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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 1783, 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)

A Woman Waits for Me

A woman waits for me, she contains all, nothing is lacking,
Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking.

Sex contains all, bodies, souls, 
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the seminal milk,
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth,
All the governments, judges, gods, follow'd persons of the earth,
These are contain'd in sex as parts of itself and justifications of itself.
   
Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.

Now I will dismiss myself from impassive women, 
I will go stay with her who waits for me, and with those women that are warm-blooded and sufficient for me,
I see that they understand me and do not deny me,
I see that they are worthy of me, I will be the robust husband of those women.
   
They are not one jot less than I am,
They are tann'd in the face by shining suns and blowing winds, 
Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength,
They know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves,
They are ultimate in their own right—they are calm, clear, well-possess'd of themselves.
   
I draw you close to me, you women,
I cannot let you go, I would do you good, 
I am for you, and you are for me, not only for our own sake, but for others' sakes,
Envelop'd in you sleep greater heroes and bards,
They refuse to awake at the touch of any man but me. 

It is I, you women, I make my way,
I am stern, acrid, large, undissuadable, but I love you,
I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you,
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for these States, I press with slow rude muscle,
I brace myself effectually, I listen to no entreaties,
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me. 
   
Through you I drain the pent-up rivers of myself, 
In you I wrap a thousand onward years, 
On you I graft the grafts of the best-beloved of me and America,
The drops I distil upon you shall grow fierce and athletic girls, new artists, musicians, and singers, 
The babes I beget upon you are to beget babes in their turn,
I shall demand perfect men and women out of my love-spendings,
I shall expect them to interpenetrate with others, as I and you interpenetrate now,
I shall count on the fruits of the gushing showers of them, as I count on the fruits of the gushing showers I give now,
I shall look for loving crops from the birth, life, death, immortality, I plant so lovingly now.
 

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
Among the men and women the multitude,   
I perceive one picking me out by secret and divine signs,   
Acknowledging none else, not parent, wife, husband, brother, child, any nearer than I am,   
Some are baffled, but that one is not—that one knows me.   
   
Ah lover and perfect
poem

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

poem
O Me! O life! of the questions of these recurring, 
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,    
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)