Walt Whitman Biography

Walt Whitman Biography

Walt Whitman's lines “I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself,” from his poem “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.

Facts and Trivia

  • Largely self-taught, Walt Whitman was living in New York by age fourteen, supporting himself by learning to set type.
  • Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855, when he was thirty-six 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.”


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111206126-Whitman.jpg Walt Whitman (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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).

Life’s Work

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 laconically. On the frontispiece, there was a portrait, uncaptioned, of a bearded man, hand on his hip, hat rakishly askew. Ten pages of prose were followed by eighty-three of poetry, and on page 29, the anonymous author revealed himself:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly, fleshy and sensual . . . eating and drinking
and breeding,
No sentimentalist . . . no stander above men and women or
apart from them . . . no more modest than immodest.

Whitman was a tireless champion of his own work, but of all of his acts of self-promotion, his most successful and in some senses his most audacious was his gift of Leaves of Grass to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher-poet king of American letters. Emerson replied from Concord, Massachusetts, on July 21, 1855, in a five-page tribute, in which he expressed his enthusiasm for the poetry and saluted the poet “at the beginning of a great career.” Many other reviews were less generous, some extremely negative (“a mass of stupid filth”), but praise from people such as Henry David Thoreau, Charles Eliot Norton, and others was sufficient encouragement for the poet. Whitman was already preparing the second edition in 1855 and 1856, composing the first draft of his great poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (then known as “Sundown Poem”) during this time. He continued to supply friendly journals with information about and anonymous reviews of his work, and supplemented his income by writing and selling articles to various newspapers. At Christmas, 1859, he published “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” then titled “A Child’s Reminiscence,” which was one of the new poems included in the 1860 edition.

Perhaps because of Emerson’s compliments, a Boston publisher, Thayer and Eldridge, offered to produce the second edition of Leaves of Grass, and although Emerson cautioned Whitman about some of the sexually suggestive poetry (arguing that unimpeded sales of the book depended on public acceptance), Whitman felt that the book would have to stand as it was. “I have not lived to regret my Emerson no,” he stated. He did discard the prose preface, retitled some of the poems, revised several and added 124 new ones, producing a thick volume of 456 pages, bound in orange cloth and stamped with symbolic devices. Now, he thought that Leaves of Grass was being “really published” for the first time. This time, the frontispiece was a portrait by a friend which presented Whitman wearing a coat, wide collar, expansive tie, and a grave, intent expression. The book’s reception was important to Whitman, but events of a larger magnitude captured his attention.

In February, 1861, Whitman saw Abraham Lincoln, already a protoheroic image for him of the New Man of the West, when the president traveled up Broadway to stay at the Astor. In April of that year, 250,000 people filled the streets to welcome Major Robert Anderson, a soldier at Fort Sumter. The nation was moving toward the War Between the States, and Whitman’s admiration for Lincoln and his cause, plus his brother George’s rather impetuous enlistment, tempted the poet himself momentarily to consider military service. But at forty-two, he recognized that he had neither the qualifications nor the disposition to be a soldier. Instead, his instinct for involvement in the great anguish of the Union, and his instinct to offer comfort to young men suffering, led him to New York hospitals, where he worked as a nurse (eighty percent of the nurses were male). When his brother was wounded, he traveled to Virginia and shared mess and tent with George for a week. He was trying to earn a living by publishing occasional articles at this time, but when he returned to Washington, he wrote to Emerson that he had ended his “New York stagnation,” and he began to try to find a government job. He spent the war years tending the wounded and casually seeking a political appointment, and in 1864, after a lifetime of exceptional health, he suffered a collapse as a result of stress, hypertension, and depression. He was never quite as vigorous again. He succeeded in obtaining a job as a government clerk in 1865, but after Lincoln’s death, the new administration swept his friends out and he lost his job.

In October, 1865, Whitman published Drum Taps, including the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” his most successful poem during his lifetime, and the superb “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the one poem not included in an anthology celebrating Lincoln a few years later. He was rehired by the government to work in the attorney general’s office in 1866 and saw his good friend William O’Connor offer strong support for his work in a sixty-page pamphlet, The Good Gray Poet (1866), and in a very positive review in The New York Times. His work was beginning to develop a favorable reputation in Europe that surpassed the public estimate of his accomplishments in the United States. As a kind of rejoinder to his old intellectual antagonist Carlyle, he published Democratic Vistas in 1871, agreeing with Carlyle’s pessimistic view of the “present” but envisioning a positive future for his country. As a kind of poetic counterpart to Democratic Vistas, he also completed Passage to India (1871), in which he described materialistic concerns giving way to spiritual enlightenment.

