Biography Of Walt Whitman

This article explains how Whitman came to use the atrocities of the human experience as a base for The Leaves of Grass.

Walt Whitman is one of America's most celebrated poets. It has been well over one hundred years since his death, and yet his poems remain as intrusive, heart-felt, and provocative as they were when they first published over a century ago. During his lifetime, Whitman published over 500 poems, yet he lived his entire life in a state of poverty. 19th century America was not yet ready for the genius of Walt Whitman. Fortunately, modern day academics have evaluated, preserved and dignified the lyrics of a most talented poet. Whitman's work expresses the ideals, thoughts and conditions of 19th century American society that he deemed as an often cruel, discriminating and unfair nation. In Whitman's era, such images were judged by Americans as being scandalous, treacherous, and unpatriotic, thus Whitman was chided, and his poetic license was heavily criticized. Only upon his death did America begin to re-evaluate this prolific genius.

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 on a farm in the then very rural Long Island, New York. His father, Walt Whitman Sr. was both a carpenter and a farmer. The Sr. Whitman was never very successful at either trade, however he moved his family to Brooklyn in 1823 in order to pursue a career as a housebuilder. Having witnessed life on a farm followed by city life, young Walt Whitman was already gathering the societal experiences and attitudes that he would later write about. Whitman attended elementary school in Brooklyn, and then in 1830, when Whitman was barely 11 years old, he began to work in a local office as a clerk. Over the next few years, Whitman would apprentice as a printer at the Patriot and the Star newspapers in Brooklyn. Whitman continued his work as a printer until a fire in 1836 destroyed the printing firm.

Walt Whitman turned to teaching. He returned to Long Island and taught in various small country schools. At the same time, Whitman founded his own weekly newspaper that he called, The Long Islander. Whitman through poetry and prose began to express and publish his views on Democracy and American society in his paper. Between the years of 1840 and 1848, Whitman would come to edit several newspapers; Aurora, Tatler, Eagle, and a New York paper called, Democrat. Whitman gained considerable respect as an editor. However, in 1848, Whitman left his post as editor of Star and took an editing job at a newspaper called Crescent in New Orleans, LA. He returned within 6 months to Brooklyn to edit the Brooklyn Freeman.

While Whitman was in New Orleans, he witnessed the foul conditions of slavery. This experience would prove to be life changing for Whitman, for he began to write about the horrors and neglect of that human condition. At the same time, the Mexican War intruded upon Whitman's conscience. Oppression, dishonor, and compassion for the poor, and downtrodden were the backdrops which would become the central themes of Whitman's poetry. Whitman set out to write a collection of poetry that would express his interpretations; based on his experiences, opinions, and points of view of American democratic idealism.

He took a part-time job as a carpenter, and began to work on the infamous collection The Leaves of Grass.

In 1855 Whitman had the first edition published privately, for no respectable publisher would consider the work. The boldness of The Leaves of Grass, with it's hints of homosexuality, respect for prostitutes, opposition to the draft, compassion for slaves, and the religious references to Adam and Eve as being myths, were too much for the 19th century Americans to take seriously. Some accused Whitman of being blasphemous, a traitor, and a sympathizer with the Confederate party.

Not all people ousted Whitman. Whitman sent the notorious essayist and former pastor, Ralph Waldo Emerson a copy of the first edition of The Leaves of Grass. Emerson touted Whitman's work and offered the now infamous statement, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Whitman used Emerson's statement in the preface to the next edition (1856) of The Leaves of Grass. Emerson saw in Whitman, a poetic genius who appeared long before his time and long before America was ready for him. Many other notable poets, authors and political activists took notice of Whitman's work: Thoreau and Bronson Alcott in particular became great friends with the poet. By the 1870s, The Leaves of Grass was translated into French and German at the request of critics. Most Americans continued to blast Whitman, and he was never able to captivate the American intelligencia as much as he would enchant the English, Spanish, French and German people.

In 1861 Civil War erupted. Revisions to the third edition of The Leaves of Grass were made to include the atrocities felt by the experience of Civil War. Whitman not only continued revising The Leaves of Grass, but also during war times he served as a volunteer nurse in various hospitals in Washington, D.C. Whitman also worked as a clerk in the Army Paymaster's office. In 1865, the assassination of former president Lincoln greatly shook Whitman, for he felt that Lincoln epitomized the ideal democratic figure.

Lincoln's death inspired Whitman to write one of his most notable poems, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom." At the same time, Whitman was fired from his clerk's job by then Secretary James Harlan because Harlan felt that The Leaves of Grass was an unsavory, un-American piece of literature.

Whitman never gave up. He kept adding poems and revising The Leaves of Grass and purporting his views of universality, love of humankind, fairness, and expressing his thoughts on the plight of the common person. In Whitman's lifetime, he would revise and add to The Leaves of Grass more than 8 times. In 1873, at the age of forty-four Whitman suffered a stoke which left him severely paralyzed. He would never fully recover, yet he continued to publish poetry, to give lectures on the successes of former President Lincoln, and to give public readings. Although Whitman received a small sum of money as royalties for the sales of The Leaves of Grass and some of his other individually published poems, he always lived in poverty. In 1884 Whitman purchased a small shack on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey. In 1888 he had another severe stroke which nearly immobilized him completely. Sick as he was, he still managed to write and publish, November Boughs and Complete Poems and Prose.

In 1891, Whitman's health was failing considerably. The weakness from the stokes brought on many illnesses that further incapacitated Whitman who was wheelchair bound by this time. Sensing death, he published Good-Bye my Fancy and revised a "deathbed" copy of The Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman died in 1892 at his home on Mickle Street and was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. Today, on the anniversaries of his birth and death, many scholars pay tribute to this literary genius by leaving blades of grass upon his gravestone.

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