Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
The Early Years
Walt Whitman was born, the second of nine children, in Huntington, Long Island, New York, on May 31, 1819. His ancestors and family had lived in the West Hills area of South Huntington for over one hundred and twenty five years. Walt Whitman’s Birthplace, a State Historic Site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still stands and commemorates his nativity. The farmhouse was constructed by the poet’s father Walter Whitman Sr., a house builder, upon his marriage to Louisa Van Velsor in 1816.
During 1823, the family moved to the City of Brooklyn where Walter Sr. continued house building to support the growing family. Although Walt Jr., the poet, attended grammar school, he took his first job at age twelve as a printer’s devil at The Long Island Patriot. A voracious reader, he was largely self-educated, and by 1835 was a printer in New York City. An economic depression and lack of opportunity in the newspaper field forced him to return to Long Island with his parents and family the following year. He remained there until 1841. During this time he commenced a series of teaching positions in eight different school districts throughout the western half of Long Island. However, he continued to pursue his literary and journalistic interests by dabbling in conventional poetry, short stories, and a novel. He founded Huntington’s weekly newspaper, which is in business today, The Long-Islander in 1838, and sold it a year later.
After 1841 Whitman returned to journalism as a full time career until 1859. He held editorial positions on seven different newspapers, four of them on Long Island, two in New York City, and one as far away as New Orleans. In all these positions he was an outspoken advocate of social, economic, and political reform in both local and national issues. The local papers were The Long Island Star, 1845, The Brooklyn Weekly Eagle, 1846–1848; The Brooklyn Freeman, 1848–1849; and the Brooklyn Daily Times, 1857–1859.
Leaves of Grass
During the spring of 1855 Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. It was a thin volume of poems written in a highly innovative style. Unable to find a publisher, he employed his Brooklyn friends, the Rome brothers, to print it. The book was advertised and distributed by Fowler and Wells of New York City. Although it did not sell, it was praised by such noted intellectuals as Ralph Waldo Emerson and found acceptance among progressively minded Americans. The book contained twelve untitled poems, the first of which later became “Song of Myself.” In this poem Whitman used his own individuality as a measure of self, presenting his own soaring spirit as synonymous with that of the American people. He was a personal as well as a political poet.
Leaves of Grass never became part of any literary establishment. It seemed strange to most of the poet’s contemporaries; but today it is considered a masterpiece of world literature. It has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, Japanese, and Chinese. The book is a poetic summary of Whitman and his fellow Americans. It is truly American poetry without any European inspiration. Between 1855 and 1892 it went through six editions and nine successive printings during his lifetime. In each edition Whitman made alterations or deletions, but the book grew apace with the nation.
The Civil War and Washington Years
At the beginning of the American Civil War and upon learning that his brother George Washington Whitman had been wounded, Walt left Brooklyn to search for him among the field hospitals of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Shocked by the plight of the wounded he changed his residence to Washington D.C. and secured a civil service post in the Department of the Interior. This allowed him, as a volunteer nurse, over the course of the war to make over 600 visits to the military hospitals around the capital to comfort and care for the wounded. Walt lived in the nation’s capital until a stroke forced him to move close to his brother George and his family in Camden, New Jersey in 1873. His Washington experiences provided him with material for a new addition to Leaves of Grass entitled “Drum Taps”, and changed his poetic focus. He was no longer a poet from New York or Long Island: he now belonged to and spoke for the nation.
Walt spent the remainder of his life in Camden, New Jersey. The 1881 seventh printing of Leaves of Grass sold well and allowed him to purchase a house on Mickle Street. Walt filled his time with travel, revising Leaves of Grass, overseeing new prose and poetry with the help of friends such as Horace Traubel. He corresponded with and received visits from international literary personages such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, England’s Poet Laureate; Bram Stoker, author of Dracula; and Oscar Wilde, poet and playwright. His final edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1892, the year of his death. By the end of his life, Whitman had become the first American poet to achieve international acclaim. Today his poetry is available in every major language and inspires people world wide who find in Whitman the voice and vision of a truly international humanist.
