American poet, essayist and journalist Walter “Walt” Whitman was born on May 31, 1819. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse. His work was very controversial in its time, particularly his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sexuality.
Born in Huntington on Long Island, Whitman worked as a journalist, a teacher, a government clerk, and — in addition to publishing his poetry — was a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. Early in his career, he also produced a temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842). Whitman’s major work, Leaves of Grass, was first published in 1855 with his own money. The work was an attempt at reaching out to the common person with an American epic. He continued expanding and revising it until his death in 1892. After a stroke towards the end of his life, he moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his health further declined. When he died at age 72, his funeral became a public spectacle.
Walter Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Town of Huntington, Long Island, to parents with interests in Quaker thought, Walter (1789–1855) and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873). The second of nine children, he was immediately nicknamed “Walt” to distinguish him from his father. Walter Whitman, Sr. named three of his seven sons after American leaders: Andrew Jackson, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. The oldest was named Jesse and another boy died unnamed at the age of six months. The couple’s sixth son, the youngest, was named Edward. At age four, Whitman moved with his family from West Hills to Brooklyn, living in a series of homes, in part due to bad investments. Whitman looked back on his childhood as generally restless and unhappy, given his family’s difficult economic status. One happy moment that he later recalled was when he was lifted in the air and kissed on the cheek by the Marquis de Lafayette during a celebration in Brooklyn on July 4, 1825.
At age eleven Whitman concluded formal schooling. He then sought employment for further income for his family; he was an office boy for two lawyers and later was an apprentice and printer’s devil for the weekly Long Island newspaper the Patriot, edited by Samuel E. Clements. There, Whitman learned about the printing press and typesetting. He may have written “sentimental bits” of filler material for occasional issues. Clements aroused controversy when he and two friends attempted to dig up the corpse of Elias Hicks to create a plaster mold of his head. Clements left the Patriot shortly afterward, possibly as a result of the controversy.
The following summer Whitman worked for another printer, Erastus Worthington, in Brooklyn. His family moved back to West Hills in the spring, but Whitman remained and took a job at the shop of Alden Spooner, editor of the leading Whig weekly newspaper the Long-Island Star. While at the Star, Whitman became a regular patron of the local library, joined a town debating society, began attending theater performances, and anonymously published some of his earliest poetry in the New-York Mirror. At age 16 in May 1835, Whitman left the Star and Brooklyn. He moved to New York City to work as a compositor though, in later years, Whitman could not remember where. He attempted to find further work but had difficulty, in part due to a severe fire in the printing and publishing district, and in part due to a general collapse in the economy leading up to the Panic of 1837. In May 1836, he rejoined his family, now living in Hempstead, Long Island. Whitman taught intermittently at various schools until the spring of 1838, though he was not satisfied as a teacher.
After his teaching attempts, Whitman went back to Huntington, New York, to found his own newspaper, the Long-Islander. Whitman served as publisher, editor, pressman, and distributor and even provided home delivery. After ten months, he sold the publication to E. O. Crowell, whose first issue appeared on July 12, 1839. There are no known surviving copies of the Long-Islander published under Whitman. By the summer of 1839, he found a job as a typesetter in Jamaica, Queens with the Long Island Democrat, edited by James J. Brenton. He left shortly thereafter, and made another attempt at teaching from the winter of 1840 to the spring of 1841. One story, possibly apocryphal, tells of Whitman’s being chased away from a teaching job in Southold, New York, in 1840. After a local preacher called him a “Sodomite”, Whitman was allegedly tarred and feathered. Biographer Justin Kaplan notes that the story is likely untrue, because Whitman regularly vacationed in the town thereafter. Biographer Jerome Loving calls the incident a “myth”. During this time, Whitman published a series of ten editorials, called “Sun-Down Papers—From the Desk of a Schoolmaster”, in three newspapers between the winter of 1840 and July 1841. In these essays, he adopted a constructed persona, a technique he would employ throughout his career.
Whitman moved to New York City in May, initially working a low-level job at the New World, working under Park Benjamin, Sr. and Rufus Wilmot Griswold. He continued working for short periods of time for various newspapers; in 1842 he was editor of the Aurora and from 1846 to 1848 he was editor of the Brooklyn Eagle.
