On National Poetry Day, Sally Minogue looks at Presidents, Poetry, and Walt Whitman. ...
"I cannot be awake for nothing looks to me as it did before, Or else I am awake for the first time, and all before has been a mean sleep. "
Walter Whitman was born in West Hills, Long Island on 31st May 1819 to Walter and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. Tthe second of seven sons, three of Walter’s brothers were named after American leaders. Walter was nicknamed ‘Walt’ as a child to distinguish him from Walter Senior.
Whitman lived in West Hills until the age of four, at which point the family moved to Brooklyn. The family moved home regularly whilst living in Brooklyn, partly due to bad investments on Walter Senior’s part. Whitman later said that he remembered his childhood as generally restless and unhappy due to the family’s economic status.
Whitman attended school up until the age of eleven, at which point he left to start work as an office boy for a law firm, in order to supplement his family’s income. He later worked as an apprentice for the Long Island weekly paper, The Patriot. During this time, Whitman learned about the printing press and typesetting, and may have written small ‘filler’ articles for the paper. Subsequently, Walter took on a role at the Long Island Star and later anonymously published some of his own poetry in the New York Mirror. Whitman was largely self-taught and read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, and the Bible.
When he was sixteen years of age, Whitman left Brooklyn and the Star and moved to New York to work as a compositor. He looked for further work whilst in New York, but was hindered by a fire severe fire in the printing and publishing district, as well as a general collapse in the economy.
In 1836, Whitman moved back to live with his family, who were then living in Hempstead, Long Island. During this time Whitman tried his hand at teaching, but he was never fully satisfied as a teacher and soon turned to journalism as a full-time career.
Returning to New York, Whitman founded his own newspaper, the Long Islander, serving as publisher, editor, pressman, distributor and even delivery boy! He sold the newspaper after ten months, and there are no surviving copies of the Long Islander published under Whitman.
Whitman spent the next few years in various journalism and teaching roles, during which time he published a series of ten editorials called Sun-Down Papers – From the Desk of a Schoolmaster in three different newspapers.
After giving up teaching in 1841, Whitman went on to work at various newspapers, including the New World, Aurora, and the BrooklynEagle. He also published freelance fiction and poetry during this time.
Whitman is perhaps best known for his collection of poetry entitled The Leaves of Grass, an American epic which used free verse with a cadence based on the Bible. He started the Leaves of Grass in 1950 and it was published in 1855, the first publication paid for by Whitman himself. A total of 795 copies were printed in the first edition, which did not give a name of the author. Not until 500 lines into the body of the text does Whitman state that it is his work, calling himself “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest”.
The Leaves of Grass met a mixed response – it received its strongest praise from American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose flattering five page letter to Whitman was included in the second edition of the book. The critical responses focused on the potentially offensive sexual themes of the poetry and was described by some as ‘obscene’. In fact, the second edition of the book came close to not being released, despite the publisher having the books already printed and bound. The second edition was released in 1856 and included and additional twenty poems to add to the original twelve..
Despite now being a published poet, Whitman was struggling financially and returned to journalism again in 1857, editing Brooklyn’s Daily Times. He left this role in 1859, and it is not clear whether he was fired or decided to leave.
Whitman published his patriotic poem Beat! Beat! Drums! in 1861, just as the American Civil War was beginning. His brother George had joined the army and the vividly detailed letters that he sent to Walter from the front line had a great effect on him. Worried that his brother had been killed after seeing a notice of fallen and wounded soldiers in the New York Tribune, Whitman travelled to Washington to find him, walking the whole way. He found George with only a superficial wound, but the suffering of the wounded that he saw in Washington affected him deeply and he spent the following eleven years in the city, spending time working as a volunteer nurse in army hospitals. Whitman’s time as a nurse lead him to write The Great Army of the Sick, which was published in a New York newspaper in 1863 and in a book entitled Memoranda During the War in 1875.
In 1864, Whitman was employed in a government post as a low-grade clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, thanks to his friend William Douglas O’Connor, a poet and editor at the Saturday Evening Post. However this period of employment did not last long and Whitman was fired in June 1865. It is suspected that Whitman was fired on moral grounds after the Secretary of the Interior found an 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.
In February 1868, Poems of Walt Whitman was published in England with great success, receiving endorsements from the writer Anne Gilchrist (who Whitman later declined an offer of marriage from in 1871). Whitman’s fame increased, but he continued to work at the attorney general’s office until January 1872. When he left this role, he took on a caring role for his elderly mother, who was suffering from arthritis.
After suffering a paralytic stroke in 1873, Whitman moved to New Jersey to live with his brother George. His mother had also moved into George’s home at this point and she died in May 1873. Whitman suffered a period of depression at this time, and remained living with his brother until 1884. During this time, Whitman produced a further three versions of Leaves of Grass and received Oscar Wilde and Thomas Eakins as visitors. Specimen Days and Collect (1882) was also published during this time.
When his brother moved in 1884, Whitman bought his own house in Mickle Street, New Jersey, funded by the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass. First taken care of by tenants, Whitman was completely bedridden for most of his time at this property. He did, however, produce a further three editions of Leaves of Grass. A collection of his newspaper pieces were published in 1888 under the title November Boughs.
As the end of 1891 approached, Whitman prepared a final edition of Leaves of Grass (widely known as the ’Deathbed Edition’). He wrote of this final edition, “L. of G. at last complete – after 33 y’rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old”. His final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy was also published in 1891.
Whitman died on 26th March 1892. An autopsy determined that he died from pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general miliary tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). A public viewing was held at Whitman’s home in Mickle Street, with over 1000 people visiting in just three hours. He is buried in a granite mausoleum in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, which he had commissioned in the months leading up to his death.
There has been much speculation over Whitman’s sexuality, and it is generally believed that he was homosexual or bisexual, based on his poetry. Whitman is known to have had many intensive friendships with men and boys throughout his life. In 1840, whilst working at the Locust Grove School in New York, Whitman was reported to have been tarred and carried out on a rail by a mob after a Pastor accused him of committing sodomy with some students.
A bus conductor named Peter Doyle is often identified as likely to have been the love of Walter’s life. The two men met in 1866 and were inseparable for several years. Whitman’s letters to Doyle were published in 1897 under the title Calamus, by Whitman’s first biographer, Richard Maurice Bucke. Another possible lover was Bill Duckett, a neighbour of Whitman’s in Mickle Street who then moved into Walter’s home. Whitman described his relationship with Bill as ‘thick’. Another relationship was with Harry Stafford, who met Whitman when he was 18 years old and Whitman was in his 50’s. Whitman gave Harry a ring, which was given and taken back a number of times of the course of their stormy relationship. Oscar Wilde, having met Whitman in 1882, once boasted “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips”.
There is some evidence that Whitman may have had relationships with women as well as men, and he often told stories of previous girlfriends. In 1862, Whitman had a romantic relationship with Ellen Grey, an American actress, although it is not known if this was a sexual relationship. He claimed in 1890 to have fathered six children; however there is no evidence to support this.
Walt Whitman has come to be considered as one of America's most influential nineteenth-century poets. His poetry has been set to music more than almost any other American poet.
TITLES BY WALT WHITMAN