Whitman's first and chief biographer, the Canadian Richard Maurice Bucke, stated in 1883: "Whitman's achievement of illumination put him near the head of a group including Buddha, Moses, Socrates, Jesus and Wordsworth". This statement by itself is sufficient to motivate any inquiring person to learn more about this man and his writings, and specifically his poetry.
Walter Whitman was born in West Hills, near Hempstead, Long Island on May 31, 1819. He was the second child of Walter Whitman Sr., 34 years old and Louisa Van Velsor, a woman of Dutch and Welsh background, with a solidly Dutch family name. Walter was close to his mother during her entire life and she provided the emotional support he needed especially during his early life. There were nine children in the family, so Walt had numerous siblings to also provide him with the family solidarity he needed during his life as a bachelor. His grandfather was Cornelius Van Velsor, a veteran of the early years of American independence.
When Walter was still a child the Whitman family moved from West Hills to Brooklyn, where his father saw better economic prospects. Walter was able to attend the public school in Brooklyn until he was eleven years old. Public schools were then still in their infancy and Walt's generation was one of the first to benefit from public schools. Private schools were out of the question, as Walt's family was poor. After completing six years of public schooling, Walter was apprenticed to a printing shop where he learned the printing trade, a skill that enabled him to supplement his income in later years when his earnings from writing prose and poetry were not all that substantial.
Walter published his first signed article in the "New York Mirror", a well-known New York City newspaper, in 1831 when he was only 15 years old. Keep in mind, however, that he already had been in the printing and publishing business for five years at that time. In 1833, Walt's family moved back to West Hills. Making a living for a large family in Brooklyn was more of a problem than Walter Sr. had expected. And in West Hills there was also the support of the extended family in terms of emotional and probably also financial support. Walter Jr., however, stayed in Brooklyn. He enjoyed city life as well as the educational and artistic resources of the city. Circulating libraries, lectures and the theatre provided an environment where someone like Walt could self-educate himself. And self-educate himself he did during those years. After all you do not become a Poet Laureate with just a sixth grade education. He had also become a journeyman printer and was able to support himself quite adequately while still
leaving time to immerse himself in the educational and artistic wealth which New York City, even then, provided.
In 1836 Walt's Dutch roots contributed to his active support for the presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, a fellow American also of Dutch descent. And, of course, Van Buren was successful in his presidential campaign and became the first U.S President of Dutch descent, the first of two more to follow in the following century.
In the same year as the presidential election, in 1836, the poor economy and other problems forced Walt to leave his beloved New York City. He became a schoolteacher in Long Island villages, where public schools had recently been established in order to teach the many offspring of the then substantial rural population. The teaching profession was a new experience for Walt. However, the job was hard. Class sizes could number as many as eighty students, and it was not unusual to teach as many as nine hours per day. In addition, the pay was poor and the living conditions were uncomfortable. Teachers boarded with a family with school-age kids, and living conditions were harsh, especially in the rural areas, void of the niceties, even then one could find in a city.
In 1838 Walt gave up his teaching job and decided to launch his own newspaper, the "Long Islander". He was the writer, editor, layout person, publisher and financial backer. He also printed the paper himself and helped with the delivery. Unfortunately, it was an economic disaster and the paper folded within one year.
In 1842 events started to unfold that were more to Walt's liking. He was able to write regular articles in the "Democratic Review", a New York City Paper. And in the period from 1842 to 1843 his articles were also published in such newspapers as "Aurora", "New York Evening Tattler", "Statesman", and in the "New York Sunday Times". He was also asked by a publisher to write a book attacking public drunkenness, and alcoholic abuse in general. The result was his first book, "Franklin Evans, The Inebriate". The book was immensely successful, provided economic support. And made Whitman a visible personality in those places where he was previously unknown. It was, however, not a book he was proud of, especially during his later successful years as a poet.
During the period 1846-1848 Whitman became the Chief Editor of the "Brooklyn Eagle, a well-known newspaper. He now had made a firm reputation as a journalist, author and newspaper editor.
Adventure called. In 1848 he was offered the Chief Editor position of the "Crescent", a New Orleans newspaper. For someone who had never traveled beyond Long Island and New York City this opportunity offered change and exploration of the American South. His younger brother Jefferson, known as Jef, came along as his companion and assistant. They traveled by train to West Virginia where they took a Mississippi steamer to New Orleans. Although the experience was, I am sure, exhilarating for Walter and his much younger brother Jef, the exhilaration did not last long. After three months in New Orleans they both returned to New York City.
In the 1850's Whitman became much more engrossed in poetry. In 1854 he published, "Notebook on Poetry: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts". This was followed in 1856 with the first edition of "Leaves of Grass: 12 Untitled Poems". Since he had not established a name or reputation in poetry, Whitman did not put his name on this first edition of "Leaves of Grass". He did, however, promote it extensively, even writing several signed positive reviews of the work. It was received by the poetry establishment with a mixture of contempt and admiration, a clear sign that Whitman's poetry did not fit the mold of the classical poets. During his lifetime Whitman would publish six very different editions of "Leaves of Grass". He did not, however, put his name on it until 1876, twenty years after the first edition. "Leaves of Grass" would define Whitman as a poet, and clearly was his opus that gave him the reputation he enjoys to this day.
Whitman was too old to serve in the Civil War when it started. However, one of his younger brothers did and was injured during the war. The injured brother ended up in a Washington D.C. hospital and Whitman traveled to Washington to help in the care of his brother. In the act of doing so he ended up working in Washington hospitals caring for the Civil War injured.
During his stay in Washington he eventually ended up with a position in the Paymasters Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in the Department of the Interior. This position was a political appointment, and people with political appointments in government who also have left behind a paper trail will eventually get tripped up. This is exactly what happened to Whitman. One of his superiors did not like or agree with Whitman's past writings, and fired him on the spot. But Whitman was used to incidences such as the above, and he went on and was able to spend more time on prose and on poetry.
In 1870 Whitman published, "Democratic Vistas", followed in 1871 with "Song of the Exposition". The latter contribution was done in honor of the American Institute Exposition. In 1873 Whitman's health began to fail and he had a series of strokes, which he was able to survive, but they clearly took their toll. Following his strokes he moved to Camden, New Jersey to live near one of his brothers. About that time his mother also died. She had been of enormous emotional support during Whitman's life and her death was a considerable shock for him. But life goes on and in 1874 the influential periodical "Harper's Magazine" published "Prayer of Columbus", a series of Whitman's poems.
In 1875-1876 Whitman published a book about the Civil War entitled, "Memoranda during the War". The book was followed in 1876 by the poem, "Two Rivulets". Although Whitman was only in his late fifties, his illness slowed down his productive output, and no important publications were published. There was, of course, the 1876 edition of "Leaves of Grass", the first edition to which he put his name. His final major publication came in 1888 and was entitled, "November Boughs". It consisted of 64 new poems and previous work of Whitman.
During the last decade of his life Whitman clearly enjoyed the recognition and fame his life's work had produced. In the early years he was often frustrated that his work was not always appreciated by the literary establishment of that time period. In the later years he was getting the plaudits, not only from the American literary establishment but he also received plaudits from the French, German and other national literary establishments. For instance "Leaves of Grass" was translated in the local languages of Spain, France, Germany, Italy, China and Japan. Parts of his work were also translated in many other languages. He had been able to introduce the Whitman approach to poetry not only to the English language but also to many other languages.
Walter Whitman died on March 26, 1892 of tuberculosis and other causes. Whitman is generally recognized as one of the most important poets in the history of American literature. His legacy will live on forever.
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