He also contributed freelance fiction and poetry throughout the 1840s. Whitman lost his position at the Brooklyn Eagle in 1848 after siding with the free-soil “Barnburner” wing of the Democratic party against the newspaper’s owner, Isaac Van Anden, who belonged to the conservative, or “Hunker”, wing of the party. Whitman was a delegate to the 1848 founding convention of the Free Soil Party, which was concerned about the threat slavery would pose to free white labor and northern businessmen moving into the newly colonized western territories. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison derided the party philosophy as “white manism.”
In 1852, he serialized a novel titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography: A Story of New York at the Present Time in which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters in six installments of New York’s The Sunday Dispatch. In 1858, Whitman published a 47,000 word series called Manly Health and Training under the pen name Mose Velsor. Apparently he drew the name Velsor from Van Velsor, his mother’s family name. This self-help guide recommends beards, nude sunbathing, comfortable shoes, bathing daily in cold water, eating meat almost exclusively, plenty of fresh air, and getting up early each morning. Present-day writers have called Manly Health and Training “quirky”, “so over the top”, “a pseudoscientific tract”, and “wacky”.
Whitman claimed that after years of competing for “the usual rewards”, he determined to become a poet. He first experimented with a variety of popular literary genres which appealed to the cultural tastes of the period. As early as 1850, he began writing what would become Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry which he would continue editing and revising until his death. Whitman intended to write a distinctly American epic and used free verse with a cadence based on the Bible. At the end of June 1855, Whitman surprised his brothers with the already-printed first edition of Leaves of Grass. George “didn’t think it worth reading”.
Whitman paid for the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself and had it printed at a local print shop during their breaks from commercial jobs. A total of 795 copies were printed. No name is given as author; instead, facing the title page was an engraved portrait done by Samuel Hollyer, but 500 lines into the body of the text he calls 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 inaugural volume of poetry was preceded by a prose preface of 827 lines. The succeeding untitled twelve poems totaled 2315 lines — 1336 lines belonging to the first untitled poem, later called “Song of Myself”. The book received its strongest praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a flattering five-page letter to Whitman and spoke highly of the book to friends. The first edition of Leaves of Grass was widely distributed and stirred up significant interest, in part due to Emerson’s approval, but was occasionally criticized for the seemingly “obscene” nature of the poetry. Geologist John Peter Lesley wrote to Emerson, calling the book “trashy, profane & obscene” and the author “a pretentious ass”. On July 11, 1855, a few days after Leaves of Grass was published, Whitman’s father died at the age of 65.
In the months following the first edition of Leaves of Grass, critical responses began focusing more on the potentially offensive sexual themes. Though the second edition was already printed and bound, the publisher almost did not release it. In the end, the edition went to retail, with 20 additional poems, in August 1856. Leaves of Grass was revised and re-released in 1860 again in 1867, and several more times throughout the remainder of Whitman’s life. Several well-known writers admired the work enough to visit Whitman, including Amos Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.
During the first publications of Leaves of Grass, Whitman had financial difficulties and was forced to work as a journalist again, specifically with Brooklyn’s Daily Times starting in May 1857. As an editor, he oversaw the paper’s contents, contributed book reviews, and wrote editorials. He left the job in 1859, though it is unclear whether he was fired or chose to leave. Whitman, who typically kept detailed notebooks and journals, left very little information about himself in the late 1850s.
As the American Civil War was beginning, Whitman published his poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” as a patriotic rally call for the North. Whitman’s brother George had joined the Union army and began sending Whitman several vividly detailed letters of the battle front. On December 16, 1862, a listing of fallen and wounded soldiers in the New York Tribune included “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore”, which Whitman worried was a reference to his brother George. He made his way south immediately to find him, though his wallet was stolen on the way. “Walking all day and night, unable to ride, trying to get information, trying to get access to big people”, Whitman later wrote, he eventually found George alive, with only a superficial wound on his cheek. Whitman, profoundly affected by seeing the wounded soldiers and the heaps of their amputated limbs, left for Washington on December 28, 1862, with the intention of never returning to New York.
In Washington, D.C., Whitman’s friend Charley Eldridge helped him obtain part-time work in the army paymaster’s office, leaving time for Whitman to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals. He would write of this experience in “The Great Army of the Sick”, published in a New York newspaper in 1863 and, 12 years later, in a book called Memoranda During the War. He then contacted Emerson, this time to ask for help in obtaining a government post. Another friend, John Trowbridge, passed on a letter of recommendation from Emerson to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, hoping he would grant Whitman a position in that department. Chase, however, did not want to hire the author of such a disreputable book as Leaves of Grass.
