Walt Whitman - Biography
Walter Whitman, was born on the 31st of May, 1819 in Long Island, New York, US. He was an essayist, poet and journalist, as well as a volunteer nurse in the course of the American Civil War (1861–65). Walt Whitman participated in the shift from transcendentalism towards realism, and both views are present in his works. Walt Whitman, being one of the most influential American poets, is often refered to as "the father of the free verse".
Walt Whitman’s writings, specifically Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems, were often highly controversial for what was seen as an obscene and excessively sexual language. Leaves of Grass was first published with Whitman's own money in 1855 and was described by himself to be an attempt at reaching the common person through an American epic. Inside as well as outside his poetry, Walt Whitman exposed his views on the abolition of slavery, an egalitarian view on races, even if later in his life he saw abolition as a potential threat to democracy. Apart from his poetry, Walt Whitman's sexuality is also often a subject of discussion amongst his scholars and biographers. The discussions revolve around his alleged homosexuality and further on about whether he ever had sexual relations with men. Walt Whitman was of a tempered character and rarely drank alcohol, at times even arguing for its prohibition. Following a stroke in 1873, Whitman moved to New Jersey, which was to become his last home. Walt Whitman died on the 26th of March, 1892, at the age of 72, in New Jersey, US and his funeral was a public spectacle.
Walt Whitman was the second of nine children and received his nickname, "Walt", as a way of distinguishing him from his father, also named Walter. Whitman's parents had a fondness for great names and he had siblings named; Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and George Washington. Walt Whitman's childhood was usually described by himself as unhappy, mainly due to the economic struggles of his family. After concluding his formal schooling at the age of 11, Walt Whitman searched for jobs, first as an office boy and later as an apprentice for a newspaper, so as to help with the family income. He later taught in Long Island's school, a job that he thought to be unsatisfying, and founded the newspaper Long-Islander. In the end of the 30s, Whitman left for New York where he published many poems, short stories and a novel, Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate, all works considered unremarkable. In the following years, Whitman worked for a variety of newspapers as editor and contributor. Also in this period Whitman made use of a constructed persona for writing a series of essays called Sun-Down Papers—From the Desk of a Schoolmaster, a skill that he employed many times throughout his career. In 1940 he was accused of having homosexual relations with some of his students at the Locust Grove School in New York. In 1948 he lost his position at the Brooklyn Eagle for siding politically in opposition with the conservative newspaper owner.
Shortly before 1950 Walt Whitman decided to become a poet, and after experimenting with a variety of genres of the period, he set to write Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems that took him at least five years to publish and his whole life re-editing it. With Leaves of Grass, Whitman intended to write an American epic and for that employed cadence and free verse based on the bible. The work opens with a preface where Whitman describes himself as a "poet of the people" and praises the greatness of the American nation. In his words: "The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem". The first edition of the work, 795 copies, was paid for by Walt Whitman himself and carried no author's name, only a portrait made by Samuel Hollyer. At the time, due to financial difficulties, Whitman took a job as a journalist again for a couple years. The first edition received a high praise by Ralph Waldo Emerson which stirred the interest in the work. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed" which is quite understandable as Walt Whitman was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson's thinking. Nevertheless the work was heavily criticized by what was seen as obscene poetry, described by a critic as "trashy, profane and obscene". The second edition of the work was close to not being released due to the critical responses focused on the potentially offensive nature of the work but finally made into retail in August 1856 with 20 additional poems. Leaves of Grass was revised and re-released several times through Whitman's life and accumulated many admirers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson's friend Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott. Throughout the re-editions, Walt Whitman re-wrote, or updated many of the poems, dropped some, and added almost 200 poems to the 12 original ones. The most famous poems of Leaves of Grass are I Sing the Body Electric, There Was a Child Went Forth, Song of Myself, and The Sleepers, poems where Walt Whitman left behind the literary models of his time and invested on the common rhythms of American speech, including slang and informal expressions.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, Walt Whitman published Beat! Beat! Drums!, a poem of patriotic character encouraging the North. After confusion over a list of wounded soldiers in the New York Times, Walt Whitman went South in search of his brother George Washington, whom he thought to be deceased. After having his wallet stolen on the way and having to do much of the travel by foot, Walt Whitman finally found his brother with only a minor injury on his cheek but was deeply affected by the sight of the wounded soldiers and amputated limbs. He left for Washington in 1862 and obtained a part-time job in the army, which left him time for volunteering as a nurse in the army hospitals, where he fell sick with "hospital malaria". Out of his experience as a nurse Whitman wrote The Great Army of the Sick and many years later a book entitled Memoranda During the War. Whitman wanted a position in the government and asked for Ralph Waldo Emerson's help. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to the Secretary of the Treasure but Walt Whitman was refused due to the disreputable fame of Leaves of Grass. He finally managed a post as a low-grade clerk in the Department of the Interior with the help of his fellow poet and journalist William Douglas O'Connor. He also lost this job, in 1865, most likely on moral grounds after the new Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, found a copy Leaves of Grass. O'Connor protested and managed to get Walt Whitman a job at the Attorney General's office and published an exaggerated biography of Walt Whitman, The Good Gray Poet, where he praised him as a great patriot. The publication of the biography and of Whitman's relatively conventional poem O Capitain! My Capitain! on the death of Abraham Lincoln, aided Wat Whitman's increasing popularity. O Capitain! My Capitain! was also the only poem by Whitman to be included in anthologies during his lifetime. In 1968 an edition of his works, entitled Poems of Walt Whitman, was published in England and became very famous.
Walt Whitman is claimed to be the first American "poet of democracy", referring to his singularly American style and use of common people as subject matter. Many critics pointed to the close relation between the America of this period and his poetry. Walt Whitman himself conceptualized poetry as being in a symbiotic relationship with society. The literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is perhaps the highest candidate for being the “secular scripture of the United States”, beatings works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. Whitman's vagabond lifestyle was adopted in the 1950s by the Beat movement and served as an inspiration for the character of Dracula by Bram Stoker. His poetry was also used in music by great many composers. The house where Walt Whitman spent the last years of his life, in Camden, New Jersey, US, is open to the public and known as the Walt Whitman House.