Whitman suffered a stroke in January, 1873. His mother died in May of that year, a severe blow, and he was discharged from his government job in July. Another stroke occurred in February, 1875, but it did not keep Whitman from his enthusiastic plans for a centennial edition of Leaves of Grass, as well as readings and essays commemorating the event. His recollections of his wartime experiences were published in Specimen Days and Collect in 1882 and 1883, which also contained his thoughts on the natural world. In 1884, Whitman bought a house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, and slept under his own roof for the first time in his life. He lived there for eight years, remaining true to the emblem on his writing table, “Make the Works,” through that time. In January, 1892, only two months before his death, he had prepared an announcement for what has become known as the “Death-Bed” edition of Leaves of Grass, and in his last years, he became, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, “lonely old courage teacher” to his friends and admirers.


According to Justin Kaplan, Leaves of Grass contained “the most brilliant and original poetry yet written in the New World, at once the fulfillment of American literary romanticism and the beginnings of American literary modernism.” As much as he contributed to American literature, however, Whitman’s contributions to American cultural life were equally great. At a time when the arts in the United States were still held in a kind of patronizing thrall by European antecedents, Whitman claimed equality for American experience and demonstrated the dominion of singularly American creation. He liberated poetry from its narrow British inclination toward narrative and ode and closed the gap between poetry and its audience.

Similarly, he resisted the tyranny of fashion by his insistence on the beauty of ordinary citizens of the republic and gave Americans a sense of the finest aspects of their own character through his definitive admiration for the open, easy, accepting nature of American life and social commerce. He celebrated the individual, saw the strength of the singular amid the surging crowds of America’s cities, and at the same time, caught the spirit of America’s pride in its growing industrial and technological might.

He was reared a quasi-Quaker and followed no standard doctrine or specified religion, but his poetry is based on the best precepts of Christianity—a sympathy whose scope is universal and inclusive, stemming from a predisposition to love and understand. Nevertheless, he was also a kind of pagan, a lover of many gods, ecumenical and free of prejudice and bigotry in his writings, a feature all the more impressive for his personal struggle to overcome some of the more ingrained cultural assumptions of his day.

When the bridge near Camden was named for him, objections from self-designated “Christians” and “Patriots” that Whitman’s books were not properly moral echoed the criticism of his own time. His unabashed expressions of erotic ardor, especially the images of love emphasizing handsome young men, confounded the noxious Puritan strain still virulent in American life, but his sense of love, like his sense of religion, was not limited by any sectarian preference. Rather, his emphasis on social liberty, individual freedom, and artistic integrity, culminating in his archetypal image of the American nation always on the entrance of an open road, stands as a reminder of American strength as a country. As Guy Davenport says, Whitman has been woven into Americans’ myth of themselves as their “greatest invention in literature” and as their “lyric voice.” As his life and time fade into the glories of a heroic past, his poetry remains as an emblem of his country’s beautiful innocence at the dawn of its creation.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. New York: New York University Press, 1967. A good critical biography, the first one to connect the poet’s life to his work. Comprehensive, if not exceptionally penetrating, it provides a sound overview of Whitman’s life and his range as a poet.

Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn “Daily Eagle.” Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1970. A thorough account of Whitman’s work as a journalist, connecting his newspaper work to the social and political conditions of New York City and the country at large.

Davenport, Guy. “Whitman.” In The Geography of the Imagination, edited by Guy Davenport. Berkeley, Calif.: North Point Press, 1981. An exceptionally imaginative and unusually empathetic essay which captures the sensibility of the poet and sets it amid the cultural context of Whitman’s times.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. An excellent biography, combining solid historic research with perceptive, revealing commentary, this is undoubtedly the definitive biography in the twentieth century. A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipient, crucial for an understanding of Whitman’s life and art.

