Walt Whitman Biography


Life and Background

Walt Whitman is both a major poet and an outstanding personality in the history of American literature. He rose from obscurity to monumental fame, coming to be recognized as a national figure. His achievement is great, although it has been sometimes obscured by unfair, hostile criticism — or, conversely, by extravagant praise. He is essentially a poet, though other aspects of his achievement — as philosopher, mystic, or critic — have also been stressed.

Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, Long Island, New York on May 31, 1819. His father, Walter, was a laborer, carpenter, and house builder. His mother, Louisa, was a devout Quaker. In 1823, the family moved to Brooklyn, where Walt had his schooling (1825-30). From 1830 to 1836 he held various jobs, some of them on newspapers in Brooklyn and Manhattan. From 1836 to 1841 he was a schoolteacher in Long Island, despite the paucity of his own education. The division of Whitman's early life between town and country later enabled him to depict both environments with equal understanding and sympathy. He also traveled extensively throughout America, and so could appreciate the various regions of the land.

Between 1841 and 1851 Whitman edited various periodicals and newspapers. It was, apparently, during this period that he began to compose the poems which were later published as Leaves of Grass.

In 1862 Walt's brother George was wounded in the Civil War. When Whitman traveled to Virginia to visit him, he saw large numbers of the wounded in hospitals. The Civil War was a major event in Whitman's career, stirring both his imagination and his sensibility and making him a dresser of spiritual wounds as well as of physical ones as he worked as a volunteer in hospitals. Lincoln's assassination (1865) also moved Whitman deeply, and several poems bear testimony of his intense grief.

In 1865 Whitman was fired from his post in the Department of the Interior in Washington because of the alleged indecency of Leaves of Grass. He was hired by the Attorney General's office and remained there until 1873 when he suffered a mild paralytic stroke which left him a semi-invalid. In Whitman's last years (1888-92), he was mostly confined to his room in the house which he had bought in Camden, New Jersey. Two friends, Horace Traubel and Thomas B. Harried, attended him. He died on March 26, 1892. Thus ended the lifelong pilgrimage of the Good Gray Poet (as his contemporary, critic W. D. O'Connor, called him), an immortal in American literature.

Whitman grew into almost a legendary figure, due largely to the charm and magnetism of his personality. Contemporary critics described him as a "modern Christ." His face was called "serene, proud, cheerful, florid, grave; the features, massive and handsome, with firm blue eyes." His head was described as "magestic, large, Homeric, and set upon his strong shoulders with the grandeur of ancient sculpture." These descriptions tend to make Whitman appear almost a mythical personage. But he was very much alive.

Whitman was a being of paradoxes. His dual nature, a profound spirituality combined with an equally profound animality, puzzled even his admirers. John A. Symonds, an English writer, was puzzled by undercurrents of emotional and sexual abnormality in the Calamus poems and questioned Whitman on this issue. Whitman's reply (August 19, 1890) is interesting: "My life, young manhood, mid-age, times South, etc., have been jolly bodily, and doubtless open to criticism. Though unmarried I have had six children — two are dead — one living Southern grandchild — fine boy, writes to me occasionally — circumstances . . . have separated me from intimate relations." But no trace of any children of Whitman's has been found, and it is not unlikely that he merely invented them to stave off further questions.

Whitman was truly a representative of his age and reflected its varied crosscurrents. His poetry shows the impact of the romantic idealism which reached its zenith in the years before the Civil War and also shows something of the scientific realism which dominated the literary scene after 1865. Whitman harmonizes this romanticism and realism to achieve a true representation of the spirit of America. The growth of science and technology in his time affected Whitman deeply, and he responded positively to the idea of progress and evolution. American patriotism in the nineteenth century projected the idea of history in relation to cosmic philosophy: it was thought that change and progress form part of God's design. The historical process of America's great growth was therefore part of the divine design, and social and scientific developments were outward facets of real spiritual progress. Whitman shared in this idea of mystic evolution. Leaves of Grass symbolizes the fulfillment of American romanticism as well as of the sense of realistic revolt against it.

