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About this poet

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Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, on Long Island, New York. He was the second son of Walter Whitman, a house-builder, and Louisa Van Velsor. In the 1820s and 1830s, the family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Long Island and Brooklyn, where Whitman attended the Brooklyn public schools.

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 HomerDanteShakespeare, 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 schoolhouses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career.

He founded a weekly newspaper, The Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent for three months. After witnessing the auctions of enslaved individuals in New Orleans, he returned to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848 and co-founded a “free soil” newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, which he edited through the next fall. Whitman’s attitudes about race have been described as “unstable and inconsistent.” He did not always side with the abolitionists, yet he celebrated human dignity.

In Brooklyn, he 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-two 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; he ended up staying in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs within 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. After Harlan fired him, he went on to work in the attorney general's office.

In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. A few months later he travelled to Camden, New Jersey, to visit his dying mother at his brother’s house. He ended up staying with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood), which brought him 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 his deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass (David McKay, 1891–92) 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)

Excelsior

Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther,
And who has been just? for I would be the most just person of the earth,
And who most cautious? for I would be more cautious,
And who has been happiest? O I think it is I—I think no one was ever happier than I,
And who has lavish'd all? for I lavish constantly the best I have,
And who proudest? for I think I have reason to be the proudest son alive—for I am the son of the brawny and tall-topt city,
And who has been bold and true? for I would be the boldest and truest being of the universe,
And who benevolent? for I would show more benevolence than all the rest,
And who has receiv'd the love of the most friends? for I know what it is to receive the passionate love of many friends,
And who possesses a perfect and enamour'd body? for I do not believe any one possesses a more perfect or enamour'd body than mine,
And who thinks the amplest thoughts? for I would surround those thoughts,
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? for I am mad with devouring ecstasy to make joyous hymns for the whole earth.

This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on July 6, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on July 6, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

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
These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle
poem
You laggards there on guard! look to your arms!
In at the conquer'd doors they crowd! I am possess'd!
Embody all presences outlaw'd or suffering,
See myself in prison shaped like another man,
And feel the dull unintermitted pain.

For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and
poem
This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp'd slave is