Walt Whitman was one of the most significant writers of the 19th century, and is considered by many to have been America’s greatest poet. His book Leaves of Grass, which he edited and expanded through successive editions, is a masterpiece of American literature.
Whitman’s style of poetry was revolutionary, and while his first edition of Leaves of Grass was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson, it was generally ignored by the public. Over time Whitman attracted an audience, yet he also was subjected at times to withering criticism.
In recent decades a constant debate has developed around Whitman’s sexuality. He is often believed to have been gay, based on interpretation of his poetry.
Though Whitman was considered eccentric and controversial through much of his career, by the end of his life he was often referred to as “America’s good gray poet.” When he died in 1892 at the age of 72 his death was front-page news across America.
Whitman’s literary reputation grew during the 20th century, and selections from Leaves of Grass have become cherished examples of American poetry.
Early Life of Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was born May 31, 1819, in the village of West Hills, Long Island, New York, approximately 50 miles east of New York City. He was the second of eight children.
Whitman’s father was of English descent, and his mother’s family, the Van Velsors, were Dutch. In later life he would refer to his ancestors as having been early settlers of Long Island.
In early 1822, when Walt was two years old, the Whitman family moved to Brooklyn, which was still a small town. Whitman would spend most of the next 40 years of his life in Brooklyn, which grew into a thriving city during his residence.
After attending a public school in Brooklyn, Whitman began working at the age of 11. He was an office boy for a law office before becoming an apprentice printer at a newspaper.
Throughout his teens Whitman learned the printing trade while educating himself with library books. In his late teens he worked for several years as a schoolteacher in rural Long Island. In 1838, while still in his teens, he founded a weekly newspaper on Long Island. He reported and wrote stories, printed the paper, and even delivered it on horseback.
Within a year he sold his newspaper, and returned to Brooklyn. In the early 1840s he began breaking into journalism, writing articles for magazines and newspapers in New York.
Whitman’s Early Writing
Early writing efforts by Whitman were fairly conventional. He wrote about popular trends and contributed sketches about city life. In 1842 he wrote a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, which depicted the horrors of alcoholism. In later life Whitman would denounce the novel as “rot,” but it had been a commercial success when published.
In the mid-1840s Whitman became the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, but his political views, which were aligned with the upstart Free Soil Party, eventually got him fired.
In early 1848 he took a job working at a newspaper in New Orleans. While he seemed to enjoy the exotic nature of the city, he was apparently homesick for Brooklyn, and the job only lasted a few months.
In the early 1850s he continued writing for newspapers, but his focus had turned to poetry. He was jotting down notes for poems inspired by the busy city life around him.
Leaves of Grass
In 1855 Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The book was unusual, as the 12 poems were untitled, and they were set in type (partly by Whitman himself) more to resemble prose than poetry.
Whitman had written a lengthy and remarkable preface, essentially introducing himself as an "American bard." For the frontispiece he selected an engraving of himself dressed as a common worker. The green covers of the book were embossed with the title “Leaves of Grass.” Curiously, the title page of the book, perhaps because of an oversight, did not contain the author's name.
The poems in the original edition of Leaves of Grass had been inspired by the things which Whitman found fascinating: the crowds of New York, the modern inventions the public marveled over, and even the raucous politics of the 1850s. And while Whitman apparently hoped to become the poet of the common man, his book went largely unnoticed.
However, Leaves of Grass attracted one major fan. Whitman admired the writer and speaker Ralph Waldo Emerson, and sent him a copy of his book. Emerson read it, was greatly impressed, and responded with a letter that would become famous.
”I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Emerson wrote in a private letter to Whitman. Eager to promote his book, Whitman published excerpts from Emerson’s letter, without permission, in a New York newspaper.
Whitman produced approximately 800 copies of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and the following year he published a second edition, which contained 20 more poems.
The Evolution of Leaves of Grass
Whitman saw Leaves of Grass as being his life’s work. And rather than publishing new books of poems, he began a practice of revising the poems in the book and adding new ones in successive editions.
The third edition of the book was issued by a Boston publishing house, Thayer and Eldridge. Whitman traveled to Boston to spend three months in 1860 preparing the book, which contained more than 400 pages of poems.
Some of the poems in the 1860 edition referred to males loving other males, and while the poems were not explicit, they were controversial.
Whitman During the Civil War
Whitman’s brother George enlisted in a New York infantry regiment in 1861. In December 1862 Walt, believing his brother may have been wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, traveled to the front in Virginia.
The proximity to the war, to soldiers, and especially to the wounded had a profound effect on Whitman. He became deeply interested in helping the wounded, and began volunteering in military hospitals in Washington.
His visits with wounded soldiers would inspire a number of Civil War poems, which he would eventually collect in a book, Drum Taps.
Whitman Became a Revered Public Figure
By the end of the Civil War, Whitman had found a comfortable job working as a clerk in a federal government office in Washington. That came to an end when the newly installed secretary of the interior, James Harlan, discovered that his office employed the author of Leaves of Grass.
Harlan, who reportedly was horrified when he found Whitman’s working copy of Leaves of Grass in an office desk, fired the poet.
With the intercession of friends, Whitman got another federal job, serving as a clerk in the Department of Justice. He remained in government work until 1874, when ill health led him to resign.
Whitman’s problems with Harlan actually may have helped him in the long run, as some critics came to his defense. As more editions of Leaves of Grass appeared, Whitman acquired the reputation of “America’s Good Gray Poet.”
Plagued by health problems, Whitman moved to Camden, New Jersey, in the mid-1870s. When he died, on March 26, 1892, the news of his death was widely reported.
The San Francisco Call, in an obituary of Whitman published on the front page of the March 27, 1892 edition, said:
“Early in life he decided that his mission should be to 'preach the gospel of democracy and of the natural man,' and he schooled himself for the work by passing all his available time among men and women and in the open air, absorbing into himself nature, character, art and indeed all that makes up the eternal universe.”
Whitman was interred in a tomb of his own design, in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey.