Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: The first real poet of American English, Whitman created a language to express the spirit of American democracy and used that language to shape a vision of a new continent that still fires the American imagination.
Walt Whitman was born in a two-story, cedar-shingled house that his father had built about thirty miles east of New York City on Long Island. He was born in the same year as his fellow writers Herman Melville and James Russell Lowell and was also the exact contemporary of Queen Victoria of England. His father’s family, as Whitman recalled them, “appear to have been always of democratic and heretical tendencies.” Walter Whitman, Sr., had been born on the day of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and trained his sons as radical democrats, identifying with independent farmers and laborers and regarding financiers and power brokers as “the enemy.” His mother’s family were of Dutch ancestry, inclined to the freethinking tradition of the Quakers, and Whitman ascribed his creative impulses to her non-bookish sense of practical learning. He felt that her combination of the “practical and the materialistic” with the “transcendental and cloudy” might be the source of his own contradictory instincts.
The family moved from the rural regions of Long Island to Brooklyn in 1823. Already a bustling market town, Brooklyn was the third largest city in the United...
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Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s controversial book of poetry, grew over nine successive editions from a ninety-page folio in 1855 to a book of nearly 440 pages in 1892. Its celebration of the human body and sexuality in frank and explicit language, particularly in the original long poem “Song of Myself,” and in two collections of poems added in 1860—“Children of Adam,” which treats heterosexual love, and “Calamus,” a work of a homoerotic nature—drew fire for the poems’ “indecency.” Ralph Waldo Emerson failed to convince Whitman that inclusion of “Children” would be fatal to his career, and Whitman—as he did throughout his life—remained true to his vision.
On June 30, 1865, Secretary of the Interior James Harlan fired Whitman from his post in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After reading a copy of Leaves of Grass that he found at Whitman’s work site, Harlan decided its author was immoral and must be dismissed at once. In response to this treatment of a poet whom he considered a national icon, the polemicist William Douglas O’Connor wrote The Good Gray Poet, a pamphlet denouncing Harlan’s action and defending Whitman’s character. The publication did much to defuse accusations of indecency and to implant a benign image of the poet in the American mind....
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Walter Whitman, Jr., was born in West Hills, Long Island on May 31, 1819. His mother, Louisa Van Velsor, was descended from a long line of New York Dutch farmers, and his father, Walter Whitman, was a Long Island farmer and carpenter. In 1823, the father moved his family to Brooklyn in search of work. One of nine children in an undistinguished family, Whitman received only a meager formal education between 1825 and 1830, when he turned to the printing trade for the next five years. At the age of seventeen, he began teaching at various Long Island schools and continued to teach until he went to New York City to be a printer for the New World and a reporter for the Democratic Review in 1841. From then on, Whitman generally made a living at journalism. Besides reporting and freelance writing, he edited several Brooklyn newspapers, including the Daily Eagle (1846-1848), the Freeman (1848-1849), and the Times (1857-1859). Some of Whitman’s experiences during this period influenced the poetry that seemed to burst into print in 1855. While in New York, Whitman frequented the opera and the public library, both of which furnished him with a sense of heritage and of connection with the bards and singers of the past. In 1848, Whitman met and was hired by a representative of the New Orleans Crescent. Although the job lasted only a few months, the journey by train, stagecoach, and steamboat through what Whitman always...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, near Huntington, Long Island, New York, the second child of Louisa and Walter Whitman. His father was a carpenter who later speculated unsuccessfully in real estate. The family moved to Brooklyn in 1823, and Whitman attended school until the age of eleven, after which he worked as an office boy in a law firm. The owner of the firm enrolled him in a library, and Whitman was soon engrossed in reading, particularly the novels of Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott. The following year, he worked in the printing office of a newspaper, and by 1835 he had found work as a typesetter in New York. He was also contributing conventional poems to an established Manhattan newspaper.
The poor economic situation in New York compelled Whitman to seek work elsewhere, and in 1836 he began teaching at a school on Long Island. This was the first of several poorly paid, short-term teaching positions that Whitman held, on and off, for four years. His interest in journalism continued, and in 1838, with financial support from his family, he founded, published, and edited a newspaper, The Long Islander, which continued under his stewardship for a year. Whitman had also developed an interest in politics; in 1840, he campaigned for President Martin Van Buren, and the following year he addressed a Democratic political rally...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it,” wrote Whitman in his letter to Emerson that prefaced the second edition of Leaves of Grass. According to this criterion, Whitman has indeed proved himself many times over, as it is hard to imagine twentieth century American poetry without him. His influence has extended to poets such as William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Robinson Jeffers, Carl Sandburg, and Allen Ginsberg. Their admiration for Whitman is a tribute to the universal appeal of his long song of himself: his transcendental metaphysics, his emotional honesty and complexity, his lyric skill, and his faith in the future of his country.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Walter Whitman was born at West Hills, near Huntington, Long Island, May 31, 1819, the second child of Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor, of English and Dutch descent. The father, a farmer and carpenter, had difficulty supporting his large family, which grew to nine children, though one died in infancy. In 1823 he moved to Brooklyn, where Walt, his only son ever to show marked ability, received a meager public school education, learned the printing trade, became a journalist, and finally became a poet.
