Historians have said you can’t really have America without Walt Whitman. His works still speaks to the soul of the country, of freedom and self-determination. He himself lived a varied and unconventional life that no doubt shaped his writings.
Read our short biography on the man behind some of America’s greatest poetry.
He was born in 1819 in West Hills, Long Island, the second of nine children. At age four, the family moved to Brooklyn. Whitman remembered his childhood as marred with financial difficulties, and the family would have to move often.
Despite being the focus of many a high school English class, Whitman himself left school at age 11. He worked a variety of jobs to support his family - an office clerk, and an apprentice printer at the Long Island Patriot newspaper. There he learnt print-making and typesetting. He later took another job at the Long Island Star. In his free time he would attend the theatre and joined a debating society and published his first poetry in the New York Mirror.
The furtherance of his career was stymied by the economic collapse of 1837. He moved back in with his family in Long Island and taught at various schools. In 1839, he published his own newspaper, the Long Islander. He again found work intermittently as a typesetter and editor at various papers and teaching work. He developed a great love of Italian opera, which heavily influenced his use of “free verse” in his writings. He continued to publish fiction and poetry in various journals. He tried out various styles, before commencing his Magnum Opus, Leaves of Grass. He paid himself for a run of 795 copies to be printed. He received a letter of high praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Because of this, the book was widely praised, although some critics found it trashy or obscene. This nearly led to the publisher not releasing the second edition. In the end, it was published in 1865.
An engraving of Whitman, age 37
In 1862, Whitman saw a notice in the New York Tribune that indicated his brother might be listed among the injured Union soldiers. He travelled to find him, where he was fine except for a superficial face wound. However, his experiences of seeing the badly or mortally wounded soldiers affected him greatly. He decided volunteer as a nurse in Washington D.C. He would write about this time for several journals and later compiled it as a book. Following this, he received a permanent post as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs through a friend. This was a turbulent time for his family. His brother, George, was captured by the Confederates (and later freed). Another one, Andrew, was killed by tuberculosis, and another one yet was committed to an asylum. Just under a year later, Whitman was dismissed from his post, probably because his employers found Leaves of Grass. His supporters contested this and he was instead transferred to another post. Part of his role was interviewing Confederate soldiers in the Attorney General’s office to see if they were eligible for pardons.
1860 edition of Leaves of Grass
In 1868, a volume of his poetry was published for the first time in England, and his popularity there steadily grew. Meanwhile he remained at the Attorney General’s office until 1872, whilst caring for his ailing mother. That June he gave the commencement speech at Dartmouth College.
In 1873, he suffered a stroke and moved into his brother George’s house in Camden, New Jersey. He stayed there convalescing for a year before buying his own house. This was a productive time for him, and he published several versions of Leaves of Grass and other works. At his new house, he was mostly bedridden, cared for by his tenants and later a live-in housekeeper, Mary Oakes Davies. He also spent time at his summer home at Stafford Farm in Laurel Springs.
In 1891, he produced his final volume of Leaves of Grass, after 33 years of continuous work. He died the next year from bronchial pneumonia. Over a 1,000 people visited his body before it was laid to rest at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.
His idiosyncratic writing style cannot be replicated, it was truly his own creation. Unafraid to touch on more unsavoury and darker themes, his writing remains fresh and modern when read today. He has been described as the “first poet of democracy”, with Andrew Carnegie calling him “the great poet of America so far”. Whitman continues to inspire and delight readers.
Some of my favourite Walt Whitman quotes...