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 States by 1855 with a population of 200,000. The elder Whitman hoped to make a fortune in real estate, but he lacked the shrewdness to prosper in a speculative arena, and the Whitman family moved about once every year for the next decade. A mediocre student but an avid reader, young Walt went to work for the Long Island Patriot, a local newspaper, at the age of twelve in 1831. He became a journeyman printer, but a fire in the printing district forced him out of work, and a quarrel with his father ended the possibility of any work on the family farm. He took a series of jobs as a country schoolteacher between 1836 and 1841, but only a few of his quarter-year appointments were renewed. He established a warm relationship with many of his students, but his explosive temper and stubborn insistence on the validity of his ideas led to frequent clashes with the school authorities. Whitman moved back to New York City in 1841, but continued arguments with his father impelled him to take lodgings in a boardinghouse in lower Manhattan. Between school assignments, he had published his earliest known writing, an item entitled “Effects of Lightning,” in the August 8, 1838, issue of the Long Island Democrat. The rather rough and motley group of people he met in the boardinghouse district became the models for some of the characters in his first novel, Franklin Evans (1842), the story of a farmer’s apprentice from Long Island who comes to New York. Whitman also published about a dozen short stories—mostly in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne—between 1841 and 1845, and while the stories are derivative and very sentimental, his work during this time convinced him that he could be a writer.
While he continued to maintain close contact with his family, often acting as a third “parent” with his younger siblings, Whitman was now an independent young man making his way in the world. He stood nearly six feet tall, weighed about 180 pounds, had large hands and feet, a broad nose, full lips, and in later life, a bristling beard. He walked with a confident stride, could leap easily aboard a moving Broadway stage, and appeared at ease with the rugged, masculine presence he projected. As his close friend John Burroughs observed, however, there was also “a curious feminine undertone in him which revealed itself in the quality of his voice, the delicate texture of his skin, the gentleness of his touch and ways.” By 1848, he had worked for ten different newspapers, most prominently as the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and was an active citizen in Brooklyn political affairs, even writing lumbering patriotic verse when the occasion required it. His involvement with the Democratic Party in Brooklyn drew him into the rapidly developing debate over slavery in the 1840’s, and his stand on the explosive issue of Free Soil led to his firing in 1848 from the Daily Eagle. Through his contacts in the field of journalism, he was able to work briefly as an editor of the New Orleans Crescent while that paper was reorganized in the early part of 1848, his first trip to the South. Upon his return to New York, he rented a storefront in lower Manhattan with the plan of setting himself up as a kind of lecturer and “universal authority,” a “Professor of Things in General” like the hero of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-1834), a book he found fascinating. Apparently, there was no public demand for his wisdom.
During the late 1840’s and the early 1850’s, he continued with real estate work, renovating buildings with his family, including considerable carpentry work. He enjoyed the swirl of intellectual life in New York, counting young painters, actors, and writers among his friends. He attended numerous lectures (including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous address “The Poet”), kept up with original theories in the sciences (phrenology, hydrology), studied archaeology as an interested layman and would-be Egyptologist, debated new philosophical constructs (Fourierism), and listened enthusiastically to music of all sorts, from American folk music to the celebrated “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind. He recalled these times as “days of preparation; the gathering of the forces”; the preparation he referred to was for the creation and publication of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass (1855-1892).
Whitman claimed that he had begun “elaborating the plan of my poems . . . experimenting much, writing and abandoning much” in 1847, but his assertion that he began “definitely” writing the poems down in 1854 seems closest to the actual facts. The first “notes” that Whitman made for the poems usually consisted of flashes of illumination, revelations of the self and its relationship to the world. He had no guide for the form of these poems, regarding most of the prominent poets of his day as negative examples. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s enormously popular The Song of Hiawatha (1855) he thought had, at best, a “pleasing ripply” effect. Whitman invented a style which was appropriate for his subject, demonstrating that form is an extension of content or an expression of content, and proving the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau’s contention that American poetry is nothing but “healthy speech.”
On May 15, 1855, just before his thirty-sixth birthday, Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass and brought the copyright notice to the printing office of Thomas and Joseph Rome. He had been working steadily there throughout that spring, continuing to write and revise while he helped to set type and read the proofs. He not only wrote but also designed, produced, published, and eventually promoted the book which, as Justin Kaplan says, “for nearly forty years [he] made the center of his life, the instrument of health and survival itself.” There were 795 copies of the first edition, and two hundred were bound in cloth at a unit cost to Whitman of thirty-two cents, while the remaining copies were given a cheaper binding. The manuscript remained in the Rome brothers’ print shop until it was burned accidently in 1858 “to kindle the fire” as Whitman remarked...
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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.
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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...
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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.
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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...
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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.”