Brief Biography of Walt Whitman
An Intro to Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman is one of the greats of American Literature, ranking up there with Emerson, Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson. Aesthetic and artistic preferences aside, he is required reading for English majors. Interestingly, many of the authors and poets who are now considered great received criticism in their own time because they defied accepted standards and forms in their work. Often, the very qualities that were criticized are now celebrated.
An American Poet
Walt Whitman wrote many stories, poems, and some novels. What he is perhaps best known for is the way he changed American poetry, rejecting the poetic conventions of the day and writing in the form that is now known as free verse.
Walt Whitman was born in 1819 to a Quaker family in West Hills, Long Island. He was the second of eight children who survived. Leaving school at the age of eleven, Whitman began his professional career(s) early, even staying behind in Brooklyn when his family moved away when he was thirteen or fourteen. Throughout his teens and twenties, Whitman held down various jobs in the printing industry, taught school for a while in East Norwich, Long Island, edited two newspapers, contributed to several more, wrote a novel, and began a political career with the Democratic Party.
After spending several years in Manhattan, Whitman went back to Brooklyn in 1845. There, he covered Manhattan events for the Long Island Star, and was able to attend many operas with his journalist’s pass, which helped to inspire his future creative efforts. Whitman’s political views got him fired from a job as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, and he went to New Orleans in 1848 to pick up some work there. He didn’t stay long, and by the summer of that year he could again be found in Brooklyn, helping to establish the Brooklyn Freeman, a Free-Soil paper (meaning they did not support expansion of slavery into newly acquired American territories). Whitman began seriously working on his poetry, while also building houses and doing carpentry work. By the end of 1854 Whitman had dedicated himself to writing, forsaking carpentry altogether. The next year he took out a copyright for what was to become an important collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass.
Whitman wanted to be the poet of the masses, but Longfellow was more popular at the time. Emerson was enthusiastic about Whitman’s work, but he did not get much feedback from the rest of the literary community. Emerson and Thoreau visited Whitman in 1855 and 1856, and Whitman released a second edition of Leaves of Grass in 1856. He also went back to journalism as a means of making a living. The late 1850’s to 1860’s saw Whitman writing more poetry and organizing it into clusters, some of which was very provocative and scandalous in its treatment of love and romance, both heterosexual and homosexual.
During the Civil War Whitman moved to Washington, D.C. to care for wounded soldiers in a huge, open-air hospital. Those experiences profoundly impacted his views on the war, inspiring his Drum-Taps collection. Whitman was fired from a job at the Department of the Interior because of the “obscene” nature of Leaves of Grass, but of course Whitman kept on writing. Ill health forced Whitman to leave Washington and move in with his brother George in 1873. During his illness, Whitman continued to write and to revise Leaves of Grass. He gained more recognition in the 1870’s and 1880’s than he had previously enjoyed, receiving letters and visits from several notable authors of the time, both British and American.
Whitman finally began to make quite a lot of money in royalties, and purchased a cottage in Camden in 1884. Leaves of Grass, now much expanded from the original edition, was again republished in 1891-92. Whitman died in 1892, and was buried in the mausoleum for which he had contracted the construction. Whitman’s mausoleum is in Harleigh Cemetery, in Camden.