Walter Whitman was an American poet, journalist and humanist. The poet is mainly known for his approach to Transcendentalism and realism and mastery in free verses, which would mirror in his works. Among his most famous works, is his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which was also his first significant work as a poet. The collection was first published in 1855 and since then, he kept it revising and expanding until his death. The poetry was initially labeled and banned for its obscenity though it later gained popularity and has been translated into a number of foreign languages. Whitman was also a teacher and a government clerk before taking on writing and worked as a nurse during the American Civil War. Though he opposed the slavery system in America and wrote poetries moved by their sufferings, he did not participate in the abolitionary movement at any point in his life. The poet died in 1892, at age seventy two.
Childhood & Early Life
Walt Whitman was born on 31 May 1819 in Long Island. New York and was the second of nine children born to his parents Walter and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. His childhood was not a happy one and was raised amidst a hard pressed finance of his family. They kept on moving from one place to another, which was also due to the bad economic conditions and he took up his first employment of many, as early as at the age of eleven. He was hired as an office boy to lawyers and later as an apprentice. He was then employed by the newspaper The Patriot, where he learned about the printing press and typesetting. His family moved to West Hills leaving him behind, and he continued to work for another printer Alden Spooner, editor of the weekly newspaper the Long-Island Star. By this time, He had begun reading avidly, became a patron of a library and joined various debating societies. He also began writing poetries during this period, which were anonymously published in the New York Mirror.
In 1836, Whitman joined the family in Hempstead where he taught at various schools for the next two years. Though he was never happy with the job and finally left it, moving back to New York seeking to set up his newspaper, the Long Islander. After working there for few months, he sold the publication to another publisher and joined the Long Island Democrat, as a typesetter. He once again turned back to teaching and published a series of ten editorials Sun Down Papers-From the Desk of a Schoolmaster. In 1842, he became editor of the Brooklyn Eagle.
Leaves of Grass
Whitman claimed poems to be his first love and regardless of the job he was in, continued to write poetries in his early years which gave him initial success. During 1850's, he embarked upon writing Leaves of Grass, his first work that would bring him his greatest success. The collection was published with his own money in 1855. It was published anonymously and raised much interest with in a short span of time. Critics called the poetry as obscene, profane and harshly criticized it for its sexual theme; however, some praised it for its ingenious use of free verses. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of them. With Emerson coming for his support, the selling of the book was raised considerably and the second edition of it was published in 1856. Since then, Whitman continued to revise and expand the collection until his death. On 11 July 1855, Whitman's father Walt died at age sixty five. The verses brought him both fame and controversies, though financial success still eluded him and he had to get back to his journalism work. In 1857, he joined the Brooklyn's Daily Times, where he contributed as its editor and writer until 1859.
American Civil War & Whitman
With the onset of the American Civil War, Whitman's wrote his poem Beat! Beat! Drums, that appeared as a call for the country. Whitman's brother George's involvement in the war as a soldier worried him as the news of mass killings kept coming in and he rushed to south to find him. In his way to south, Whitman witnessed and had a close experience of the pain and sufferings of the soldiers. Though luckily he found his brother well and alive, the violence and killing of the war had moved him so much that he decided to leave New York for good and left for Washington in 1862. In Washington, Whitman took up a part time job in the army paymaster's office and became a nurse to those injured in the war. He would recall the experience in The Great Army of the Sick, published in 1863.
In 1864, Whitman's brother George was taken into custody by the Confederates in Virginia and another brother Andrew Jackson succumbed to death from Tuberculosis. After a difficult end of the 1864, Whitman succeeded in receiving a government job in the Bureau of the Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior in 1865, though he was fired as soon as his identity as the author of the blasphemous book Leaves of Grass was found by the secretary. In 1865, George was released and granted a pardon because of his failing health. O'Connor, a friend of him, went enraged at the news of his firing from the job and published a biographical study of Whitman called The Good Gray Poet in 1866. Whitman's reputation was further restored with the release of his poem O Captain! My Captain!, a poem to Abraham Lincoln. In 1868, Poems of Walt Whitman was published in England.
Writing Style & Theme
Whitman as a poet used symbolic style in his poetry and his works seemingly were fascinated with the subject of death and sexuality. Abandoning the conventional prose-like poetic form, he exuded his mastery in the free verses for which he is called as the father of free verses. His works are considered as a mirror to his country America, as he accentuated the connection between a poet and its country. His works are also influenced and draw heavily upon his believe in deism.
Later Years & Death
As early as in 1873, Whitman suffered from a paralytic stroke. His mother, whom he had been unusually close, passed away in the same year. Depressed and broken, Whitman moved to New Jersey to be with his brother George and lived there until he found a home in 1884. Meanwhile, Whitman released more editions of Leaves of Grass, publishing in 1876, 1881 and 1889. He produced a further edition of the book, which was to be its last, in 1891. During this period, he became obsessed with the frequent thoughts of death, and often wrote of his pain and suffering his notebook. He also bought a mausoleum shaped house in his last days. Walt Whitman died on 26 March 1892 of bronchial pneumonia. A grand funeral was held and his body was buried in his tomb at Harleigh Cemetry, where remain of his parents and brothers were moved with him.