Walt Whitman Biography

(One of the Most Influential Poets in the American Canon, Regarded as the 'Father of Free Verse')

Birthday: May 31, 1819 (Gemini)

Born In: West Hills, New York, United States

Walter Whitman was an American poet, journalist and humanist. He is mainly known for his approach to Transcendentalism and realism and mastery in free verses, which mirrors in his works. Born into a family of farmers in Long Island, he grew up in Brooklyn, living there through much of his career. An autodidact, he had to give up his schooling at the age of eleven to augment the family income, thereafter taking up various small jobs, including teaching, anonymously publishing poems in various journals.  At the age of 19, he founded a weekly newspaper, shortly breaking into professional journalism, publishing his first book, a novel, at the age of 23 and the first edition of his most celebrated work, Leaves of Grass, at 36. Partly inspired by his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson and partly by his travels through the American frontier, he spent most of his life revising and enlarging the book, publishing several editions of it until his death.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Walter Whitman

Died At Age: 72


father: Walter Whitman

mother: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman

siblings: Andrew Jackson, Edward, George Washington, Jesse, Thomas Jefferson

Born Country: United States

Quotes By Walt Whitman Poets

Died on: March 26, 1892

place of death: Camden, New Jersey, United States

Cause of Death: Pleurisy

U.S. State: New Yorkers

  • 1

    What is Walt Whitman known for?

    Walt Whitman is known for his poetry, particularly his collection "Leaves of Grass," which is considered a groundbreaking work in American literature.
  • 2

    What inspired Walt Whitman's poetry?

    Walt Whitman's poetry was inspired by his observations of the world around him, his belief in democracy, and his exploration of themes such as nature, individuality, and the human experience.
  • 3

    How did Walt Whitman impact American literature?

    Walt Whitman is considered one of the most influential American poets, known for his innovative writing style and free verse poetry. His work helped shape modern American literature and has inspired generations of poets.

  • 4

    What is the significance of Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself?"

    Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself" is considered a central work in American literature, expressing themes of individuality, democracy, and the interconnectedness of humanity. It celebrates the diversity and unity of the human experience.

  • 5

    How did Walt Whitman's writing style differ from other poets of his time?

    Walt Whitman's writing style was distinctive for its use of free verse, unconventional language, and direct address to the reader. Unlike many poets of his time, he sought to break away from traditional poetic forms and explore new ways of expressing the human experience.

Childhood & Early Years

Walter Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, a hamlet in the Town of Huntington, Long Island, USA, where his ancestors had lived for 125 years. His father, Walter Whitman Sr., was of English ancestry, while his mother, Louisa Van Velsor, was of Dutch descent.

By the time Walt Whitman was born, the family had lost much of the land and his father had taken to house-building. They were typical farm people with little education.

Born second of his parent’s nine children, Walt had an elder brother named Jesse Whitman, while his younger brothers were Andrew Jackson Whitman, George Washington Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Whitman and Edward Whitman. He also had two sisters named Hannah Louisa Whitman and Mary Elizabeth Whitman. Another brother died unnamed in infancy.

In 1823, his father moved his growing family to Brooklyn, where he speculated in real estate and built cheap houses for artisans. But due to bad investment, found it difficult to provide for his family; as a result Walt's childhood was spent in monetary hardship.

Walt Whitman began his education in a public school; but had to give that up at the age of eleven and start working. For a time, he was an office boy for two lawyers before joining Patriot, a local weekly newspaper, as an apprentice and printer's devil.

While working at the Patriot, he continued to study by himself, sometimes writing odd pieces to fill up space. Eventually, he left the newspaper to work; first for Erastus Worthington in Brooklyn, and then for the Long-Island Star.

It was while working for Long-Island Star that he began to move around in the literally circle, anonymously publishing his early poems in the New-York Mirror. But in 1836, circumstances forced him to move to rural Long Island, where he taught at various schools till 1838.

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Journalist & Author

In 1838, while living in Long Island with his family, nineteen years old Walt Whitman founded a weekly newspaper, called the Long-Islander, serving as its reporter, editor, printer, and delivery boy.  However, he sold the paper after ten months, thereafter taking up several small jobs to earn his living.

By early 1840s, he had broken into professional journalism, publishing a series of ten editorials, entitled Sun-Down Papers—From the Desk of a Schoolmaster, in three different newspapers. In May 1841, he moved to New York, working under personalities like Park Benjamin Sr. and Rufus Wilmot Griswold.

In March 1842, he was appointed editor of The New York Aurora. Although he brought about positive changes, he had to leave the paper due to dispute with the owners.  Also in 1842, he published his first work; a temperance novel entitled Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate.

