by Claire Wang
Walt Whitman was born in Huntington, Long Island on May 31, 1819, the second of nine children (four of whom were handicapped), to Louisa and Walter Sr., working-class parents who were barely literate. Forced by economic circumstances, his father, a house-builder by trade, moved the family to Brooklyn. Walt abandoned his formal education at an early age to contribute to the family finances. He began learning the printers trade and became self-taught, reading the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Scott. He also thoroughly enjoyed the Bible, which was reflected in his numerous poems in Leaves of Grass. Having become a lover of the written word, he quickly advanced in the trade from newspaper typesetter to editor.
He eventually left the newspaper business and taught in a myriad of one-room schoolhouses in the Long Island area. Though he often spoke fondly of his days as a schoolmaster later in his life, Whitman did not enjoy the profession. As a burgeoning young writer with a whetted appetite for metropolitan New York, he probably found little in the rural areas that appealed to or inspired him. He ironically resented teaching the type of backwoods students that populated the Long Island schools. He often spoke harshly and contemptuously of the children, perceiving his long hours spent with them as wasted time. Despite these reservations, he continued teaching for a few years. His unconventional teaching methods, such as the usage of educational games and suspension of corporal punishment were received with mixed emotions by his superiors.
After a few years, he decided to pursue Journalism as a full-time career, and became a successful editor for several New York and Brooklyn papers. He also wrote for a local press in New Orleans, where he distastefully witnessed the activities of an open slave market. Having become a staunch abolitionist, he published a free-soil newspaper upon his return to New York and became active in the local Democratic party. He also developed a passion for music and frequented the opera, which had a noticeably significant effect on his writing; his references to song and harmony were numerous in Leaves of Grass.
Whitman spent most of his leisure time with a group of fellow poets and artists in the crowded, squalid Pfaffs beer cellar under the Broadway pavement. The writers intimate relations with many in the colorful, bohemian crowd led to the first rumors of Whitmans homosexuality. Around this period, he began laboring on a series of poems that would eventually manifest into Leaves of Grass.
In 1855, Whitman published the first edition at his own expense. His vivacious style of writing and innovative free verse, marked by brilliant images and crude celebrations of the self illustrated his belief that an excellent writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry…”
At that time, however, the general sentiment of Leaves of Grass was mixed. The first manifestation, which contained only 12 poems, received more praise from his European audience than from those in his native country.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend and advocate, publicly praised the volume and the genius of the poet. Other Whitman contemporaries were not as complementary. New York journalist Rufus Griswold promptly dismissed the volume, referring to it as “a mass of stupid filth.” An anonymous writer for the London Critic concluded, “Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.”
Undaunted by criticism and refusing to obliterate any sexual innuendos, he continued to labor on his masterpiece for nearly 40 years. By his death, Leaves of Grass had been published in its 9th edition.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman was far removed from most military activities. He continued writing and occasionally visited the few army hospitals in New York. He soon traveled to Washington, D.C. when he learned of his brother, George’s wounding. He was so affected by the suffering and painful conditions of the injured soldiers that he decided to stay in the capitol and work as a volunteer nurse. Whitman would distribute fruit and candies to the soldiers, write letters, read to them, and provide many other comforts. He found work in the army paymaster’s office, often devoting the entirety of his meager salary to purchasing gifts for the patients.
His experiences at the army hospitals had a sobering effect on the poet, having witnessed heaps of amputated limbs, dying soldiers and other grisly sights. The former impulsive Whitman became more tempered and mellowed, in both his personality and poetry. Formerly disposed to basing his writings on the celebration and musings of the self, his theme shifted to that of the pursuit of the unification of all humanity. It also lent him a sense of purpose in his work and strengthened his belief in democracy and equality.
At the conclusion of the war, Whitman continued to labor in Washington, D.C. for the Department of the Interior, until he was dismissed by the secretary, who discovered that Whitman had written Leaves of Grass, which he found abhorrent. Partially crippled by a stroke in 1873, he went to live with his brother George in Camden, N.J., where he continued to write. Eager for independence, he collected enough money to move into a dilapidated house in a nearby working-class neighborhood. His health weakened, he was able to live for a number of years under the constant care of nurses and his friend Horace Traubel. Whitman died at his home on March 26, 1892 and was buried at Harleigh Cemetery. At his funeral, the eulogist proclaimed: “Long after we are dead the brave words he has spoken will sound like trumpets to the dying. He was, above all I have known, the poet of humanity, of sympathy.”
His final request to his friend and caretaker, Horace Traubel: “Be sure to write about me honest: whatever you do, do not prettify me: include all the hells and damns.”
Claire Wang was formerly an editorial assistant and intern with Literary Traveler.