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‘Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.’ Thus Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) introduces himself to us for the first time in his first self-published 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Not on the cover or on the title page, mind you, but deep within the body of the untitled poem later called Song of Myself. If this is a dialing-back attempt to inject a little respectable humility or yet another self-aggrandizing affectation on the part of this unapologetic egoist, it’s hard to say definitely, though I strongly suspect it’s the latter. It certainly is so-very-American.
Whitman was confident, earthy, crude, and vibrant, a self-styled natural man whose personas were nonetheless carefully crafted. He did his own thing and ‘lived the free life of a rover’ (an Eric Bogle phrase from his great anti-war ballad And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda), working odd jobs as a printer, journalist, teacher, and clerk, among other things. Moved by horror and compassion at the magnitude of death and suffering he observed, he worked some years as a nurse to the Civil War wounded, and spent much of his somewhat meager earnings on supplies for their comfort and care. He remained single but had many lovers, probably mostly homosexual, though he praises the physical beauty and power of women as lavishly in his poems as he does that of men. All the while, starting at just over age 30, Whitman began to write his highly idiosyncratic, free verse poetry celebrating the authentic and the crafted self, the human body, democracy, equality, work, nature, and companionship. He spent the rest of his somewhat long life revising and republishing several editions of Leaves of Grass, up to several months before his death at age 72 in 1892.
To read more work by, about, and inspired by the great Walt Whitman, here are some links and articles:
Leaves of Grass (1855) – by Walt Whitman, published in the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
Poems – by Walt Whitman at Poets.org
Walt Whitman – by Gay Wilson Allen Alexander Norman Jeffares for Encyclopædia Britannica
Walt Whitman, 1819–1892 – The Poetry Foundation
The Walt Whitman Archive – by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Ed., published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln
and just because I love it:
The Body Electric, song and music video by Hooray for the Riff Raff. The song title is inspired by one of Whitman’s most enduring and controversial poems and is a critique of the traditional murder ballad
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Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.
She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.
Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’
Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:
Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: Biography – Poetry Foundation
Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) – by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum
‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter – by Jill Lepore for The New York Times
Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 – by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915
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On this anniversary of her death on March 10, 1913, let us remember and salute Harriet Tubman, that brave, intrepid, and most ingenious of women.
Born on the eastern shore of Maryland as Araminta Ross around 1820, she was put to work very young, from field labor to housework to child tending. She suffered regular physical abuse all the while, including whippings and a cracked skull from a two-pound weight thrown her way as she refused to interfere with the escape of a fellow slave. The resulting injury caused her much pain and difficulty from the age of 12 until she received brain surgery in her late 70’s. She was both disabled and inspired by her injury: she suffered severe headaches and narcolepsy, but she also experienced visions which she believed were sent by God.
But her injury apparently little to dampen her energy or undermine her ingenuity. In 1849, Minty, as she was nicknamed, escaped to Philadelphia to avoid being sold further South where there was a good chance she’d suffer under an even harsher enslavement. Her first husband, John Tubman, a free man, refused to go with her. The next year, Harriet Tubman (she adopted her mother’s first name upon her marriage to Tubman) returned to Maryland to rescue her niece and her niece’s two children. That was the first of 19 rescue missions in which Tubman risked her own freedom by returning to Maryland rescue family, friends, and many other people, about 70 in all. She helped dozens more complete their journeys north to Canada through the Underground Railroad.
During the Civil War, Tubman would go on to free about ten times as many as she had from Maryland. From 1862-1865, she worked as a nurse, a scout, and a spy for the Union Army. One on occasion, she and Colonel James Montgomery led an expedition into South Carolina to destroy plantations and liberate their enslaved workforces, about 700 people in all.
For the rest of her life, Tubman worked hard to help her fellow black citizens recover and thrive after release from slavery. She worked and raised money to care for orphans and the aged, and she also became a women’s rights activist. Despite her war services and other services on behalf of Americans most in need of help, Tubman received only a fraction of the pension that male veterans received and she struggled with financial hardship for the rest of her life, in no small part because she donated so many of the funds she raised to various causes. She died in 1911 in the Home for the Aged that she established next to her own home in Auburn, New York.
Be further inspired by the great Harriet Tubman through these works of journalism, scholarship, art, and comedy:
Harriet Ross Tubman (c. 1821-1913) ~ by Shirley Yee for BlackPast.org
Harriet Tubman ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum
Harriet Tubman ~ by Eloise Greenfield, performed by Thelma R. Thomas
Harriet Tubman ~ for the National Park Service website
Harriet Tubman ~ Neal Conan interviews Katherine Clinton for NPR’s Talk of the Nation
Harriet Tubman: American Abolitionist ~ by the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Harriet Tubman Leads an Army of Bad Bitches ~ starring Crissle West and Octavia Spencer for Drunk History
Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th Century~ by Kristen T. Oertel
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Part I and Part II ~ with hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey for Stuff You Missed in History Class
Harriet Tubman: Underground Railroad “Conductor”, Nurse, Spy ~ at Civil War Trust website
Iconic Americans: Meet Harriet (Minty) Tubman ~ by J.C. Shively for I Love American History blog
New Book Documents Courage of Harriet Tubman and Underground Railroad (excerpt) ~ by Eric Foner at The Root
Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman ~ by Sarah H. Bradford, 1869
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Let’s remember and salute the great Abraham Lincoln, father of our nation painfully reborn through the Civil War, on his birthday.
