Walt Whitman

The poet, writer, and activist Walt Whitman is a foundational member of the American canon of literature and is often referred to as the father of free verse poetry. Most famous for his work Leaves of Grass (1855), Walt Whitman irrevocably changed perceptions of American wildness and wilderness writing. Whitman's work is controversial, sensual, exciting, and rooted firmly in the human body and the individual's placement in society. 

Walt Whitman Walt Whitman

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Contents
Table of contents

    Walt Whitman's Biography

    Early Life

    Walt Whitman was born Walter Whitman to parents Walter and Louisa Van Velter Whitman on May 31, 1819. Walt Whitman was the second of nine children and aided in teaching and caring for his siblings. The Whitman

    Walt Whitman, Engraving of Walt Whitman, StudySmarterEngraving of Walt Whitman by Samuel Hollyer for the cover of "Leaves of Grass". Commons.wikimedia.org

    family moved around a lot, and Walt Whitman described not being too fond of his childhood due to the constant moving and lack of funds.

    Whitman finished his formal schooling at age 11 and began working for various writing jobs to aid in supplying income for his family. It is believed that Whitman began writing filler material for journals and newspapers as a teenager.

    Whitman quickly became an editor of several publications, including the newspaper The Long-Island Star, and began publishing some of his earliest poetry as young as 15. He left The Long-Island Star at age 16 and proceeded to work a series of teaching, writing, and editing jobs that he never stayed in for much longer than a year.

    He became an avid lover of theatre and the opera, and has been cited saying that he never could have written Leaves of Grass without exposure to such art. He published a series of editorials, poems, and articles throughout the 1840s and became utterly determined to be a poet after all his exposure to publishing and art.

    Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

    As early as 1850, Whitman began initial work on a collection of poetry that could have been Leaves of Grass. By 1855, he had created his first bound copy of Leaves of Grass and presented it as a gift to his brothers. Whitman decided to publish Leaves of Grass on his own, and did not include an author, only the famous engraving of his portrait done by Samuel Hollyer. Less than 800 copies of Leaves of Grass were produced, and Whitman was devoted to creating a new American epic.

    Despite not including his name anywhere on the cover or in the prose introduction, Whitman describes himself in the first few pages of the poem 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." (Leaves of Grass, First Edition).

    One of Walt Whitman's earliest supporters was the renowned Transcendentalist poet and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is likely that, through Emerson's support, Whitman's poetry gained popularity, but even the first edition of Leaves of Grass did fairly well on its own for a self-published book. It gained the interest of a few key critics, despite not being terribly well-selling or vastly well-known.

    Even from the first edition, however, Leaves of Grass received criticism for its sensuality and sexual themes, some believing the work to be uncouth. Though the second edition was already written in 1856, it almost didn't get published as a result of this criticism.

    Whitman re-released Leaves of Grass nine times during his lifetime in various re-releases and publications, ending with his famous Deathbed Edition, though he himself did not publish this. During its early publications, Leaves of Grass gained enough traction that several famous poets and writers, including Henry David Thoreau, visited Whitman to discuss the work.

    Transcendentalism was a movement led by prominent figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The Transcendentalist movement was created in response to Realism and used many themes from philosophers such as Plato and Emmanuel Kant and incorporated Romanticism. All humans and natural things, including the self were seen as divine under the belief structures of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalists had progressive beliefs on feminism and abolition.

    Walt Whitman's affinity towards Romanticism and romantic poetry were heavily influenced by Transcendentalism and realist poetry. Whitman was a very influential romantic poet, and Leaves of Grass expressed Realist, Transcendentalist, and Romantic influences throughout.

    Walt Whitman and the Civil War

    Walt Whitman is very famous for his work as a medic in Washington D.C. during the Civil War. Whitman was a

    Walt Whitman, Painting of Civil War, StudySmarterPainting of the Civil War, where Walt Whitman was a medic. Pixabay.com

    supporter of the North, and leaned towards being an abolitionist, but not because he wanted to end slavery.