After teaching school on Long Island and starting and abandoning a newspaper, the Long Islander, Walt Whitman worked as a printer in New York City and at twenty-three edited a daily paper, the New York Aurora. Returning to Brooklyn in 1845, he worked on the Long Island Star and for two years edited the Brooklyn Eagle, from which he was dismissed because of his editorial defense of the “free soil” faction of the Democratic Party. For three months in 1848 he was employed on the New Orleans Crescent but again returned to Brooklyn and for a few months edited a free soil paper called the Freeman. Thereafter for five years he built and sold houses and dabbled in real estate. He did not edit another paper until 1857, when he took charge of the Brooklyn Times for approximately two years....
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Introduction“I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself.” These lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” embody the complexities of this remarkable American poet. He broke all the literary rules, discarding rhyme and form in favor of free verse, and he also fought societal convention by speaking fearlessly about his homosexuality. And though many of his views may have gone against popular opinion, his poem “O Captain! My Captain!” in memory of Abraham Lincoln is one of the most patriotic in American history. In addition to his controversial political and social stances, Whitman wrote beautifully detailed reflections on nature, such as “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” Few poets have ever come close to matching his genius and wit.
- Largely self-taught, Walt Whitman was living in New York by age 14, supporting himself by learning to set type.
- Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855, when he was 36 years old. The collection included twelve poems he continued to revise for most of his life. It remains his most lasting and endearing work.
- Because his brother George was wounded during the Civil War, Whitman became a nurse, spending most of his meager finances and time helping to heal the wounded.
- His admirers have included everyone from Lord Alfred Tennyson to Jack Kerouac.
- Whitman died in Camden, New Jersey, in 1892. He designed his own tomb. It reads simply, “Walt Whitman.”
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The second of nine children, Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, on Long Island, New York, to Quaker parents. In 1823, the Whitmans moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman attended public school. At age eleven he left school to work as an office boy in a law office and then as a typesetter’s apprentice at a number of print shops. Although his family moved back to Long Island in 1834, Whitman stayed in Brooklyn and then Manhattan to become a compositor. Unable to find work, he rejoined his family on Long Island in 1836 and taught at several schools. In addition to teaching, Whitman started his own newspaper, the Long Islander. He subsequently edited numerous papers for short periods over the next fourteen years, including the New York Aurora and the Brooklyn Eagle, and published poems and short stories in various periodicals.
Whitman did little in terms of employment from the 1850 to 1855. Instead, he focused on his own work, writing and printing the first edition of his collection of poems Leaves of Grass. Over the next few years, Whitman continued to write and briefly returned to journalism. During the American Civil War he tended wounded soldiers in army hospitals in Washington, D.C., while working as a copyist in the army paymaster’s office. Following the war, Whitman worked for the Department of the Interior and then as a clerk at the Justice Department. He remained in this position until he suffered a paralytic stroke in 1873....
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Walt Whitman was born on Long Island, New York, in 1819, into a climate of patriotism for the newly created nation of the United States. His father was a carpenter by trade but began farming by the time his first son (Walt) was born. The family moved to Brooklyn when Whitman was four. Whitman studied in public schools for six years before he began working as an errand boy for Brooklyn lawyers. From then on he educated himself in the library. Beginning work as an apprentice printer for local newspapers in 1831, Whitman soon began to write articles and later moved around Long Island between jobs at newspapers and posts as a teacher. He also became active in debating societies and campaigned for the Democratic Party. In 1840, Whitman returned to New York City and began publishing short stories in newspapers and magazines.
In 1846, Whitman traveled to New Orleans as an editor for a local paper. Somewhere between this assignment and the publishing of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in the early 1850s, his poetic style shifted to the unconventional and visionary technique for which he would become famous. Leaves of Grass claimed to be speaking for all of America, and it was very favorably received by the influential American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman continued to revise Leaves of Grass throughout his life, and each edition changed and expanded from the original twelve untitled poems.
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