Born on February 12th, 1809, this child of a poor Kentucky farm family was largely self-educated yet rose to become our most revered President since George Washington. He was a hard-working man, from farm laborer and rail splitter to flatboat operator on the Mississippi River, then shop owner, militia captain, postmaster, lawyer, politician, then President of the United States. A popular man revered for his storytelling, conversation, intelligence, and general reputation for high integrity, Lincoln won his second campaign for political office and entered the House of Representatives in 1834. He was a successful and innovative lawyer and revered for his speechmaking. His series of debates with Democratic senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 thrust him into the national spotlight, and while he lost the race to replace Douglas in the Congress that year, his reputation continued to grow, and he defeated Douglas in the presidential race two years later. He won the Presidency as head of the newly formed anti-slavery Republican party.
Lincoln’s antipathy to slavery was heightened by a memory from his flatboat trip to New Orleans, where he witnessed its horrors first hand. Over the years, his political antislavery position fluctuated although the institution of slavery disgusted him personally. For most of his political career, he advocated the moderate policy of stopping slavery’s spread to the new territories, leaving it in place where it already existed in the expectation that economic and cultural changes would naturally lead to its demise. But the intransigence of the slave states and the contingencies of the Civil War, combined with his own moral hatred of slavery, caused him to change his mind. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 freed all slaves in those states in rebellion, and nearly 200,000 freed black men fought for the Union Army, helping to ensure its eventual success.
Even given his childhood poverty and lack of education, I find Lincoln’s success even more remarkable in light of the recurrent and severe depression he suffered throughout his life. While it can be crippling, it can also make sufferers that much more attuned to the suffering of fellow human beings, deepening the understanding of human nature and increasing the capacity for sympathy. Lincoln was one of these, and his suffering refined his sensitivities and strengthened him, helping to make him the great man he became.
Having led the nation through the trauma and horror of the Civil War, Lincoln was assassinated only a month after his re-inauguration to the Presidency in 1964, shot in the head on April 14th by pro-slavery actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford’s Theater.
Here some writings and works of art by, about, featuring, and inspired by Abraham Lincoln, including some of my own work.
Abraham Lincoln: President of the United States ~ by Richard N. Current for Encyclopædia Britannica
April the 14th, Part I ~ song by Gillian Welch
Lincoln’s Great Depression ~ by Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic: Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a “character issue”—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation
To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories ~ by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy
Abraham Lincoln also features prominently in my traveling history of ideas series about the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. Here are the pieces in that series which feature Lincoln:
Frederick Douglass Lynn Sites, Part 2: Historical Society & Hutchinson Scrapbook
Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY Sites Day 2
Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites
Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day
Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!
Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017, continued
After my visit to the Old State House, I notice one of those Looking for Lincoln historical placards on a building to my left as I walk towards my next destination. It’s an attractive three-story red and yellow brick Italianate building from the later 1800’s, too late to be from Lincoln’s time. I draw near and read the placard and the small house-shaped bronze plaque near it.
This building stands at the southeast corner of 6th and Adams, on the former site of the American House Hotel. It was the largest hotel in Illinois, admired for its huge size and praised for its lavish, exotic, ‘Turkish’ interior design. Despite its reputation and the fact that it was the hotel of choice for dignitaries and the better-off, there doesn’t seem to be any easy-to-find photos of it. There’s one on the placard of the Old State House with the plain white walls of the three-story, rather plain Hotel in the distance, but that’s about it. I can find no photos of its splendiferous interior either. It stood here from 1838-1870, a little too long ago for me to find a postcard image of it, my tried and true source type for images of historic buildings… Read the written version here
Peoria, Illinois, July 28th, 2017, continued
From the 200 block of N Jefferson Ave between Hamilton Blvd and Fayette St, I zigzag my way south past Courtyard Square. According to Lewis Lehrman’s Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point, ‘Douglas and Lincoln probably stayed at Peoria House… at the corner of Adams and Hamilton Streets.’ Peoria House was a popular place for visitors to stay until it was destroyed by fire in 1896. According to Peoria Historical Society, it was replaced in 1908 by the grand Hotel Mayer, which, in turn, would burn down in 1963, when a drunken guest’s bedding caught fire and spread. The site is now occupied by a large Caterpillar office building.
Ernest East, however, writes in his Abraham Lincoln Sees Peoria that Lincoln definitely was a regular guest here. A contemporary newspaper report about one of these occasions, on March 27th, 1857, said ‘Hon. Abraham Lincoln is in our city and stopped at Peoria House… Read the written version here