Whitman visualized the role of a poet as a seer, as a prophetic genius who could perceive and interpret his own times and also see beyond time. The ideal poet, thought Whitman, portrays the true reality of nature and comprehends and expresses his genuine self. He holds a mirror to his self and to nature; he also illuminates the meaning and significance of the universe and man's relation to it. An ideal poet, he believed, is the poet of man first, then of nature, and finally of God; these elements are united by the poet's harmonious visionary power. Though the poet is concerned primarily with the world of the spirit, he accepts science and democracy within his artistic fold, since these are the basic realities of the modern world, especially that of nineteenth-century America. Recognition of the values of science and democracy is indirectly an acknowledgement of the reality of modern life. Whitman's ideal poet is a singer of the self; he also understands the relation between self and the larger realities of the social and political world and of the spiritual universe. He intuitively comprehends the great mysteries of life — birth, death, and resurrection — and plays the part of a priest and a prophet for mankind.

Leaves of Grass, ever since its first publication in 1855, has been a puzzling collection of poems. It inspires, it enthralls, and it tantalizes-and yet, the problems it poses are numerous and varied. Whitman so completely identified himself with Leaves ("This is no book,/Who touches this touches a man") that critics have tried to find reflections of Whitman's own life in all the imagery and symbolism of the poems. Whitman did explore and express many aspects of his personality in Leaves. It was he himself who created the illusion that he and his poems were identical. Through these works, he found full expression as a poet — and as a man.

The first edition (1855) of Leaves of Grass consisted of ninety-five pages. The author's name did not appear, but his picture was included. By the time the second edition was published in 1856, the volume consisted of 384 pages, with a favorable review by Emerson printed on the back cover. For this edition, Whitman not only added to the text, he also altered the poems which had previously been published. The third edition appeared in 1860 and contained 124 new poems. The fourth edition, published in 1867, was called the "workshop" edition because so much revision had gone into it. It contained eight new poems. The fifth edition (1871) included the new poem "Passage to India." The sixth edition, in two volumes, appeared in 1876. The seventh edition was published in 1881 and is widely accepted as an authoritative edition today, although the eighth and ninth editions are equally important. The last, which is also called the "deathbed" edition because it was completed in the year of Whitman's death (1892), represents Whitman's final thoughts. The text used here will be that of the last, or "deathbed," edition of 1892. Only the most significant poems of each section of Leaves of Grass will be discussed.

A Whitman Chronology

1819 Born May 31 at West Hills, Huntington Township, Long Island, New York.

1823 Family moved to Brooklyn, New York.

1825–30 Attended public school in Brooklyn.

1830–31 Office boy in lawyer's office, then doctor's; then printer's apprentice.

1832–36 Various jobs: printer's devil, handyman.

1836–41 Schoolteacher in Long Island.

1841–47 Reporter and editor for various newspapers. Editor (1846) of Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Published (1842) Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate, a tract.

1848 Discharged from the Eagle. Visited New Orleans (worked on New Orleans newspaper) and traveled on the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.

1849 Editor of the Brooklyn Freeman, a journal.

1850–54 Part-time journalist. Carpenter and house builder in Brooklyn (with father).

1855 First edition of Leaves of Grass published in July. It contained twelve poems and a prose preface.

1856 Second edition of Leaves of Grass, containing twenty additional poems.

1860 Third edition of Leaves of Grass. Traveled to Boston to discuss the preparation of this edition with Emerson.

1862–63 Went to Virginia to attend brother George, who had been wounded in Civil War, Did volunteer work in government hospitals.

1863–73 Lived most of the time in Washington, D.C. Worked for the government.

1864 Drum-Taps published.

1867 Fourth edition of Leaves of Grass.

1871 Fifth edition of Leaves of Grass. Also published Democratic Vistas (a prose pamphlet).

1873 Suffered mild paralytic stroke. Moved to Camden, New Jersey. Mother died.

1876 Sixth edition of Leaves of Grass.

1879 Traveled to St. Louis to visit his brother Jeff.

1881 Visited Boston to prepare the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass, published that same year.

1882 Specimen Days published.

1884 Bought house in Camden, where he lived the rest of his life.

1888 November Boughs published.

1889 Pocket-size edition of Leaves of Grass published for his seventieth birthday.

1891–92 Final ("deathbed") edition of Leaves of Grass.

1892 Died March 26. Buried in Harleigh Cemetery, Camden.