    Whitman saw the pragmatic foundations of American society disintegrating and was moved not by the suffering of those enslaved, but by the suffering of white American soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

    Whitman was an abolitionist in the definition of the word, but in practicality some of his writing demonstrates more of a negative perception of people of color and enslaved African Americans, in particular. Some of his poetry and writing appear to celebrate diversity, but through his letters and self-proclaimed racism, it is necessary to acknowledge this engagement as well.

    Whitman was moved by the suffering of soldiers on both sides of the war and decided to personally do something about it by treating them. During this time is where we begin to have more explicit record of Whitman's presumed homoerotic engagements.2 For Whitman, the homoerotic and sensual took place most obviously in the physical form of young male beauty. Whitman's later editions of Leaves of Grass included two of his poetry collections from the Civil War Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps.

    Walt Whitman's Cause of Death

    Walt Whitman suffered a stroke in 1873 at the age of 54, but lived another two decades after the event. He was partially paralyzed and moved in with his brother, George, in Camden, New Jersey. He lived with his brother and sister-in-law until they moved away in 1884 and was very active and still writing poetry during this time. Despite being required to take several years to recover from his stroke, he managed to publish several more editions of Leaves of Grass and continued to receive famous guests such as Oscar Wilde.

    Whitman became acquainted with Mary Oaks Davis during this time, a neighbor and widow. She eventually moved in with Whitman as his housekeeper and was not required to pay rent. She brought many animals with her, including but not limited to a dog, cat, two turtledoves, and a canary.

    As Walt Whitman continued to age, he produced a final edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1891, just a year before his death. Whitman designed his own mausoleum in the time before his death, and he visited it regularly as his health continued to decline. Whitman died on March 26, 1892. An autopsy revealed that his lungs were functioning at roughly 13% of their capacity, and he was determined to have pneumonia. A public service was held for him and saw over 1,000 people attend. His burial was also public.

    Walt Whitman's Famous Poems

    GenreYearWork(s)Description
    Notable Books and Poetry Collections1842-1891
    • Leaves of Grass, First Edition (1855) (Published remaining six editions through 1891)
    • Drum-Taps (1865)
    • Sequel to Drum-Taps: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd and other poems (1865)
    • Memoranda During the War (1876)
    • Specimen Days (1882)
    Select Poems1855"Song of Myself"Easily Whitman's most famous poem, "Song of Myself" is the opening work in Leaves of Grass. The poem is a combination of Romanticism and Realism, concentrating on the celebration of the speaker's body and mind. The poem was initially titled "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American" and it is still a reasonable assumption that "Song of Myself" is about Whitman himself.
    1860"I Hear America Singing""I Hear America Singing" is a poem about Whitman's love of the American people and their vitality, as well as the chorus of different voices and opinions that come together to make the country what it is.
    1865"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd""When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is an elegy written for Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. Though it never includes Lincoln's name, it uses symbolism to emphasize the acceptance of death at the end of the Civil War.
    1867"O Captain! My Captain!""O Captain! My Captain!" is another poem that references Abraham Lincoln, this time as the captain of a ship (America). In this poem, Whitman explores themes of conflict and politics and references both the Civil War and political climate of the time.

    Walt Whitman Facts

    Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Huntington, Long Island, though he spent a majority of his career and adult life in Brooklyn, New York. He never finished formal schooling, leaving at age 11 to work and provide some income for his family.

    As he grew, Whitman worked many writing jobs from government clerk to journalist to, eventually, a self-published poet. Whitman's first collection Leaves of Grass was published in 1855 and became popular within his lifetime.1 Leaves of Grass was concentrated on bringing the epic to the American population. Leaves of Grass became his life's work, with many editions being published before his death in 1892.

    An epic is a genre of poetry that is a long, narrative-style poem that tells the deeds of the main character, usually of above-average capabilities.

    Walt Whitman also played a central role in the literary movement of the American Civil War and wrote poetry about it frequently. It is through letters that he wrote to male friends that he came to be scrutinized for his presumed bisexuality, and modern literary critics today take this presumption to be true.