The Whitman family had a difficult end to 1864. On September 30, 1864, Whitman’s brother George was captured by Confederates in Virginia, and another brother, Andrew Jackson, died of tuberculosis compounded by alcoholism on December 3. That month, Whitman committed his brother Jesse to the Kings County Lunatic Asylum. Whitman’s spirits were raised, however, when he finally got a better-paying 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. O’Connor, a poet, daguerreotypist and an editor at The Saturday Evening Post, had written to William Tod Otto, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, on Whitman’s behalf. Whitman began the new appointment on January 24, 1865, with a yearly salary of $1,200. A month later, on February 24, 1865, George was released from capture and granted a furlough because of his poor health. By May 1, Whitman received a promotion to a slightly higher clerkship and published Drum-Taps.
Effective June 30, 1865, however, Whitman was fired from his job. His dismissal came from the new Secretary of the Interior, former Iowa Senator James Harlan. Though Harlan dismissed several clerks who “were seldom at their respective desks”, he may have fired Whitman on moral grounds after finding an 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. O’Connor protested until J. Hubley Ashton had Whitman transferred to the Attorney General’s office on July 1. O’Connor, though, was still upset and vindicated Whitman by publishing a biased and exaggerated biographical study, The Good Gray Poet, in January 1866. The fifty-cent pamphlet defended Whitman as a wholesome patriot, established the poet’s nickname and increased his popularity. Also aiding in his popularity was the publication of “O Captain! My Captain!”, a relatively conventional poem on the death of Abraham Lincoln, the only poem to appear in anthologies during Whitman’s lifetime.
Part of Whitman’s role at the Attorney General’s office was interviewing former Confederate soldiers for Presidential pardons. “There are real characters among them”, he later wrote, “and you know I have a fancy for anything out of the ordinary.” In August 1866, he took a month off in order to prepare a new edition of Leaves of Grass which would not be published until 1867 after difficulty in finding a publisher. He hoped it would be its last edition. In February 1868, Poems of Walt Whitman was published in England thanks to the influence of William Michael Rossetti, with minor changes that Whitman reluctantly approved. The edition became popular in England, especially with endorsements from the highly respected writer Anne Gilchrist. Another edition of Leaves of Grass was issued in 1871, the same year it was mistakenly reported that its author died in a railroad accident. As Whitman’s international fame increased, he remained at the attorney general’s office until January 1872. He spent much of 1872 caring for his mother who was now nearly eighty and struggling with arthritis. He also traveled and was invited to Dartmouth College to give the commencement address on June 26, 1872.
After suffering a paralytic stroke in early 1873, Whitman was induced to move from Washington to the home of his brother — George Washington Whitman, an engineer — at 431 Stevens Street in Camden, New Jersey. His mother, having fallen ill, was also there and died that same year in May. Both events were difficult for Whitman and left him depressed. He remained at his brother’s home until buying his own in 1884. However, before purchasing his home, he spent the greatest period of his residence in Camden at his brother’s home in Stevens Street. While in residence there he was very productive, publishing three versions of Leaves of Grass among other works. He was also last fully physically active in this house, receiving both Oscar Wilde and Thomas Eakins. His other brother, Edward, an “invalid” since birth, lived in the house.
When his brother and sister-in-law were forced to move for business reasons, he bought his own house at 328 Mickle Street (now 330 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). First taken care of by tenants, he was completely bedridden for most of his time in Mickle Street. During this time, he began socializing with Mary Oakes Davis — the widow of a sea captain. She was a neighbor, boarding with a family in Bridge Avenue just a few blocks from Mickle Street. She moved in with Whitman on February 24, 1885, to serve as his housekeeper in exchange for free rent. She brought with her a cat, a dog, two turtledoves, a canary, and other assorted animals. During this time, Whitman produced further editions of Leaves of Grass in 1876, 1881, and 1889.
