About this poet

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was the second son of Walter Whitman, a housebuilder, and Louisa Van Velsor. The family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s.

At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer's trade, and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible.

Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of seventeen, he began his career as teacher in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career.

He founded a weekly newspaper, Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. It was in New Orleans that he experienced firsthand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city. On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a "free soil" newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. During his lifetime, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book. Noted Whitman scholar, M. Jimmie Killingsworth writes that "the 'merge,' as Whitman conceived it, is the tendency of the individual self to overcome moral, psychological, and political boundaries. Thematically and poetically, the notion dominates the three major poems of 1855: 'I Sing the Body Electric,' 'The Sleepers,' and 'Song of Myself,' all of which were 'merged' in the first edition under the single title Leaves of Grass but were demarcated by clear breaks in the text and the repetition of the title."

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a "purged" and "cleansed" life. He worked as a freelance journalist and visited the wounded at New York City–area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D. C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war.

Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals and stayed in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. Harlan fired the poet.

Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington, he lived on a clerk's salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. He had also been sending money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him "purses" of money so that he could get by.

In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, New Jersey, where he had come to visit his dying mother at his brother's house. However, after suffering a stroke, Whitman found it impossible to return to Washington. He stayed with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood) gave Whitman enough money to buy a home in Camden.

In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of the book and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (David McKay, 1891). After his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.

Along with Emily Dickinson, he is considered one of America's most important poets.



Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Leaves of Grass (David McKay, 1891)
Good-Bye, My Fancy (David McKay, 1891)
Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood, 1881)
Passage to India (J.S. Redfield, 1870)
Leaves of Grass (J.S. Redfield, 1870)
Leaves of Grass (William E. Chapin, 1867)
Drum Taps (William E. Chapin, 1865)
Sequel to Drum Taps (William E. Chapin, 1865)
Leaves of Grass (Thayer & Eldridge, 1860)
Leaves of Grass (Fowler & Wells, 1856)
Leaves of Grass (self-published, 1855)

Prose

Complete Prose Works (David McKay, 1892)
November Boughs (David McKay, 1888)
Memoranda During the War (self-published, 1875)
Democratic Vistas (David McKay, 1871)
Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (New World, 1842)
 


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
Whoever you are, holding me now in hand,   
Without one thing, all will be useless,   
I give you fair warning, before you attempt me further,   
I am not what you supposed, but far different.   
   
Who is he that would become my follower? 
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?   
   
The way is suspicious—the result uncertain, perhaps
     destructive;   
You would have to give up all else—I alone would expect
     to be your God, sole and exclusive,   
Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,   
The whole past theory of your life, and all conformity to the
     lives around you, would have to be abandon'd;
Therefore release me now, before troubling yourself any further—
     Let go your hand from my shoulders,   
Put me down, and depart on your way.   
   
Or else, by stealth, in some wood, for trial,   
Or back of a rock, in the open air,   
(For in any roof'd room of a house I emerge not—nor
     in company, 
And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or
     dead,)   
But just possibly with you on a high hill—first watching
     lest any person, for miles around, approach unawares,   
Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea,
     or some quiet island,   
Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,   
With the comrade's long-dwelling kiss, or the new husband's kiss, 
For I am the new husband, and I am the comrade.   
   
Or, if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,   
Where I may feel the throbs of your heart, or rest upon your hip,   
Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;   
For thus, merely touching you, is enough—is best,
And thus, touching you, would I silently sleep and be carried
     eternally.   
   
But these leaves conning, you con at peril,   
For these leaves, and me, you will not understand,   
They will elude you at first, and still more afterward—I will
     certainly elude you,   
Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold!
Already you see I have escaped from you.   
   
For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written
     this book,   
Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it,   
Nor do those know me best who admire me, and vauntingly praise me,   
Nor will the candidates for my love, (unless at most a very few,)
     prove victorious,
Nor will my poems do good only—they will do just as much evil,
     perhaps more;   
For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times
     and not hit—that which I hinted at;   
Therefore release me, and depart on your way.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman is the author of Leaves of Grass and, along with Emily Dickinson, is considered one of the architects of a uniquely American poetic voice. 

by this poet

poem
1

Singing my days,   
Singing the great achievements of the present,   
Singing the strong, light works of engineers,   
Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)   
In the Old World, the east, the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,   
The seas inlaid with eloquent, gentle
poem
Ah, not this marble, dead and cold:  
Far from its base and shaft expanding—the round zones circling, 
         comprehending, 
 
Thou, Washington, art all the world's, the continents' entire— 
         not yours alone, America, 
 
Europe's as well, in every part, castle of lord or laborer's cot,  
Or frozen
poem
1

To think of time—of all that retrospection!   
To think of to-day, and the ages continued henceforward!   
   
Have you guess'd you yourself would not continue?   
Have you dreaded these earth-beetles?   
Have you fear'd the future would be nothing to you?
   
Is to-day nothing? Is the beginningless