At a Glance
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.”
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...
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