Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman
Born: 31-05-1819, West Hills (Huntington, Long Island), New York (US)
Died: 26-03-1892, Camden, New Jersey (US)

Water Whitman (“Walt”) is the typical example of the (American) self-made man. He started out as a busboy and from there on, he worked in many jobs. These jobs included a job as a teacher, journalist and of course a writer (poet).

Whitman is considered as the founding father of free verse. He was responsible for the transition between different literary genres: from transcendentalism to realism. For his attribution to literature – not only the American literature – there is only but one thing appropriate: respect.

This man was not without controversy. His Opus Magnus, Leaves of Grass (first edition: 1855), was something he worked on throughout his life. The final version, often referred to as the deathbed edition, contained over 400 poems he wrote, during 33 years of his life. Still, this book wasn’t without controversy as some poems were seen as indecent. To put it more blunt: it was because of the sexuality in his work.

Teacher

Whitman grew up in poverty, as his father (Walter Whitman Sr.) made some bad choices as it came to investments. The prospect of living in poverty, did not make the young Walt very happy. He had to quit school, when he was eleven years old and was supposed to work. He worked in various printer jobs for newspapers and became the patron of a local library. When he was sixteen years old, he moved to New York City, to work as a compositor. It didn’t leave a great impression, because he later could not remember where he worked. As the economy was going through a crisis, he was forced to move to his family. He worked as a teacher on different schools. In 1838, he decided this wasn’t his thing and started working as a journalist. He founded the newspaper The Long-Islander. He sold the newspaper to E.O. Crowell after ten months. From there on, he worked as a typesetter, again as a teacher and wrote some essays. The journalism was something that grew into.

Leaves of grassLeaves of grass

In 1852, he published his first novel: Life and adventures of Jack Eagle: An autobiography: A story of New York at the present time in which the reader will find some familiar characters. Quite the title for his novel. From that moment, Whitman was also a writer. Still, he was not satisfied. He later would claim, that he was kind of forced into poetry beginning his outline for Leaves of grass. The first edition was a self-published version. 795 copies were printed and all of them did not contain his name. He introduced himself after 500 lines in the body of the book as Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest. The first edition was not well-received by everyone. Some claimed this work was too obscene. Others were commenting on the lack of rhyme and meter in his work.

In 1860, Whitman published a second edition. This one was followed by the 1867-edition of Leaves of grass. Other writers, such as Henry David Thoreau and Amos Bronson Alcott, noticed this work and were enthusiastic about Leaves of grass. Still, the books weren’t sold as much. He had to take up various jobs as a journalist, to receive a steady income.

Civil War

The American Civil War (1861 – 1865) was the inspiration for him to write the poem Beat! Beat! Drums! Whitman chose the side of the North during this war. He volunteered as a nurse during the war. His career did not last that long, since he was fired – probably because of his book Leaves of grass.

After the war was over, his health failed him. In 1873, he suffered a paralytic stroke and was placed in the care of his brother – George Washington Whitman. He was able to move out, in 1884. He took residence in Camden, New Jersey, where he would receive many writers and poets. He shared this house with his brother Edward. His brother and sister-in-law moved out, what decided him to do the same.

The final version of Leaves of grass was the one of 1891. Before that, he published different editions on 1876, 1881 and 1889. Whitman died of bronchial pneumonia on March 26, 1892. The official statement was that he died of “Pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general military tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis.” During his autopsy, a small sized abscess was discovered on his chest. People could pay their last respects to Whitman after he died. During these three hours, more than 1,000 people visited his home. Four days later, he was buried in his tomb at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.

Walt Whitman
Source: Whitman Archive

Poems published on this website

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