New York City
Walt Whitman was a writer who was able to reflect the human spirit through words on print. Though Whitman didn’t have as much recognition as he does today, due to what people felt was crude and offensive material, he was able to create poetry that displayed the human emotions. When reading his material, it is easy to get the impression that Whitman had strong opinions over several subjects. Through his writings, Whitman was able to convey these messages in his work. Having been influenced by the writing movements that were spreading during the nineteenth century and his introduction to literature as a child, Whitman had written hundreds of poems that are still recognized today.
Born to Walter and Louisa Van Whitman on May 31, 1819, in the small town of West Hills, New York, future American Transcendentalism and Deism writer Walt Whitman was born. Due to the fact that Whitman was born during the formation of early America, he was able to experience the changes that were happening in the United States. Whitman’s father had been greatly influenced by the events of early America, naming three of his seven sons after American heroes. Though having respect for his father, he never held much affection towards him. His mother, however, was someone he had a strong bond with, as they comforted each other during emotional crisis that occured in their family. Days after his fourth birthday, Whitman’s father had moved the family of eleven to Brooklyn, New York, in hopes of becoming successful in real estate. Unfortunately, Whitman’s father struggled with the family’s finances and took to drinking because of this. At eleven, Whitman was taken out of school by his father to help with the family income. In spite of his father’s worsening alcohol consumption, Whitman had chose to look on the optimistic side of things, stating “I stand for the sunny point of view” (“Walt Whitman Biography” 2). Whitman had worked as an office boy for two lawyers and at twelve, learned the works of the printing trade. While having an apprenticeship on the Patriot, Whitman was exposed to the introduction of putting words on print and communicating with readers through newspaper articles. Through this, Whitman became engrossed with writing, recalling “How it made my heart double-beat to see my piece on the pretty white paper, in nice type” (Price ). By sixteen, Whitman was composing and printing in the Patriot, seeming to look to make a career out of it. Unfortunately, the following year, two fires broke out, resulting in printing and business centers to burn down. Whitman left New York City back to Hempstead, to reside with his family. This began his unlikely career as a teacher. In the middle of his teaching career, Whitman had started a weekly newspaper called the Long Islander. By 1841, Whitman had quit teaching and focused his sights on journalism. Having moved back to New York City, Whitman had worked for various newspaper businesses before serving two years as an editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. During early 1850, Whitman would begin writing the first edition of many of Leaves of Grass. Having paid for the publication of the book himself, Whitman had 795 copies of the book published. The book had received its share of praise and criticism during its first few weeks of publication. In the following year, Whitman had published a revised version of Leaves of Grass with this book featuring 32 poems. The book had received more recognition than the first from more well-known authors such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Emerson writing a five-page letter praising the collection, calling it “The most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom” (“Walt Whitman Biography” 4). As Whitman attempted to kickstart the publication of the third book, the outbreak of the Civil War had ceased this attempt and created financial struggle for Whitman.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman’s brother, George, enlisted and joined the Union army. Whitman’s chronically ill brother, Andrew, would also enlist, but only served three months and would die a year later of tuberculosis. As a rally call for the North, Whitman published the poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” In the month of December, a list of fallen and injured soldiers appeared in the New York Tribune. Whitman heads to the south, thinking his brother had been killed in the war. When arriving, Whitman witnesses the suffering effects aroused by the war. After witnessing first hand the effects the war has taken, Whitman moves to Washington and chooses to help tend to the wounded soldiers. While living in Washington, Whitman takes the job as a clerk for eleven years, but is fired after the secretary discovers he was the author to Leaves of Grass. Even with his job as a clerk, Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. With his earnings, Whitman would spend his money on the patients he tended and send money to his ill mother and handicapped brother. As a result of his struggles, writers from in and out of the states would send money, so as for him to get by. Regardless of his first hand witnesses of war and his financial struggles, Whitman continued to write of the human spirit.
Credited with being the “Father of Free Verse,” despite not creating it, Whitman went on to construct what would later be a popular writing form. Being apart of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, Whitman went on to incorporate both movements in his work. He had crafted a distinctive style of writing that is recognizable by readers. Whitman believed when writing, there was a relationship between a poet and society. He had emphasized this in his poem “Song of Myself,” writing “In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less” and “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Cook). By using first-person narration, Whitman created an identity for the common people. Whitman had also been strongly influenced by Deism. He did respect and accept all religions, believing not one was of more importance than the other. He had emphasized his feelings towards Deism in “With Antecedents,” quoting “I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demigod” (Reynolds 237). Whitman had also expressed these responses in “Song of Myself,” similar to how he expressed his feelings toward slavery in the poem. While traveling to the South for his brother, Whitman had expressed his distaste toward the acts of slavery. He had opposed the idea of it in the United States and had supported the Wilmot Proviso. At first Whitman had opposed abolitionists, believing what they were trying to achieve was doing more bad than good in the country. When finally coming around to support the movement, Whitman’s main concern was the refusal of the Southern states and them wanting to divide the country into two. During the war, Whitman had written the poem “I Hear America Singing.”Among the lines of the poem, Whitman had constructed an image of America in itself. Whitman, though, would seem to mock the celebrations of America. He had imagined America as being arrogant, racist, and dismissive of those who value equal rights. Due to his views of America in his poems and the obscure nature of them, Whitman had created a large negative response towards them. He had been fired from the Department of Interior by James Harlan, who found the book to be very offensive. A critic had told Whitman that it was not meant for Christians, as the book had caused the first public accusations toward Whitman’s sexuality. As a result of the negative reviews the book received, the second edition of Leaves of Grass was almost suspended from publication. There were critics though, who found the book to be of good nature with a strong message. Over the course of several years, Whitman would continue writing several editions of Leaves of Grass, in spite of his deteriorating health.
During early 1873, Whitman had suffered a paralytic stroke. He soon moved to his brother’s home until 1884, before purchasing his own home. In the same year of Whitman’s stroke, Whitman’s mother fell ill and died in the same year in May. In Whitman’s brother’s home, Whitman had written three new editions of Leaves of Grass and was last physically active here before being bedridden. Whitman knew his death was near, as he had a mausoleum built in Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery and visited it quite often during its construction. During the end of 1891, Whitman would write his final edition of Leaves of Grass, which was later nicknamed “Deathbed Edition.” On March 26, 1892, Whitman had passed, due to the result of miliary tuberculosis. During his autopsy, it was revealed that one of Whitman’s lungs had collapsed, while the other was ⅛ of average size. The day of the viewing of his corpse, over 1,000 people had visited him in the span of three hours. Whitman had openly written about death and finally had succumbed to his own.
Walt Whitman had left behind a collection of poems and a strong influence of free verse to the world. Having lived during the transcendentalist and realist movements, Whitman was able to create collaborative pieces of both eras. Whitman had constructed his own unique style of writing, that not only is still recognized today, but had influenced other writers after him. His work had broken boundaries of poetic form, as it portrayed both the human emotion and human spirit.