Who was Walt Whitman?

Walt Whitman - George Collins Cox.jpg


Walt Whitman was an American poet, journalist, and essayist. He was America’s world poet. He was apart of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. He wrote about democracy, nature, love, and friendship. He also chanted praises to the body and soul, and found beauty and reassurance even in death. Along with Emily Dickinson, Whitman is known as one of America’s most significant nineteenth century poets.

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Town of Huntington, Long Island. He was the second son of Walter and Louisa Van Velsor. By the time Whitman was four years old, his family packed up and moved to Brooklyn. At age eleven, Whitman concluded formal schooling and sought employment for income for his family. He was an office boy for two lawyers. He also worked as a printer in New York City, until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of seventeen, he began his career as a teacher in one-room houses in Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841. He then turned to journalism as a full-time career. He founded a weekly newspaper Long-Islander, and later edited Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become a editor for the New Orleans Crescent. While in New Orleans, he experienced the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets in the city. In the fall of 1848, he returned back to Brooklyn and founded a “free soil” newspaper called Brooklyn Freeman. In this newspaper, he developed unique styles of writing.



In 1855, Walt Whitman took out a copyright for the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the first volume. In 1856, he released the second volume. The second edition contained thirty-poems, a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson praising the first edition, and Whitman’s response to Emerson’s letter. During his career, he continued to refine the book, publishing several more editions.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman promised to live a purged and clean life. He wrote freelance journalism and visited the wounded at New York-area hospitals. He also traveled to Washington, D.C. in December of 1862 to  care for his brother who had been wounded in the war. These experiences led to his poems in his 1865 publication, Drum-Taps, which includes “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman’s elegy for President Lincoln.


(The poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”)

In 1873, Whitman suffered a serious stroke. He moved to his brother’s home in Camden, New Jersey. There he wrote his final volume of poems Good-Bye, My Fancy. After his death on March 26, 1892, he was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on in Harleigh Cemetery.



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