Web exclusive: Biography of Walt Whitman

Walter Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island, NY. He worked as an essayist, poet, and journalist, and volunteered as a nurse in the American Civil War (1861-1865). He remains one of the most influential American poets, and is often referred to as the “father of free verse.” Song of Myself is a poem included in Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass, and was the first and longest poem in the original version. The work as a whole was an attempt to reach the common person through an American epic, venerating the body as well as the soul, and finding beauty and reassurance even in death.

Whitman was the second of nine children and his family endured great economic hardship during his childhood. His formal education ended at age eleven so he could supplement the family income, but his five years working in a printer’s shop exposed him to literature, including Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible. Whitman spent his young adulthood working mainly as a teacher and journalist, founding two newspapers (including a “free soil” paper in Brooklyn, opposing the expansion of slavery into the western territories). He decided to become a poet shortly before 1950.

He self-published Leaves of Grass in its first edition as twelve untitled poems in 1855 and spent the rest of his life revising it, adding almost two hundred poems to the original twelve. Leaves of Grass opens with a preface in which Whitman proclaims the greatness of the American nation— saying “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem”—and declares his intention to write an epic for all Americans: “A great poem is for ages and ages in common, and for all degrees and complexions, and all departments and sects, and for a woman as much as a man, and a man as much as a woman.” Whitman’s cadence in Leaves of Grass is based on the Bible, but he infuses the poems with the common rhythms of American speech and includes slang and informal expressions, calling it “the dialect of common sense.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson called Whitman’s collection “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” However, the poems were also controversial because the language was perceived as obscene and excessively sexual.

Whitman left NY for Washington, DC in 1862. There he found work in low level government jobs, leaving time for him to volunteer as a nurse for wounded Civil War soldiers—the purpose of his relocation. When Whitman was fired from his job in 1865, possibly on moral grounds if his supervisor had read Leaves of Grass, a newspaper editor friend of his published an exaggerated biographical pamphlet, The Good Gray Poet, defending Whitman as a wholesome patriot. The pamphlet increased his popularity, as did the publication of his O Captain! My Captain!, a poem on the death of Abraham Lincoln that was relatively conventional and was the only poem of his to appear in anthologies during Whitman’s lifetime.

Despite Whitman’s mixed critical reception during his life, his lifestyle and work have become the inspiration for many artists who followed, including anti-war poets, composers, and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the 1950s and 1960s. 20th century literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote, “If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse.”