The poet the world has come to know as the American bard was born Walter Whitman in West Hills, Long Island in New York on May 31, 1819. His mother, Louisa, immigrated from Holland and his father, Walter, from England. Whitman’s father worked mostly with his hands as a carpenter and a housebuilder, trades Whitman himself would pursue early on in his life.
Shortly after Whitman was born, his family moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman would receive his schooling. As a young man, he held various jobs: he set type in a printing office, and he worked as a schoolteacher.
By 1841, Whitman was beginning to focus his career on writing—first in the form of journalism. He became something of an accomplished journalist in his own right, reporting for and editing several newspapers and periodicals. Bettina Knapp notes that Whitman completed a “temperance novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate, in 1842 to secure funds for Leaves of Grass. He later disavowed this novel due to its poor quality.” It was then, after a brief occupation as a carpenter, that Whitman finally determined to dedicate his time to writing poetry, though he had begun to formulate ideas about what a new American literature would look like much earlier. His vision stems, in part, from his experiences during a trip across America that he undertook in 1848. As he traveled from New York to Louisiana, Whitman was deeply affected by the people and places he saw. These images became a collage of America and a source for his writing.
Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had a lifespan of several editions and 37 years, for Whitman was constantly in the act of revising and augmenting his collection of poems, finally conceiving of it as a “single poem.” Leaves of Grass first appeared in 1855, a thin volume of a dozen poems. By the final impression in 1891–1892 (sanctioned the “deathbed” edition), the volume had expanded into the text we study today.
The earlier editions (1855, 1856, and 1860) announce the arrival of a brand new voice in American literature and represent Whitman’s experimentation with form and subject matter in poetry. In his work, Whitman ignores many poetic conventions in order to achieve his purpose of creating something new in American letters. For example, Whitman rarely follows a patterned rhyme scheme, and he is not concerned with any regularity of meter; indeed, his poetry is written in free verse, a style of writing that is appropriate to Whitman’s subject matter.
The later editions (1867, 1871, and 1881) are characterized by Whitman’s experiences while caring for the wounded during the Civil War and his response to the assassination of President Lincoln. As Whitman kept crafting the editions of his masterpiece, he made extensive revisions, including: adding new poems, retitling poems, reshuffling the order in which the poems appear, deleting or reworking lines in various poems, dropping several poems, and refashioning punctuation.
In an essay written late in his life, entitled “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” Whitman seems surprised by what he has accomplished:
My Book and I—what a period we have presumed to span! those thirty years from 1850 to ’80—and America in them! Proud, proud indeed may we be, if we have cull’d enough of that period in its own spirit to worthily waft a few live breaths of it to the future!
Indeed, Leaves of Grass grows as America changes, ever evolving with the landscape, politics, and vibrant life in America, which proved to be an endless source of material for the poet who was gifted with an unusual sensitivity to his surroundings.
Whitman was committed to the role he envisioned for himself among Americans. He was a poet, a seer, a spiritualist, and a lover—above all, straightforward and full of life. Though he is often perceived to be too much of an egoist, Whitman means for his bold declarations of self love to be reflective of a credo for all Americans. Writing about himself in the third person, Whitman explains his goal:
His whole work, his life, manners, friendships, writings, all have among their leading purposes an evident purpose to stamp a new type of character, namely his own, and indelibly fix it and publish it, not for a model but an illustration, for the present and future of American letters and American young men.
He serves as an “illustration” of what an American was then and what an American could be; his poetry forms a blueprint for the potential successes and failures of Americans in the future.
Though in “No Labor Saving Machine,” Whitman writes as if he feels obliged to concede that all he contributes to America are a few simple poems, most scholars and readers argue that he was more of an inventor than he presumed to be. Van Wyck Brooks, for example, explains how Whitman “precipitated the American character”:
All those things that had been separate, self-sufficient, incoordinate—action, theory, idealism, business—he cast into a crucible; and they emerged, harmonious and molten, in a fresh democratic ideal, based upon the whole personality.
Whitman was just as much of an innovator through his poetry as any of the inventors of the time. His work was not only his poetry in Leaves of Grass, but also includes, more importantly, his shaping of the national character. Many consider his accomplishment to be the invention of a new kind of person: free, strong, vocal, at ease with himself, learned yet unbiased against the illiterate, proud, friendly, and honest—in short, American. In creating his book of poetry, Whitman also created himself for the American people.
Walt Whitman died in his home in Camden, New Jersey, on March 26, 1892. He is noted for his daring experimentation and his steadfast belief in democratic principles.