    Walt Whitman admired Abraham Lincoln greatly and wrote two of his most famous poems after his assassination: 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd' (1865) and 'O Captain! My Captain!' (1867). At the height of the Civil War, Whitman moved to Washington D.C. to tend to the wounded in hospitals, and his poetry reflects on the conflict, as well as loss, healing, and embodiment.

    Whitman suffered a stroke near the end of his life and moved to New Jersey to heal and live out the remainder of his days. His health greatly declined soon after his stroke, though he continued to revise Leaves of Grass. Some of his most famous and potent poetry was written during this time.

    As far as American poets go, Walt Whitman truly changed the course of history. His work created a precedent for the American population, poets and writers alike, and without him America would not be what it is today.

    Walt Whitman's Quotes

    The poet Walt Whitman has many famous lines and quotations that have been imprinted on the American psyche. Included here are some of Whitman's more famous quotations.

    I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

    This quotation is from the poem "Song of Myself" and is, perhaps, one of Walt Whitman's most famous quotations because it is the opening to Leaves of Grass. These lines are a good representation of Whitman's exploration into the body and the connectedness of all living things, a very Transcendentalist mindset. "Song of Myself" is commonly recited and easily recognizable through these first three lines.

    I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars."

    This is another famous Walt Whitman quotation, pulled from the poem "Leaves of Grass", which was also published in the poetry collection Leaves of Grass. This quotation demonstrates Whitman's Transcendentalist beliefs as well, using something as small as a blade of grass to create an expansive and slightly existential poem about the course of humanity and the creation of the universe.

    Resist much, obey little."

    This is one of Whitman's more famous political quotations. Whitman included this line in his poem 'Caution', published in Leaves of Grass. This quotation is an address to the American people and is a warning against the expansion of the federal government.

    Whitman was a rugged individualist and to this day is a manifestation of the "American wild". This quotation, demonstrating Whitman's resistance to a heavy-handed government, is representative of his persona as a mountain man who set off to write a new American epic.

    Walt Whitman - Key takeaways

    • Walt Whitman - known occasionally as "the father of free verse" - was a poet and writer who heavily influenced American literature and perception of the American wild.
    • Walt Whitman's most famous poetry collection is Leaves of Grass, and he spent most of his life writing and revising this work.
    • Walt Whitman's most famous poems include "Song of Myself", "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Doorway Bloom'd".
    • Whitman was a Transcendentalist who wrote romantic poetry, and was heavily influenced by the Transcendentalist, realist, and romantic movements.
    • Walt Whitman died in 1892, and there is an edition of Leaves of Grass published known as the Deathbed Edition.
    • Whitman was a queer poet who concentrated heavily on the beauty of the male body.

    1 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855.

    2 Kantrowitz, Arnie. “How Gay Was Walt Whitman.” Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, 1998.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Walt Whitman

    Who was Walt Whitman?

    Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was an American poet who changed the course of American literature and history through his famous collection Leaves of Grass. 

    What is Walt Whitman's most famous poem?

    Walt Whitman's most famous poem is 'Song of Myself', published in his collection Leaves of Grass. 

    What made Walt Whitman unique?

    Walt Whitman was a unique poet and writer for his time because he concentrated on controversial subjects such as sensuality, sexuality, and politics. His poetry is heavily influenced by transcendentalism, romanticism, and realism. He was a queer writer, though never expressed that openly during his lifetime, and stirred up a lot of controversy over his work Leaves of Grass that was heavily focused on the beauty of the self and male body.

    What are three facts about Walt Whitman?

    Three need-to-know facts about Walt Whitman include 1) he was an American poet that concentrated on the American wilderness 2) he set out to write an epic for the American people and changed the course of American history 3) Whitman's famous collection Leaves of Grass is the most famous collection in American history. 

    Is Walt Whitman a romantic poet?

    Yes, Walt Whitman was a romantic poet who was heavily influenced by transcendentalism, realism, and the American wilderness.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Leaves of Grass was initially written to be what genre?

    What genre did Walt Whitman initially want Leaves of Grass to be?

    What was Leaves of Grass banned for?

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