Miller, James E., Jr., ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: Origin, Growth, Meaning. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1964. Detailed, competently academic interpretation of Song of Myself, demonstrating Whitman’s interest in the development of the mystical tradition.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard and Co., 1906.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1908.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 3. New York: M. Kennerly, 1914.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 4. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 5. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964. An account in five volumes (each published separately by a different company) by a close friend and companion of the poet’s last years.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Edited by Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York University Press, 1961-1977. All the letters Whitman wrote that are available, plus solid scholarship which sets the context and explains the situation of their writing.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Thoroughly researched and quite knowledgeable coverage of the period in Whitman’s life between his employment with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the first publication of Leaves of Grass. An incisive tracing of the genesis of the poem.

Walt Whitman Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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.

Whitman’s early acceptance in England has been attributed to publication of a selected edition of his poems by London publisher William Michael Rossetti. Because of the book’s controversial nature in the United States, Whitman rarely had the luxury of an American publisher, but had the book printed and promoted it himself.

In 1882 at the urging of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Boston’s district attorney threatened Whitman’s publishers with prosecution if they attempted to distribute the current edition of Leaves of Grass. The fray that followed drew many voices on both sides of the debate. Citing the Comstock Act of 1873, the Boston post office refused to distribute a publication whose defense of Whitman reprinted his poem “To a Common Prostitute.” The decision was eventually overturned and the item mailed, but the incident prompted Anthony Comstock, the nation’s leading foe of so- called social vice, to issue a public threat against Leaves of Grass. O’Connor once again came to the book’s defense, and in 1883 the libraries of Boston and Cambridge removed it from the category of restricted circulation. As a result of the controversy, Leaves of Grass began to earn steady royalties for the first time, and expanded its contribution to American and world literature.

Walt Whitman Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

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 referred to as “inland America” certainly helped to stimulate his vision of the country’s democratic future. Perhaps most obviously influential was Whitman’s trade itself. His flair for action and vignette, as well as descriptive detail, surely was sharpened by his journalistic writing. The reporter’s keen eye for the daily scene is everywhere evident in Leaves of Grass.

When the first edition of his poems appeared, Whitman received little money but some attention from reviewers. Included among the responses was a famous letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised Whitman for his brave thought and greeted him at the beginning of a great career. Whitman continued to write and edit, but was unemployed during the winter of 1859-1860, when he began to frequent Pfaff’s bohemian restaurant. There he may have established the “manly love” relationships that inspired the “Calamus” poems of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Again, this third edition created a stir with readers, but the outbreak of the Civil War soon turned everyone’s attention to more pressing matters. Whitman himself was too old for military service, but he did experience the war by caring for wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C., hospitals. While in Washington as a government clerk, Whitman witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration, mourned over the president’s assassination in April, printed Drum-Taps in May, and later added to these Civil War lyrics a sequel, which contained “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

The postwar years saw Whitman’s reputation steadily increasing in England, thanks to William Rossetti’s Selections in 1868, Algernon Swinburne’s praise, and a long, admiring review of his work by Anne Gilchrist in 1870. In fact, Gilchrist fell in love with the poet after reading Leaves of Grass and even moved to Philadelphia in 1876 to be near him, but her hopes of marrying Whitman died with her in 1885. Because of books by William D. O’Connor and John Burroughs, Whitman also became better known in the United States, but any satisfaction he may have derived from this recognition was tempered by two severe blows in 1873. He suffered a paralytic stroke in January, and his mother, to whom he was very devoted, died in May. Unable to work, Whitman returned to stay with his brother George at Camden, New Jersey, spending summers on a farm at Timber Creek.

Although Whitman recuperated sufficiently to take trips to New York or Boston, and even to Colorado and Canada in 1879-1880, he was never again to be the robust man he had so proudly described in early editions of Leaves of Grass. His declining years, however, gave him time to revise and establish the structure of his book. When the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass was published in Philadelphia in 1881-1882, Whitman had achieved a total vision of his work. With the money from a centennial edition (1876) and an occasional lecture on Lincoln, Whitman was able by 1884 to purchase a small house on Mickle Street in Camden. Although he was determined not to be “house-bound,” a sunstroke in 1885 and a second paralytic stroke in 1888 made him increasingly dependent on friends. He found especially gratifying the friendship of his secretary and companion, Horace Traubel, who recorded the poet’s life and opinions during these last years. Despite the care of Traubel and several doctors and nurses, Whitman died of complications from a stroke on March 26, 1892.

