Walt Whitman

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The Life of Walt Whitman

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was the second son of Walter Whitman, a housebuilder, and Louisa Van Velsor. The family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s.

At the age of twelve Whitman started to learn the printer's trade, falling in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, and he worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry, pushing him in 1836, at the age of seventeen, to began a career as a teacher in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He taught until 1841, then turned to journalism as a full-time career. He founded a weekly newspaper, the Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers.

In 1848, Whitman left Brooklyn to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent, and in New Orleans he experienced first hand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city.

On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a "free soil" newspaper, and continued to develop the unique style of poetry he had practiced throughout his years that later so astonished his colleagues.

In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. During his subsequent career, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman wrote freelance journalism and visited the wounded at New York-area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war. Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals, staying in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass and fired him, having found the piece offensive.

Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington, he lived on a clerk's salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed, also sending money to his widowed mother and invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him "purses" of money so that he could get by.

In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, New Jersey where he had come to visit his dying mother at his brother's house. However, after suffering a stroke, Whitman found it impossible to return to Washington, and he stayed with his brother until he eventually bought a home in Camden after the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass put some money in his pocket.

In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of Leaves of Grass and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891).

Whitman died March 26, 1892, buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.

The Famous Works of Walt Whitman

The most infamous work by Whitman was his collection of poems, Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass was notable for the time in its discussion of the delight of sensual pleasures, when such candid displays were considered immoral.

Where much poetry relied on symbolism, allegory and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass exalted the body and material world. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, Whitman's poetry praised nature and the individual human's role in it. However, thought it was not the focus, Whitman did not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevated the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.

The less famous works of Whitman include:

Franklin Evans or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times

Evans was the only fictional novel ever written by Whitman. It is the rag-to-riches story of a man named Franklin Evans, who starts as an innocent young man who leaves Long Island to come to New York City for the opportunity to better himself. Young and naïve, he is easily influenced by someone whom he befriended and eventually becomes a drunkard. He tries many times to abstain from alcohol but does not succeed until after the death of his two wives.

Drum Taps

A collection of poems by Whitman, themed with the perspective of the Civil War from the hospitals; the great suffering, death, and injury that occurred to all in harmony with the war; and patriotism and the purpose of war.

Memoranda During The War

This book was Whitman's testament to the anguish, heroism, and terror of the Civil War. The book consists of journal entries extending from Whitman's arrival on the front in 1862 through to the war's conclusion in 1865. Whitman details his encounters with soldiers and doctors, meditates on particular battles and on the meanings of the war for the nation, and recounts his wordless though peculiarly intimate public exchanges with President Lincoln, a man Whitman saw often on the streets of Washington and by whom he was deeply fascinated. The book offers an astounding amalgam of death portraits, anecdotes of battle, last words, messages to distant loved ones, and remarkably restrained and muted descriptions of pain, dismemberment, and dying--all of it, however grim, suffused with Whitman's undiminished enthusiasm and affection for these young soldiers. And throughout, we find Whitman laboring with heroic determination to sustain and nourish his once-ardent faith in America and American life, even as the nation unleashed unprecedented violence upon itself. The book also includes Whitman's famous speech "The Death of Abraham Lincoln," selected poems, and a letter to the parents of a deceased soldier.

Walt Whitman reads America