Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Walter Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Town of Huntington, Long Island, to parents with interests in Quaker thought, Walter and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer's trade, and fell in love with the written word and Nature. He read classics i n his youth and was inspired by writers such as Goethe, Hegel, Carlyle and Emerson. He left school early to become a printer's apprentice. He also in 1835 worked as a teacher and journeyman printer. After that he held a great variety of jobs while writing and editing for several periodicals, The Brooklyn Eagle from 1846 to 1848 and The Brooklyn Times from 1857 to 1858. In between he spent three months on a New Orleans paper, working for his father, and earning his living from undistinguished hack-work.

In New York Whitman witnessed the rapid growth of the city and wanted to write a new kind of poetry in tune with mankind's new faith, hopeful expectations and energy of his days. Another theme in 'Song of Myself' is suffering and death – he identified with Jesus and his fate: "In vain were nails driven through my hands. / I remember my crucifixion and bloody coronation / I remember the mockers and the buffeting insults / The sepulchre and the white linen have yielded me up / I am alive in New York and San Francisco, / Again I tread the streets after two thouand years." (from an early draft) The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in July 1855 at Whitman's own expense – he also personally had set the type for it – and the poem was about the writer himself. In the same year there also appeared Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, another great American epic. The third edition of Leaves was published during Whitman's wandering years in 1860. It was greeted with warm appreciation, although at first his work was not hugely popular. Ralph Waldo Emerson was among his early admirers and wrote in 1855: "I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy."

He founded a weekly newspaper, Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. It was in New Orleans that he experienced at 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, the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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 sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from 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.

As the American Civil War was beginning, Whitman published his poem "Beat! Beat! Drums!" as a patriotic rally call for the North. Whitman's brother George had joined the Union army and began sending Whitman several vividly detailed letters of the battle front. On December 16, 1862, a listing of fallen and wounded soldiers in the New York Tribune included "First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore", which Whitman worried was a reference to his brother George. He made his way south immediately to find him, though his wallet was stolen on the way. "Walking all day and night, unable to ride, trying to get information, trying to get access to big people", Whitman later wrote, he eventually found George alive, with only a superficial wound on his cheek. Whitman, profoundly affected by seeing the wounded soldiers and the heaps of their amputated limbs, left for Washington on December 28, 1862 with the intention of never returning to New York.

In Washington, D.C., Whitman's friend Charley Eldridge helped him obtain part-time work in the army paymaster's office, leaving time for Whitman to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals. He would write of this experience in "The Great Army of the Sick", published in a New York newspaper in 1863 and, 12 years later, in a book called Memoranda During the War. He then contacted Emerson, this time to ask for help in obtaining a government post. Another friend, John Trowbridge, passed on a letter of recommendation from Emerson to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, hoping he would grant Whitman a position in that department. Chase, however, did not want to hire the author of such a disreputable book as Leaves of Grass.

In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, NJ, 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. He stayed with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass gave Whitman enough money to buy a home in Camden.

After suffering a paralytic stroke in early 1873, Whitman was induced to move from Washington to his brother's--George Washington Whitman, an Engineer--home at 431 Stevens Street in Camden New Jersey where his mother was ill and would die that same year in May. Both events were difficult for Whitman and left him depressed and he would remain at his brothers home until buying his own in 1884. However, before purchasing his own home, he spent the greatest period of his residence in Camden at his brother's home in Stevens Street. While in residence he was very productive publishing three version of Leaves of Grass among other works. He was also last fully physically active in this house, receiving both Oscar Wilde and Thomas Eakins. His other brother, Edward, an "invalid" since birth, also lived in the house.

In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of the book and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891). After his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.

Whitman died on March 26, 1892. An autopsy revealed his lungs had diminished to one-eighth their normal breathing capacity, a result of bronchial pneumonia, and that an egg-sized abscess on his chest had eroded one of his ribs. The cause of death was officially listed as "pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general miliary tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis." A public viewing of his body was held at his Camden home; over one thousand people visited in three hours and Whitman's oak coffin was barely visible because of all the flowers and wreaths left for him. Four days after his death, he was buried in his tomb at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. Another public ceremony was held at the cemetery, with friends giving speeches, live music, and refreshments. Whitman's friend, the orator Robert Ingersoll, delivered the eulogy. Later, the remains of Whitman's parents and two of his brothers and their families were moved to the mausoleum.

Books: 

* FRANKLIN EVANS, 1842
* LEAVES OF GRASS, 1855
* SEQUEL, 1865
* DEMOCRATIC VISTAS, 1871
* MEMORANDA DURING THE WAR, 1875
* SPECIMEN DAYS & COLLECT, 1882-83
* NOVEMBER BOUGHS, 1888
* CALAMUS: A SERIES OF LETTERS WRITTEN DURING THE YEARS 1868-1880, 1897
* COMPLETE WRITINGS, 10 vol., 1902
* CORRESPONDENCE, 1961-69
* PROSE WORKS, 1963-64
* DAYBOOKS AND NOTEBOOKS, 1978
* WALT WHITMAN: POETRY AND PROSE, 1982
* CORRESPONDENCE 1886-1889, 1989
* CORRESPONDENCE 1890-1892, 1989
* THE JOURNALISM: 1834-1846, 1998