Who Was Walt Whitman?

Walt Whitman was one of the most important poets in American History, who led a life as elaborate as his body of work.

Jan 10, 2024By Brian Daly, BA Philosophy, BA English

 

Walt Whitman was a 19th century writer, poet, and one the most influential figures in the shaping of American literary culture. His work is characterized by his passion for life, love, and his nation, and he wrote his poetry with the hope that it would help his readers face their own lives with a similar sense of gratitude and excitement. A summation below of the most important events and accomplishments in his life, only scratches the surface of his legacy.

 

Early Life

Eaton's Neck, Long Island, John Frederick Kensett, 1872. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Eaton’s Neck, Long Island, John Frederick Kensett, 1872. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Walt Whitman was born on May 31st, 1819, in Huntington, New York. Both of his parents were descendants of early Long Island settlers, but Whitman would grow up in Brooklyn after his family moved there in 1823. He would only spend a few years in school before dropping out to focus on working and supporting his family. Working as a printer for different Brooklyn newspapers gave him his first legitimate exposure to writing, and as a teenager he stayed in the city for this work after his family returned to Long Island.

 

However, he would be forced to return to Long Island after the Great Fire of 1835 decimated Brooklyn and the newspaper industry. It wouldn’t take long for him to return to the printing business, launching his own weekly newspaper The Long Islander in 1838, editing, printing, and delivering copies all by himself.

 

Early Adulthood and Leaves of Grass

Bird's Eye View of New York and Brooklyn, John Bachmann, 1851. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bird’s Eye View of New York and Brooklyn, John Bachmann, 1851. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Less than a year after starting it, Whitman sold his newspaper business. For the next twenty years he would take up writing and editing jobs for various newspapers in New York City. Whitman wrote mostly prose at first, but during this time he gradually began experimenting more with poetry. He put more thought towards the intent behind this poetry, and towards his own personal and intellectual growth to substantiate his work. 

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In 1855, Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass, a collection of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He did not put his name in the book either, and its only reference to him was a front-page illustration of him in laborer’s clothes. Of the roughly 800 copies printed, very few sold, and Whitman ended up giving most away for free. However, did not deter him, and one year later he would release a second edition with twenty new poems.

 

Engraving of Walt Whitman, Samuel Hollyer, 1854. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Engraving of Walt Whitman, Samuel Hollyer, 1854. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Presenting readers with his likeness instead of his name was an effort to establish a more intimate connection with them. He prided himself on being the poet for the common person, unconstrained by social stratification, which presents the bliss and vitality of his worldview as not just realistic, but universally accessible. The first edition contained some of his most profound and popular poems, such as “Song of Myself,” a lengthy exploration of the beauty present all throughout everyday life and his own elation that comes from submerging himself in the embrace of the world. Buried at the heart of this poem lies a concise self-description which reflects the voice behind all his poetry:

 

I am the poet of the body,

And I am the poet of the soul.”

 

Other noteworthy poems include, “There Was a Child Went Forth,” an account of his own adoration and gravitation towards nature in his youth, and “I Sing the Body Electric,” a more subversive examination of the beauty of the male and female form.

 

Documenting the American Civil War

Armory Square Hospital, Interior of Ward K, ca. 1863. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Armory Square Hospital, Interior of Ward K, ca. 1863. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

In December of 1862, over a year after the start of the American Civil War, Walt Whitman had been informed that his brother George had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg, and he promptly traveled to the warfront in Virginia. After seeing that his brother was recovering, he decided to stay in Washington D.C., working as a nurse and tending to wounded soldiers in Armory Square Hospital. The journals he kept during the war were eventually published as Memoranda During The War, and he initially published his poetry from this time as a collection titled Drum-Taps.

 

During the Reconstruction era after the war, Whitman grew frustrated with his nation as it started to neglect the ideals upon which it was founded. In 1871, he published Democratic Vistas, a scathing commentary on American culture and role literature plays in preserving a democratic society and the rights of the individual.

 

Later Life

Portrait of Walt Whitman, Thomas Eakins, ca. 1887. Source: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Portrait of Walt Whitman, Thomas Eakins, ca. 1887. Source: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

 

In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke and moved to Camden, New Jersey to live with his brother George. Despite his poor health, he continued to write, and within a few years he had recovered enough to travel and give lectures. It would not, however, distract him from his own mortality, and his poetry reflected his own aging: the weakening of his body and mind and emotionally processing death.

 

Walt Whitman passed away on March 26th, 1892. Before his death he had assembled an autobiographical collection of prose, Specimen Days, and a final “deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass containing over 300 poems. He has since been deemed the father of modern American poetry, and few writers can contend their bodies of work with Whitman’s voice of humanism, patriotism, and wonder.

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By Brian DalyBA Philosophy, BA EnglishBrian holds BAs in Philosophy and English from Quinnipiac University and currently lives in New York. Whether through writing, teaching, or tutoring, he is always eager to spur interest in pondering and discussing complex ideas. His other interests include writing poetry, listening to music, and gardening.