In 1844, he came across an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In this essay, the author expresses the need for the United States to have its own poet, who would write about different aspects of American life, about its politics and trade, its blacks and Indians, virtues and vices.

While Whitman decided to respond to Emerson's call, it is not known when he actually started writing poems. Meanwhile, he continued to earn his living as an editor, concurrently contributing pieces to various journals and newspapers.

In 1846, he was appointed the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In the same year, he began publishing his second work, Arrow-Tip, in the same paper anonymously. Later, the book was published with a new title, The Half-Breed; A Tale of the Western Frontier

Walt Whitman left Brooklyn Daily Eagle in early 1848, because of his support for the Free-Soil wing of the Democratic Party. Thereafter, he moved to New Orleans, where he served as the editor of New Orleans Crescent for three months; but returned to New York after witnessing a slave auction.

In New York, he cofounded a free-soil newspaper called the Brooklyn Freeman, serving as its editor to till the fall of 1849. When the venture failed, he began to dabble in real estate, concurrently continuing to write, publishing a city-mystery novel called Life and Adventures of Jack Engle in 1852

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Leaves of Grass & Civil War

In 1855, Walt Whitman self-published his first edition of Leaves of Grass, a book of verses consisting of only twelve poems.  Later, he would write and rewrite the book several times, self-publishing second edition in August 1856, adding twenty poems to it. However, some poems were criticized for their sexual overtones.

In May 1857, financial constraint forced him to join Brooklyn Daily Times as an editor, serving in this capacity till 1859. Meanwhile, in 1858, he published Manly Health and Training.

As the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, Walt Whitman went in search of his brother, whom he thought was dead. However, he found him alive, but the war scenes affected him greatly and he decided to serve the wounded at New York City-area hospitals, concurrently working as a freelance journalist.

In Washington DC

In December 1862, Whitman moved to Washington, D. C. to care for his brother, who had been wounded in the war. Touched by the agony of the wounded soldiers, he eventually decided to stay back and work in the hospitals, remaining there till 1873.

In January 1865, Walt Whitman joined the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a clerk; but was fired from the job when the Secretary of the Interior discovered that he was the author of Leaves of Grass, a book he had found distasteful. Thereafter, he managed to get a job at the attorney general's office.

In May 1865, he published a collection of war poems called Drum-Taps, which was followed in autumn by Sequel to Drum Taps. Very soon, he began to attract greater attention, both at home and abroad.

In 1871, he published his seventh book entitled Democratic Vistas, now considered a classic on comparative politics and letters, which was followed in 1876 by Memoranda During the War. Meanwhile in 1873, Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke, which forced him to move to his brother's home in Camden, New Jersey.

He lived in his brother's home until 1882, leading a very productive life, publishing the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass in 1881. During this period, his poems were related more to soul, death and immortality. His last work, Specimen Days was published in 1882.

In 1882, he was able to buy his own house. He lived there all by himself until February 1885, when Mary Oakes Davis moved in with him, serving as housekeeper in lieu of rent.  Here he spent his last years, working on his deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass (1891-1892).

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Major Works

Walt Whitman is best known for his life-long work, Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems he continued to revise throughout his life, adding more and more poems to it. Considered a landmark in the history of American literature, the first edition was a small book of twelve poems, while the last one was a compilation of over 400.

Most famous of the poems compiled in the collection are Song of Myself, I Sing the Body Electric, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Written in the summer of 1865, the last-mentioned poem is an elegy to fallen president, Abraham Lincoln.

Honours & Achievements

In 2009, Walt Whitman was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame and in 2013 into the Legacy Walk in Chicago.

Death & Legacy

Whitman died on March 26, 1892 and was buried four days later at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. The cause of death has been listed as "pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general miliary tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis".

Between 1876 and 1884, he spent a lot of time in the pastoral community of Laurel Springs, New Jersey, converting one of the Stafford Farm buildings to his summer home. He wrote parts of Leaves of Grass In this house, which has now been turned into a museum.

The Walt Whitman Bridge across the Delaware River near his home in Camden has been named after him. Moreover, his statues have been installed at the entrance to the Walt Whitman Bridge and also in the Bear Mountain State Park.

Facts About Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman was known for his unconventional writing style, often breaking traditional poetic rules and structures, which earned him both praise and criticism during his time.

Whitman had a deep appreciation for nature and often incorporated themes of the natural world into his poetry, celebrating the beauty and complexity of the environment.

Despite facing criticism for his controversial themes and language in his poetry, Whitman remained steadfast in his belief in the power of free expression and individuality.

Whitman was also a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War, tending to wounded soldiers and witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of war, which influenced his later works.

Whitman's collection of poetry, "Leaves of Grass," underwent multiple revisions throughout his lifetime, reflecting his continuous growth and evolution as a writer and thinker.

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