Between 1848 and 1854
Walt Whtiman described himself in an 1842 New York Aurora article: “we took our cane, (a heavy, dark, beautifully polished, hook-ended one,) and our hat, (a plain, neat fashionable one, from Banta’s, 130 Chatham street, which we got gratis, on the strength of giving him this puff,) and sauntered forth to have a stroll down Broadway to the Battery... on we went, swinging our stick, (the before mentioned dark and polished one,) in our right hand – and with our left hand tastily thrust in its appropriate pocket, in our frock coat, (a gray one).” An anonymous writer for Appleton’s in 1876 remembered Whitman during this time as “a pleasant gentleman, of agreeable address, [who] went into society as well attired as his precarious resources would allow.” William Cauldwell, who worked as a printer on the Aurora in the early 1840s and who knew Walt Whitman well, recalled in 1901 what Whitman looked like then: “Mr. Whitman was at that time, I should think, about 25 years of age, tall and graceful in appearance, neat in attire, and possessed a very pleasing and impressive eye and a cheerful, happy-looking countenance. He usually wore a frock coat and high hat, carried a small cane, and the lapel of his coat was almost invariably ornamented with a boutonniere....”
Walt Whitman’s friend, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, called this “the Christ likeness,” and saw signs here of Whitman’s illumination, the “moment this carpenter too became seer... and he saw and knew the Spirit of God.” Bucke believed that “something of this spiritual elevation can still be seen” in this photo.
Whitman late in his life identified the date of this photo as between 1845 and 1850, but no one has agreed with him; Dr. Bucke guessed 1856, but most estimates have been a later date. Seeing this photo late in his life, Whitman exclaimed, “How shaggy! looks like a returned Californian, out of the mines, or Coloradoan,” but he was fascinated with “the expression of benignity” that shone through, though he felt “such benignity, such sweetness, such satisfiedness–” it does not belong. I know it often appears– “but that’s the trick of the camera, the photographer.” Whitman called it his “young man” picture (“when did I not look old? At twenty-five or twenty-six they used already to remark it”), and claimed “it is me, me, unformed, undeveloped–” “hits off phases not common in my photos.” He described his physique at the time: “I was very much slenderer then: weighed from one hundred and fifty-five to one hundred and sixty-five pounds: had kept that weight for about thirty years: then got heavier.” Whitman was amused by the clothing–” “how natural the clothes!... the suit was a beautiful misfit, as usual, eh?–” and he was impressed with “its calm don’t-care-a-damnativeness–” “its go-to-hell-and-find-outativeness: it has that air strong, yet is not impertinent: defiant: yet it is genial.” Whitman was mystified by this portrait– he began calling it “the mysterious photograph–” when he first saw it in 1889: “When it could have been taken–” by whom–” where–” I cannot even guess.... it’s a devilish, tantalizing mystery....”
Whitman identifies this photograph as “taken from life 1863 / war time Washington / D C.” He referred to this as “the best picture of all,” and recalls a reporter writing about it that “Whitman had been photographed in his night-dress” (a comment that Whitman said made Gardner “fiery mad”). This is no doubt the photo Whitman had in mind when he wrote in an 1869 Washington Chronicle article about the best portraits of himself, and noted “Mr. Gardiner [sic], on Seventh street... has a capital photo.” Late in his life, Whitman described the photo as having “Almost the old professor look.” Whitman said that Thomas Eakins preferred this photo to all others: “Eakins likes it–” says it is the most powerful picture of me extant–” always excepting his own, to be sure.” Looking at the photo, Whitman mused, “How well I was then!–” not a sore spot–” full of initiative, vigor, joy–” not much belly, but grit, fibre, hold, solidity. Indeed, all through those years–” that period–” I was at my best–” physically at my best, mentally, every way.