In 1855, a poetry collection appeared by an unknown 36-year-old poet, until then known primarily as a printer, teacher, and journalist. The twelve poems contained within were some of the most daring, musical, poignant, and joyful poems to have been published in the United States. They were written in a distinctly American voice and were about American men and women. Their author, Walt Whitman, wanted nothing less than to unite a fraying nation under the banner of his poetic voice.
The frontispiece of Leaves of Grass featured an engraved portrait of Whitman dressed in working clothes. His shirt unbuttoned, his hand placed cockily on his hip, Whitman stared down his reader with an insouciant gaze. The cheeky gaze suggested to author and reader that they both knew that there had never been anything like his book. Talk about confidence - or chutzpah. His sass game was strong.
Whitman spent the rest of his life working on Leaves of Grass, revising, expanding, and deleting its poems up until the final edition issued two months before his death in 1892. The poems and their poet were both hailed as genius and denounced as the most obscene filth. One hundred and fifty years after Leaves of Grass first appeared, we have at last come to understand their author as a gifted translator of the American consciousness. We also know that he was a master of self-promotion, an American patriot, a fiercely independent person, and a tireless observer of human nature. "Whatever you do, do not prettify me," Whitman told one biographer. "Include all the hells and damns." For a poet who spared nothing in his verse, it makes sense that his life story should be told honestly as well.
Walter Whitman Jr. was born 31 May 1819 in West Hills, New York. He was the second of eight surviving children born to Walter Whitman Sr. and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. His father was a strict man who often drank too much, but Whitman was always close with his mother.
In 1823, four days before Walt Jr.'s fourth birthday, the Whitman family moved from Long Island to Brooklyn, New York. This began Whitman's lifelong love affair with New York City. From an early age, when he wasn't in class at one of the Brooklyn public schools, he loved riding the ferry, walking the streets, and checking out the museums, constantly taking note of life happening around him. When he was eleven years old, Whitman had to drop out of school and work to support his family. From then on, the future bard was entirely self-taught.
Whitman's first jobs were office boy positions in the offices of doctors and lawyers. In 1831, at the age of twelve, he got a job as an apprentice compositor at the Long Island Patriot newspaper, a job that proved to be life changing. Whitman loved all aspects of print - the way words sounded, the information words contained, the way words looked on the page. He took to the job immediately. Soon he was freelancing as a printer and compositor for local publications. Fortunately for him, business was good - in 1833 the Whitman family moved back to Long Island, leaving fourteen-year-old Walt to fend for himself in the city.
In 1838, a fire destroyed New York's printing district, and with it Whitman's livelihood. He moved back in with his family in Long Island and took a job as a schoolteacher, a profession he did not love. "O, damnation, damnation! thy other name is school-teaching," By 1841, Whitman had had enough. He moved back to New York City, where the persona we know today as Walt Whitman was formed.
Whitman found work as a freelance typesetter and as a journalist. The latter profession excited him immeasurably. "How it made my heart double-beat to see my piece on the pretty white paper, in nice type," Whitman wasn't just observing life for his own personal amusement, or even for his journalistic pursuits. Whitman had started writing poetry, and the sounds, sights, and smells he encountered on his walks were all being employed in a new style of poetry.
In 1855, Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass appeared. The title was a play on words - "grass" was a slang term for the silly, informal pieces that compositors like Whitman would set in type when things got slow at work.
Whitman celebrated the human body with a frankness not seen elsewhere in American popular culture at the time - at least not in the respectable, church-going aspects of popular culture. His poems like "I Sing the Body Electric" embraced the human body in all its parts, even those covered up by clothes. He wrote about women's sexuality, and he also wrote frankly about sexual relationships between men. Whitman was gay (though he wouldn't have used words like "gay" in his lifetime) and wrote about erotic love between men in his poems with joyful fearlessness.
For all of these reasons, readers of Leaves of Grass came away with one of two reactions: either they thought it was genius, or they thought it was filth. On the positive side, Whitman received a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Transcendentalist thinker and the Sage of Concord, hailing Leaves as a work of genius. "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed," Emerson wrote. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." he said. He wrote anonymous reviews of his own book and planted them in the literary reviews. He also reprinted Emerson's congratulatory letter in the 1856 edition of Leaves, without asking the poet's permission. Emerson was furious. Nonetheless, Emerson's Transcendentalist neighbors in Concord, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, traveled to New York in November 1856 to meet Whitman.
In April 1861, the Civil War broke out. Whitman's brother George enlisted with the Union army. When Whitman received a report that his brother had been wounded, he rushed down to Washington, D.C. to be with him. He was relieved to find that his brother was all right, but appalled to see how many soldiers were suffering and dying for lack of medical care. Whitman volunteered as a military nurse. He was a trusted and well-liked nurse, caring for soldiers' wounds and offering them comfort when they were ill, frightened and far from home.
The war ended in April 1865. Less than a week after the surrender of the Confederacy, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater. Whitman composed two poems, "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain!" to commemorate the fallen leader.
Whitman decided to stay on in Washington D.C. after the war. He got a job as a clerk in the Indian Affairs Bureau of the Department of the Interior. He liked the work, and kept a draft of Leaves of Grass at his desk to work on in the off-hours. Inevitably, his boss James Harlan got wind of it. When Harlan read the poems, he was horrified by their content. He fired Whitman in June 1865, saying that his off-hours project violated "the rules of decorum and propriety prescribed by a Christian Civilization." (Harlan also fired several other employees who he felt exhibited moral weakness.) An outraged Whitman immediately got another job at the U.S. Attorney's office, but was determined to salvage his reputation. With his friend William D. O'Connor, Whitman wrote and published The Good Gray Poet, a defense of Whitman in the wake of his firing from the Interior.
In January 1873, Whitman suffered the first of several strokes, which he called "whacks." Perhaps he did not get what he wanted in his time, but he certainly has gained acceptance in ours.
Father: Walter Whitman Sr. (1789-1855)
Mother: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795-1873)
Brother: Jesse Whitman (1818-1870)
Sister: Mary Whitman (1822-1899)
Sister: Hannah Whitman (1823-1908)
Brother: Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827-1863)
Brother: George Washington Whitman (1829-1901)
Brother: Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833-1890)
Brother: Edward Whitman (1835-1902)
Printer and Typesetter (1831-1836)
Publisher, The Long Islander (1838-1839)
Freelance Journalist (1841-1846)
Editor, Brooklyn Eagle (1846-1848)
Editor, The Crescent (1848)
Editor, Brooklyn Daily Times (1857-1859)
Clerk, U.S. Department of Interior (1865)
Clerk, U.S. Attorney's Office (1865-?)
Franklin Evans; Or The Inebriate (1842)
Leaves of Grass (1855, plus subsequent editions)