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Walt Whitman

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 8 months ago


Walt Whitman


Walter "Walt" Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) is widely considered to be the greatest and most influential poet the United States has ever produced.



1819: Born on May 31.

1841: Moves to New York City.

1855: Father, Walter, dies. First edition of Leaves of Grass.

1862: Visits his brother, George, who was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg.

1865: Drum-Taps, Whitman's wartime poetry (later incorporated into Leaves of Grass), published.

1873: Walt has a stroke. Mother, Louisa, dies.

1877: Meets Richard Maurice Bucke

1882: Meets Oscar Wilde. Publishes Specimen Days & Collect.

1888: Second stroke. Serious illness. Publishes November Boughs.

1891: Final edition of Leaves of Grass.

1892: Dies on March 26.


Early life

Whitman, one of nine children, was born in Long Island to Louisa van Velsor, who had distant Dutch ancestry, and Walter Whitman, Sr.1 He was brought up in Brooklyn. Whitman began his career as a journalist and editor. He was for a time editor of The Long Islander which was his own newspaper stand that he ran himself, but unfortunately that only lasted for one year (1838–1839). During his early years, Whitman inherited his liberal, intellectual and political attitudes largely from his father, who exposed him to socialists Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, Quaker Elias Hicks, and Count Volney.


At age 17 he became a teacher which helped start his career as a writer. He made his first trip to New Orleans with his brother Jeff in 1848, and remained there for several months as an editor of the New Orleans Crescent, but, after falling out with his bosses, returned to Brooklyn where he became the editor of The Brooklyn Times 2. On his return trip, he passed through several American 'frontier' cities that would later play so heavily into his work including St. Louis and Chicago.


After returning for Brooklyn, Whitman continued to work as a journalist and editor for various newspapers. In particular, his work for the New York Aurora and the Democratic Review exposed him to the literary culture of which he later became a part. Whitman himself cited his assignment from the Aurora to cover a series of lectures given by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a turning point in his thinking.




After losing his job as editor of the Daily Eagle because of his abolitionist sentiment and his support of the free-soil movement, Whitman self-published an early edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 with Rome Brothers.


Except for his own anonymous reviews, the early edition of the book received little attention. One exception was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher and essayist. A few prominent intellectuals such as Oliver Wendell Holmes were outwardly opposed to Whitman and found his sensuality obscene and utterly homosexual.


It was not until 1864 that Leaves of Grass found a publisher other than Whitman. That 1860 re-issue was greatly enlarged, containing two new sections, "Children of Adam" and "Calamus". This revising of Leaves of Grass would continue for the rest of his life, and by 1892, Leaves of Grass had been reissued in more than seven different versions.


Walt Whitman, 1884.

Later life

In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke while working and living in Washington, D.C. He never quite recovered completely but continued to write poetry. Eventually he was largely confined to the house he bought in Camden, New Jersey.


After his stroke, his fame grew substantially both at home and abroad. Mostly it was stimulated by several prominent British writers criticizing the American academy for not recognizing Whitman's talents. These included William Rossetti and Anne Gilchrist. At this time in his life, Whitman also had a prominent group of national and international disciples, including Canadian writer and physician Richard Bucke.


During his later years, Whitman ventured out on only two significant journeys: to Colorado in 1879 and to Boston to visit Emerson in 1881. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and was buried in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery.


Although Whitman left Long Island at age 22, he is still much revered there and especially in his native Huntington where a large shopping mall, high school and major road are all named in his honor.


Influence on later poets

Walt Whitman's influence on contemporary North American poetry is so enormous that it has been said that American poetry divides into two camps: that which naturally flows from Whitman and that which consciously strives to reject it. Whitman's great talents presented a complex paradox for the modernist poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who recognized Whitman's value, but feared the implications of his influence.


During the height of modernism, Whitman continued to present "a problem" until he was rescued by such influential poets as William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. Later, Allan Ginsberg and the beat poets would become the most vociferous champions of Whitman's expansive, abundant, humanistic America. Ginsberg begins his famous poem "Supermarket in California" with a reference to Walt Whitman. The hand of Whitman can be seen working in such diverse contemporary poets as John Berryman, Galway Kinnell, Langston Hughes, Philip Levine, Kenneth Koch, James Wright, Joy Harjo, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver, and June Jordan, to name only a few.


Whitman is also reverenced by international poets ranging from Pablo Neruda to Rimbaud to Federico García Lorca.


Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom considers Walt Whitman to be among the five most important U.S. poets of all time (along with Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Robert Frost).


Whitman was also a huge influence on the English novelist and poet, D.H. Lawrence.


Translated into more than 30 languages, Whitman is said to have invented contemporary American literature as a genre. He abandons the rigid rhythmic and metrical structures of European poetry for an expansionist free verse style, which appropriately delivers his philosophical view that America was destined to reinvent the world as emancipator and liberator of the human spirit.

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