Walt Whitman Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 in New York. In 1841, he published eight short stories in the Democratic Party paper, the Democratic Review.

Over the following decade, Whitman remained active in politics and continued his journalistic career, editing the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1846 to 1848. Fired from the Eagle for being a Free-Soiler(the Free-Soilers opposed slavery in newly annexed territories), he edited the Brooklyn Freeman, a Free-Soil journal, until September, 1849. From 1850 to 1854, Whitman operated a printing shop and worked as a part-time journalist and building contractor. He followed an irregular routine, spending much time walking and reading. His family was puzzled by his apparently aimless life, not realizing that Whitman was developing the knowledge and aesthetic vision that would shortly burst forth in spectacular fashion.

In July, 1855, the first edition of Leaves of Grass, containing twelve untitled poems and a preface, was printed in Brooklyn at Whitman’s expense. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most eminent men of letters in America, received it with enthusiasm, but others were shocked by Whitman’s bold celebration of the pleasures of the senses and his sometimes coarse language. The following year, Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden (1854), visited Whitman at his home, and a second edition of Leaves of Grass appeared. Twenty new poems were added, as was Whitman’s poetic manifesto, under the guise of a letter to Emerson.

From 1857 to mid-1859, Whitman was editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times. After leaving this post he continued to write; he also became a member of a bohemian circle that met at Pfaff’s Restaurant in New York City. In 1860, Whitman traveled to Boston to oversee the printing of the third edition of Leaves of Grass, containing sixty-eight new poems, by the young firm of Theyer & Eldridge, Whitman’s first commercial publishers. During Whitman’s visit, Emerson advised him not to include the sexually oriented “Children of Adam” poems, but Whitman would not be persuaded.

In 1861 the Civil War broke out, and in December, 1862, Whitman traveled to Falmouth, Virginia, to seek out his brother George, who had been slightly wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg. He returned to Washington, D.C., and worked part time as a copyist in the paymaster’s office. He also served for several years as a visitor and volunteer nurse to soldiers in hospitals. His tender, fatherly concern and unselfish dedication to his task made a profound impression on the soldiers.

In January, 1865, Whitman became a clerk in the Department of the Interior, and in March he attended the second inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. A month after Lincoln’s assassination in April, 1865, Whitman’s poems of the war, Drum-Taps, were printed at his own expense. A sequel to Drum-Taps, containing the great elegy to Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” followed in September. In the meantime, however, Whitman had been fired from his job on the grounds that Leaves of Grass was indecent. After a friend intervened, Whitman was employed the next day in the attorney general’s office.

In 1867, Whitman’s reputation began to develop internationally, stimulated by the interest of William Michael Rossetti in England, who published an expurgated edition of the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass (which Whitman had printed in 1867). In 1871, Democratic Vistas, consisting of essays on democracy, social philosophy, and literature, was published.

In January, 1873, Whitman became partially paralyzed after a stroke, and in the summer he moved into the house of his brother George, in Camden, New Jersey. With financial support from distinguished writers in England, a centennial edition of Leaves of Grass and the volume Two Rivulets appeared in 1876. Whitman could now count Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of England, as an admirer, but he was still underappreciated in his own country. His publishing difficulties resurfaced in 1882, when the district attorney threatened to prosecute the Boston firm of James R. Osgood for its publication of the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass. In the same year, Whitman began publishing Specimen Days and Collect, much of which consists of diary notes of his experiences during the Civil War.

In 1884, Whitman bought a small house on Mickie Street in Camden, where he lived for the remainder of his life. After years of declining health, he died on March 26, 1892.

Walt Whitman Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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.

Walt Whitman Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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.

While employed as printer, journalist, and editor, Whitman published sentimental poems and stories in newspapers and magazines, but he first became a serious poet when he printed at his own expense the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. The book’s transcendental theme of seeking life experiences in nature was acclaimed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and a few others but was mostly ignored or denounced as unpoetic because the lines did not rhyme or scan, or as indecent because of the frank language. Undaunted, the poet brought out a second edition in 1856 and a third in 1860. The latter was published by Thayer and Eldridge in Boston, but the outbreak of the Civil War bankrupted this firm, and Whitman did not have another commercial publisher until 1881.

