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Walt Whitman  

Author of "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman is regarded as one of America's greatest 19th century poets. His collection of poems continues to be widely read and studied.
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Walt Whitman ( 1819-1892)

 

Whitman--the steel engraving from the first 1855 edition of "Leaves of Grass"

 

Brief Biography

Many people, both scholars and lovers of poetry, consider Walt Whitman to be America's poet- a complex man who sang the praises of America and whose masterpiece "Leaves of Grass" has been translated into many languages.  A product of a humble working class family, Whitman transformed himself from a well dressed "dandy" to an ordinary American ( at least that is how he came to see himself.)

Whitman was born in 1819, the second of nine children.  His father was a house builder and his mother, to whom Whitman was very close, was a devoted wife and mother.  Whitman had little formal education, but read voraciously.  At the age of 12 he took his first job as a printer's helper and by 1835 was a printer in New York City.  Whitman loved New York:  the crowded streets, the busy docks, the theater and opera, the noisy saloons.  He used to ride up and down New York and just speak to his fellow passangers.   For a time ( 1836-1841) economic hardship forced him to return to Long Island with his family. While there he had a series of teaching jobs.  He also founded  newspapers and worked as a journalist and editor.   After 1841, he worked full time as an editor on numerous papers, including one in New Orleans--where he witnessed slave auctions, an experience that convinced him of the evils of slavery.

An early photograph of Whitman taken in the 1840's shows him all decked out in a dark jacket, vest, tie and large hat--a well dressed New Yorker.  During this time-probably around 1847-48- he began to work on the first poems of  "Leaves of Grass."   He was inspired by reading the works of Emerson and by his trip to New Orleans.  He saw first hand the beauty of America and the vitality of its people.   During the spring of 1855 he published-with the help of Brooklyn friends- the first edition of "Leaves of Grass."   It was a slim volume of 12 untitled poems. There was an etching of a working class man, someone not dressed as a "dandy" New Yorker.  It was Whitman, transformed.   Whitman paid for and did much of the typesetting himself for this first edition.  It was  not signed and was just 95 pages. About  800 were printed . It was published on July 4, 1855.  Whitman sent a copy to Emerson, who praised the poems in a letter back to Whitman.  The collection of poems would grow to over 300 by the time of the last ninth edition published just 2 months before Whitman's death.  This last edition is called the deathbed edition.   There was little praise for the first edition.  In fact, those critics who read it, with a few exceptions, considered it obscene.  The poor reviews did not really bother Whitman.  The first poem-and the one that would introduce Whitman to the world- is "Song of Myself."   Despite its title, it is not an egocentric piece of writing.  This long poem is considered by many to be the most famous.  Whitman wrote in free verse and his poems seem to ramble, but in fact they are carefully constructed.  He worked on and added poems to "Leaves of Grass" for over 35 years. Poems such as "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and "O Captain! My Captain!" are famous and demonstrate Whitman's skill as a poet.  Whitman also wrote and published prose, such as the autobiographical "Speciman Days" and "Democratic Vistas."

During the Civil War, Whitman lived in Washington, D.C. as a government clerk. He went to Washington to care for his brother who was wounded in the War.  He also volunteered in the hospitals, tending to the young wounded soldiers.  After the war, he continued to work in Washigton until 1873, when he suffered a serious stroke.  He moved to Camden, New Jersey to live with one of his brothers.  The publication of the seventh printing of "Leaves of Grass" in 1881 sold well and Whitman used some of the money to buy a small house in Camden.  By that time, he was well known and corresponded and received visits by well known authors, poets and playwrights.    By this time, he was known as the "Good Gray Poet." and was internationally famous..  He foresaw his death and paid for and even helped design his mausoleum.    He died in 1892 at the age of 72.  He is buried in Camden.   His house and mausoleum are visited by lovers of his poetry to this day.

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