Biography of Walt Whitman, American Poet

Walt Whitman
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) is one of the most significant American writers of the 19th century, and many critics consider him the nation's greatest poet. His book "Leaves of Grass," which he edited and expanded over the course of his life, is a masterpiece of American literature. In addition to writing poetry, Whitman worked as a journalist and volunteered in military hospitals.

Fast Facts: Walt Whitman

  • Known For: Whitman is one of the most famous American poets of the 19th century.
  • Born: May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York
  • Died: March 26, 1892 in Camden, New Jersey
  • Published Works: "Leaves of Grass," "Drum-Taps," "Democratic Vistas"

Early Life

Photograph of Walt Whitman's birthplace.
Walt Whitman's birthplace on Long Island. Library of Congress

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in the village of West Hills, Long Island, New York, approximately 50 miles east of New York City. He was the second of eight children. Whitman’s father was of English descent, and his mother was Dutch. In later life, he would refer to his ancestors as having been early settlers of Long Island.

In 1822, when Walt was two years old, the Whitman family moved to Brooklyn, which was still a small town. Whitman would spend most of the next 40 years of his life in Brooklyn, which grew into a thriving city during that time.

After finishing public school in Brooklyn, Whitman began working at the age of 11. He was an office boy for a law office before becoming an apprentice printer at a newspaper. In his late teens, Whitman worked for several years as a schoolteacher in rural Long Island. In 1838, he founded a weekly newspaper on Long Island. He reported and wrote stories, printed the paper, and even delivered it on horseback. By the early 1840s, he had broken into professional journalism, writing articles for magazines and newspapers in New York.

Early Writings

Early writing efforts by Whitman were fairly conventional. He wrote about popular trends and contributed sketches about city life. In 1842 he wrote a temperance novel, "Franklin Evans," which depicted the horrors of alcoholism. In later life Whitman would denounce the novel as “rot,” but at the time it was a commercial success.

In the mid-1840s, Whitman became the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, but his political views, which were aligned with the upstart Free Soil Party, eventually got him fired. He then took a job working at a newspaper in New Orleans. While he seemed to enjoy the exotic nature of the city, he was apparently homesick for Brooklyn. The job only lasted a few months.

By the early 1850s, he was still writing for newspapers, but his focus had turned to poetry. He often jotted down notes for poems inspired by the busy city life around him.

'Leaves of Grass'

In 1855, Whitman published the first edition of "Leaves of Grass." The book was unusual, as the 12 poems it included were untitled, and they were set in type (partly by Whitman himself) that looked more like prose than poetry.

Whitman had written a lengthy and remarkable preface, essentially introducing himself as an "American bard." For the frontispiece, he selected an engraving of himself dressed as a common worker. The green covers of the book were embossed with the title “Leaves of Grass.” Curiously, the title page of the book, perhaps because of an oversight, did not contain the author's name.

The poems in the original edition were inspired by the things Whitman found fascinating: the crowds of New York, the modern inventions the public marveled over, and the raucous politics of the 1850s. While Whitman apparently hoped to become the poet of the common man, his book went largely unnoticed.

However, "Leaves of Grass" did attract one major fan. Whitman admired the writer and speaker Ralph Waldo Emerson and sent him a copy of his book. Emerson read it, was greatly impressed, and wrote a letter to Whitman: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career."

Whitman produced approximately 800 copies of the first edition of "Leaves of Grass," and the following year he published a second edition, which contained 20 additional poems.

Evolution of 'Leaves of Grass'

Whitman saw "Leaves of Grass" as his life’s work. Rather than publishing new books of poems, he began a practice of revising the poems in the book and adding new ones in successive editions.

The third edition of the book was issued by a Boston publishing house, Thayer and Eldridge. Whitman traveled to Boston to spend three months in 1860 preparing the book, which contained more than 400 pages of poetry. Some of the poems in the 1860 edition referred to homosexuality, and while the poems were not explicit, they were nonetheless controversial.

Civil War

Photograph of Walt Whitman in 1863
Walt Whitman in 1863. Getty Images

In 1861, during the beginning of the Civil War, Whitman’s brother George enlisted in a New York infantry regiment. In December 1862, Walt, believing his brother may have been wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, traveled to the front in Virginia.

The proximity to the war, to soldiers, and especially to the wounded had a profound effect on Whitman. He became deeply interested in helping the wounded and began volunteering in military hospitals in Washington. His visits with wounded soldiers would inspire a number of Civil War poems, which he would eventually collect in a book called "Drum-Taps."

As he traveled around Washington, Whitman would often see Abraham Lincoln passing by in his carriage. He had a deep respect for Lincoln and attended the president's second inauguration on March 4, 1865.

Whitman wrote an essay about the inauguration, which was published in the New York Times on Sunday, March 12, 1865. In his dispatch, Whitman noted, as others had, that the day had been stormy up until noon, when Lincoln was scheduled to take the oath of office for the second time. But Whitman added a poetic touch, noting that a peculiar cloud had appeared over Lincoln that day:

"As the President came out on the Capitol portico, a curious little white cloud, the only one in that part of the sky, appeared like a hovering bird, right over him."

Whitman saw significance in the odd weather and speculated that it was a profound omen of some sort. Within weeks, Lincoln would be dead, killed by an assassin (who also happened to be in the crowd at the second inauguration).

Fame

By the end of the Civil War, Whitman had found a comfortable job working as a clerk in a government office in Washington. That came to an end when the newly installed secretary of the interior, James Harlan, discovered that his office employed the author of "Leaves of Grass."

With the intercession of friends, Whitman got another federal job, this time serving as a clerk in the Department of Justice. He remained in government work until 1874, when ill health led him to resign.

Whitman’s problems with Harlan actually may have helped him in the long run, as some critics came to his defense. As later editions of "Leaves of Grass" appeared, Whitman became known as “America’s good gray poet.”

Death

Plagued by health problems, Whitman moved to Camden, New Jersey, in the mid-1870s. When he died, on March 26, 1892, the news of his death was widely reported. The San Francisco Call, in an obituary published on the front page of the March 27, 1892, paper, wrote:

“Early in life he decided that his mission should be to 'preach the gospel of democracy and of the natural man,' and he schooled himself for the work by passing all his available time among men and women and in the open air, absorbing into himself nature, character, art and indeed all that makes up the eternal universe.”

Whitman was interred in a tomb of his own design in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey.

Legacy

Whitman’s poetry was revolutionary, both in subject and style. Though considered eccentric and controversial, he eventually became known as “America’s good gray poet.” When he died in 1892 at the age of 72, his death was front-page news across America. Whitman is now celebrated as one of the country's greatest poets, and selections from "Leaves of Grass" are widely taught in schools and universities.

Sources

  • Kaplan, Justin. "Walt Whitman, a Life." Perennial Classics, 2003.
  • Whitman, Walt. "The Portable Walt Whitman." Edited by Michael Warner, Penguin, 2004.