and, at the end of Whitman’s life, to a book of almost 400 poems.
Conventional poetry of that time dealt with heroes elevated above the masses, but in Leaves of Grass it is the masses who are the heroes of Whitman’s vision of democracy. In “Song of Myself” he assumed a persona and spoke through it, for it, and with it. This was the persona of the people: common people, laborers and farmers. They, and not the “elevated” of money and social standing, were the center of his life and consciousness. His poems are, above all, about the oneness of human kind:
Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
With his persona Whitman used slang and common phrases, much as popular music such as rock and rap use the vernacular, so full of sparkle and life, rather than stylized language.
In 1868 Leaves of Grass was published in Britain thanks to the influence of writer and critic William Michael Rossetti. That edition (an expurgated one) helped Whitman gain popularity there.
The lines of Leaves of Grass, so radically new in 1855, continue to awe readers today. They have to them a majestic sweep – a headlong rush forward, full of observation and enthusiasm, as endless as the sea and as wide as the sky. These lines rolled across the consciousness of those who read them. It felt as if Whitman was so full of life and the love of life that he was barely able to say all that he wanted to say.
The long lines, with repetition and ellipses and almost euphoria, must have seemed, to some readers of the day, uncontrolled. Defiant. Confident. Certainly sensual and erotic. It’s no wonder that Whitman published the book himself, using the art and skills he had acquired through a lifetime of work. He must have known it would be an exercise in futility to get a traditional publisher of the day to accept his work.
Impact of Civil War As Whitman was writing and rewriting Leaves of Grass, the US was moving inexorably toward a civil war over the issue of slavery. England had outlawed slavery in 1833, France in 1848. But the slave system was so profitable to southern plantation owners, and the human laborers so expendable, and racism so deeply ingrained as a defense of slavery, that the slavery question could not be “settled.” The Southern aristocracy would not give it up, and Northern politicians overwhelmingly supported allowing slavery in half the nation. But the growing northern capitalist class became more and more opposed to slavery because they could not compete with it economically. Farmers and the working class also began to take stronger stands against slavery, which drove down wages and worsened working conditions for all. After Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. In 1861 South Carolina fired on the federal Fort Sumner, thus starting the Civil War.
Whitman fully supported the Union during the war. Although his family grew up with Quaker leanings (Whitman Sr was a Quaker who opposed organized religion), that did not stop his brother George from enlisting in the Union Army. In 1862 Whitman received news that George had been wounded. He walked from New York to Washington to find his brother. (All his life, Whitman was a great walker.) When Whitman found him, his brother’s minor wounds had healed and George went back to his unit.
Whitman, however, was horrified by and deeply empathetic to the suffering he saw in the military hospitals, where three out of every four operations was an amputation, where soldiers died of typhus and dysentery more than of battle wounds. Whitman immediately decided to stay in Washington and somehow or other help the suffering young men in military hospitals. A friend procured him a poorly-paid government job working in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. On his walks to and from work, early in the morning, on his lunch hour, and in the evenings, Whitman visited different tents of wounded soldiers. He treated each soldier as an individual, spending time reading to each, or writing a letter home for the soldier, or playing cards or even Twenty Questions. Each evening he would stuff his haversack full of small treats, spending his own pay and begging donations from others. Laden with biscuits, jam, writing paper, pens, stamps, and other items, Whitman would walk into a military hospital tent and speak to each soldier, presenting him with a gift. He kept lists of what each soldier had asked for or what he judged would help them, as in “Bed 71: an orange.”
These acts of love and kindness took a tremendous toll. The Whitman of 1865 was not the same robust, healthy man as the Whitman of 1861. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom he admired greatly, took a further toll on the poet. Out of his great sorrow came many poems, among them the poems collected in Drum-Taps and “O Captain, My Captain,” one of the few rhymed and metered poems Whitman ever wrote.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
This was the only one of Whitman’s poems published in anthologies during his lifetime, and it is still taught in US schools today.
‘Depravity’ of capitalist class The sprawling democracy that Whitman envisioned, the oneness of humankind – these did not emerge from the Civil War. Instead, what came forth was a horrific and rapacious growth of capitalism: large-scale agriculture that drove down prices and impoverished or destroyed small farmers; steel mills with no regard for worker safety or a living wage; child labor; the growth of the oil industry; the growth of the railroad barons at the price of small farmers; westward expansion and continued genocide against Native Americans. In 1871 Whitman published a book, Democratic Vistas, in which he wrote:
“The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration: and the judiciary is tainted. . . . In vain do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander’s, beyond the proudest sway of Rome.”
In 1873 Whitman suffered a stroke, and from then until his death his health declined. He moved to Camden, New Jersey, to live near his brother George’s family. Though bedridden for years, and in great pain much of his later years, Whitman continued to work on Leaves of Grass until, in 1891, he published the final version, claiming it had taken him 33 years to get it right. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and is buried in a granite mausoleum in Camden. He designed the crypt himself and visited it several times before his death.
During his lifetime Whitman faced fierce criticism of the sexual celebrations within Leaves of Grass. When the 1855 edition was published, poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his copy into the fire. The Saturday Review Press advised Whitman to commit suicide. The Criterion called him a filthy free lover and accused him of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians” (Whitman is considered to have been either gay or bisexual). None of this deterred Whitman from doing what he believed in, nor did it in any way diminish his pride in what he had written. Working one of his several low-paying government jobs in Washington, Whitman proudly placed a copy of the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass on the desk of his boss – and was promptly fired.
Whitman’s continuing impact After Whitman’s death, his poetry lived. Today he is known around the world, and Leaves of Grass is published in almost all countries. Whitman’s influence is pervasive and profound, and it’s difficult to believe that any modern free verse poet has not, in some way, been influenced by Walt Whitman. His influence extends beyond poetry. Bram Stoker said that Dracula was influenced by Whitman. Ray Bradbury titled an episode of The Twilight Zone after one of Whitman’s best-known poems, “I Sing the Body Electric.” And then Bradbury gave the same title to an entire collection of short stories. Various musicians have titled albums after the same poem.
Many of Whitman’s later poems, such as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” are praised as very complex pieces full of strophe and antistrophe, dense with symbolism.
For his embracing of life in all its complexity; for his embracing the lives of working people; for his dominant lines which he refused to curtail; for his helping to shape American literature – Walt Whitman is second to none, his poetry read and valued by each new generation.
Barbara’s books include Women at Play: the story of women in baseball; the novel She’s on First; the poetry collection Crossing the Skyway; the mystery novel Dirty Proof; plus Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel; children’s books; and, most recently, young adult fiction.