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Walt Whitman


Walt Whitman

Walter Whitman was born in West Hills, Long Island, New York, on May 31, 1819, the second of nine children born to Walter and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1823, where he attended public schools from 1825 to 1830, when he quit to become an office boy for a lawyer and then a doctor. He began learning the printer's trade at age 12, and worked as a printer in New York City, New York, until fire demolished the business on August 12, 1836. He then worked as a teacher in various Long Island school houses until moving to New York City and becoming a full-time journalist in 1841.

Whitman spent the next several years writing articles on political questions, civic affairs, and the arts for a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. His first prose work, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate, was published as an extra to The New World in 1842. In 1848, he became editor of the New Orleans (Louisiana) Crescent, and it was while in New Orleans that he was exposed to the horrors of slave markets for the first time. Upon returning to Brooklyn later that same year, he founded the "free-soil" paper Brooklyn Crescent, which he published until September of 1849. He subsequently operated a job-printing office, a bookstore, and a house building business, and did freelance journalism.

Whitman began working on his best-known work, Leaves of Grass, in 1848. The collection's form and content were so unusual, however, that no commercial publisher would publish it. On May 15, 1855, he published the first edition, containing just 12 untitled poems and a preface, at his own expense. The second edition of Leaves of Grass, self-published in 1856, contained 33 poems, a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. Whitman subsequently published six more revised and enlarged editions of Leaves of Grass.

Upon outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman became a freelance journalist and spent time visiting wounded soldiers at New York-area hospitals. In December of 1862, he went to Washington, D.C., to care for his wounded brother. He ended up staying for 11 years, working in hospitals and as a clerk for the Department of Interior. He was fired from the Interior Department in 1865, however, when Interior Secretary James Harlan found out that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. On January 23, 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke while visiting his dying mother in Camden, New Jersey. His mother died soon after, and, unable to return to Washington, he moved into his brother's home. He remained there until 1884, when sales of the most recent edition of Leaves of Grass allowed him to buy his own home. He spent the rest of his life in Camden, preparing the final edition of Leaves of Grass and writing Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891). He died on March 26, 1892, and is buried in Harleigh Cemetery, Camden,

His Poetry
Leaves of Grass (eight editions, 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1870, 1876, 1881, and 1891)
Drum Taps (1865)
Sequel to Drum Taps (1865)
Passage to India (1870)
Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891)

His Prose
Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (1842)
Democratic Vistas (1871)
Memoranda During the War (1875)
Specimen Days and Collect (1881)
November Boughs (1888)
Complete Prose Works (1892)

Sites of Interest

Walt Whitman Archives
Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site

See Also

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Civil War

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The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 19th Century

This page was last updated on 08/26/2018.