He participated in the war by ministering to the wounded, writing accounts for the New York and Brooklyn newspapers, and composing his Drum-Taps poems, which he printed in 1865. Whitman spent long hours in the hospitals helping the wounded veterans. He visited them regularly, comforting the sick and the dying and writing long letters for them to their worried and bereaved families. After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Whitman wrote what were to become his two best-known poems, “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which he included in an annex to the second issue of Drum-Taps. From 1865 until 1873, when he suffered a paralytic stroke, he was employed as a government clerk in Washington. His mother having died in 1873, for several years he lived with his brother George in Camden, New Jersey, a “battered, wrecked old man.” Although partially disabled for the remainder of his life, he recovered sufficiently to make some trips—several to New York, one as far west as Denver in 1879, and another to Canada the following year.

In 1881 James Osgood, a respected Boston publisher, issued another edition of Leaves of Grass but stopped distribution after the poet refused to withdraw several lines (for a new printing) which had provoked the threat of criminal prosecution. Whitman secured new publishers in Philadelphia, first Rees Welsh and Company, then David McKay, who thereafter remained his publisher during his lifetime. In 1882 McKay published Specimen Days and Collect, a volume of prose containing sketches of the poet’s early life, experiences in the hospitals, and old-age diary notes. November Boughs, 1888, also contained some prose and an important literary apologia, “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads.” With the income from the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass Whitman was able to buy a small house for himself in Camden, on Mickle Street, which soon began to be visited by many prominent writers and artists from England, where Whitman’s reputation was greater than in his own country. At the time of his death in Camden, March 26, 1892, he was one of the best-known poets in the United States, partly because of the publicity resulting from the accusations made against the Boston edition of 1881 and partly because he had relentlessly publicized himself. Consequently, the metropolitan newspapers gave many columns of space to his death, and it was mentioned in many European papers. However, Whitman was not generally accepted by the literary critics and historians in his own country for another quarter century. By the mid-twentieth century, however, he was almost universally regarded as the greatest poet the United States had produced. Leaves of Grass has been translated in whole or in part into most of the languages of the world. Successful complete translations have been published in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Japan. Leaves of Grass is an acknowledged masterpiece in world literature.

In its growth and structure Leaves of Grass is probably unique in literary history. Between 1855 and 1892 Whitman used the same title for nine editions of his collected poems, no two alike, and several dramatically different in size, content, and arrangement. Not only did the poet constantly revise and augment his poems, but he also altered titles, divided or combined poems, dropped some, and constantly shifted their relative positions in the book until 1881, when he solidified the order, thereafter merely annexing new poems. A posthumous tenth edition, published in 1897, contains the final annex, “Old Age Echoes,” comprising poems first collected by the literary executors. On his deathbed the poet declared the 1892 edition to be definitive, but critics and biographers have often found earlier editions to be more interesting, more revealing, and even of higher literary merit—especially the first (1855) and third (1860).

Whitman is credited with inventing a new metrical style of poetry called free verse that is based on the transcendental idea of organicism in literature. This revolutionary mid-nineteenth century theory was promoted by writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Emerson, who urged literary artists to create their works according to the patterns of growth and development present in the natural world.

Considerable controversy has arisen over the sexual imagery of two groups of poems first assembled in 1860 and titled “Enfans d’Adam” (later “Children of Adam”) and “Calamus.” Theoretically, the former group treats procreative or sexual love, the latter friendship or “manly love.” Earlier critics objected to the realism of “Children of Adam”; later critics have been more intrigued with the eroticism of “Calamus.” The “Calamus” poems have stirred much speculation about Whitman’s sexual orientation. Although the poet usually refuted implications of his homosexuality, his correspondence reveals the fond attachments he sought with young men. Two of Whitman’s most intense relationships were with the streetcar conductor Peter Doyle, whom he met in Washington, D.C., in 1865, and Harry Stafford, the young friend he knew later when he moved to Camden, New Jersey.

Whitman wanted to be known as the spokesman of democracy—in many countries he has become a symbol of American democracy—but his poems have survived as poems rather than as repositories of ideas. Whitman’s most characteristic poem is “Song of Myself.” Though uneven, it contains some of the finest lyrical passages in the whole range of American poetry.

Walt Whitman Biography

(Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Walt Whitman Biography

(Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 426 words.)