Walt Whitman was born on Long Island in 1819, son of a farmer and carpenter who was a liberal thinker and full of national pride; Walt Sr. named other sons after Andrew Jackson, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Whitman grew up in Brooklyn and after a rudimentary public education became an auto-didact, often crossing to Manhattan on the ferry to explore its libraries, theaters, lecture halls and museums.
Whitman’s Early Careers:
By the age of 12 Whitman was an apprentice newspaperman and at 17 he had five years’ experience as a journeyman printer in New York City. Fire and economic failure forced him to change careers; for the next five years he was, unhappily, an itinerant teacher on Long Island. In 1841 he returned to the city to establish himself as a journalist. In 1846 he travelled with his brother Jeff to New Orleans to edit a new newspaper, and though it was only a few months, this journey seems to have been his first real poetic inspiration.
Whitman’s earliest poems are mostly conventional, didactic and sentimental, but at the end of the 1840s he abandoned traditional rhyme and meter, began to experiment with free verse and the expansive long lines that mark his voice, and began to develop the radically inclusive and transcendent cultural ideas that are his legacy. Both Whitman’s poetics and his ideas are vehicles of connectedness, bringing together master and slave, black and white, spiritual and commonplace, vernacular speech and sublime oratory.
Whitman and the Body:
From the beginning, celebration of the body and sexuality was a central feature of Whitman’s work—“I Sing the Body Electric
.” For Whitman, body and soul are united, the arms and legs are instruments of the spirit, and physical passion a transcendent spiritual experience. A number of his poems, particularly the Calamus poems, are clearly homoerotic (although this was not publicly acknowledged in his lifetime), and many of Whitman’s most important friendships contained elements of “manly love.”
Leaves of Grass:
Whitman’s book began as a sequence of 12 untitled poems written in the early 1850s and self-published in 1855. A second edition appeared the next year, adding titles and 20 new poems, but like the first it did not sell well. Whitman continued to add new poems, revise and rearrange the old ones, and regather his poems into thematic clusters through eight editions of Leaves of Grass, including the Centennial edition of 1876 and the “Deathbed” edition of 1891.
Whitman and the Civil War:
The Civil War was transformative for Whitman, not only as a conceptual challenge to his faith in unity and connectedness, but as an experience of the bodily consequences of war. After travelling to Washington, D.C. in search of his brother George, feared a casualty, Whitman spent several years doing service for wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate, in Civil War hospitals. The war poems are some of his most powerful, collected in two books entitled Drum Taps, published in 1865.
Books by Walt Whitman:
- The Portable Walt Whitman (poems & essays, ed. Mark Van Doren, revised edition, Penguin, 2004)
- The Complete Poems (ed. Francis Murphy, reprint edition, Penguin Classics, 2005)
- Leaves of Grass (150th anniversary edition, Signet Classics, 2005)