While in Southern New Jersey, Whitman spent a good portion of his time in the then quite pastoral community of Laurel Springs, between 1876 and 1884, converting one of the Stafford Farm buildings to his summer home. The restored summer home has been preserved as a museum by the local historical society. Part of his Leaves of Grass was written here, and in his Specimen Days he wrote of the spring, creek and lake. To him, Laurel Lake was “the prettiest lake in: either America or Europe.”
As the end of 1891 approached, he prepared a final edition of Leaves of Grass, a version that has been nicknamed the “Deathbed Edition.” He wrote, “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.” Preparing for death, Whitman commissioned a granite mausoleum shaped like a house for $4,000 and visited it often during construction. In the last week of his life, he was too weak to lift a knife or fork and wrote: “I suffer all the time: I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony—monotony—monotony—in pain.”
Whitman died on March 26, 1892. An autopsy revealed his lungs had diminished to one-eighth their normal breathing capacity, a result of bronchial pneumonia, and that an egg-sized abscess on his chest had eroded one of his ribs. The cause of death was officially listed as “pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general miliary tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis.” A public viewing of his body was held at his Camden home; over 1,000 people visited in three hours. Whitman’s oak coffin was barely visible because of all the flowers and wreaths left for him. Four days after his death, he was buried in his tomb at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. Another public ceremony was held at the cemetery, with friends giving speeches, live music, and refreshments. Whitman’s friend, the orator Robert Ingersoll, delivered the eulogy. Later, the remains of Whitman’s parents and two of his brothers and their families were moved to the mausoleum.
Walt Whitman has been claimed as America’s first “poet of democracy”, a title meant to reflect his ability to write in a singularly American character. A British friend of Walt Whitman, Mary Smith Whitall Costelloe, wrote: “You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass… He has expressed that civilization, ‘up to date,’ as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him.” Modernist poet Ezra Pound called Whitman “America’s poet… He is America.” Andrew Carnegie called him “the great poet of America so far”. Whitman considered himself a messiah-like figure in poetry. Others agreed: one of his admirers, William Sloane Kennedy, speculated that “people will be celebrating the birth of Walt Whitman as they are now the birth of Christ”.
The literary critic, Harold Bloom wrote, as the introduction for the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass:
If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.
In his own time, Whitman attracted an influential coterie of disciples and admirers. Some, like Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter, viewed Whitman both as a prophet of a utopian future and of same-sex desire — the passion of comrades. This aligned with their own desires for a future of brotherly socialism.
Whitman’s vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the Beat movement and its leaders such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the 1950s and 1960s as well as anti-war poets like Adrienne Rich and Gary Snyder. Lawrence Ferlinghetti numbered himself among Whitman’s “wild children”, and the title of his 1961 collection Starting from San Francisco is a deliberate reference to Whitman’s Starting from Paumanok. Whitman also influenced Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and was the model for the character of Dracula. Stoker said in his notes that Dracula represented the quintessential male which, to Stoker, was Whitman, with whom he corresponded until Whitman’s death. Other admirers included the Eagle Street College, an informal group established in 1885 at the home of James William Wallace in Eagle Street, Bolton, to read and discuss the poetry of Whitman. The group subsequently became known as the Bolton Whitman Fellowship or Whitmanites. Its members held an annual ‘Whitman Day’ celebration around the poet’s birthday.
The Walt Whitman Bridge, which crosses the Delaware River near his home in Camden, was opened on May 16, 1957. In 1997, the Walt Whitman Community School opened, becoming the first private high school catering to LGBT youth. His other namesakes include Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland and Walt Whitman Shops (formerly called “Walt Whitman Mall”) in Huntington Station, Long Island, New York, near his birthplace.
Whitman was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2009, and, in 2013, he was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display that celebrates LGBT history and people.
A statue of Whitman by Jo Davidson is located at the entrance to the Walt Whitman Bridge and another casting resides in the Bear Mountain State Park.
In 1938, the United States Post Office Department announced plans for a series of stamps recognizing ten famous Americans and invited the public to submit recommendations. The response was so great that it was decided to increase the number from 10 to 35. This required an unexpected level of organization by the Post Office Department for this series.
Seven categories were decided upon — authors, poets, educators, scientists, composers, artists, and inventors. Each category of five has the same set of denominations — 1 cent, 2 cents, 3 cents, 5 cents, and 10 cents. Each rate had a valid use. The 1¢ stamp paid for a letter that was dropped off at a post office to someone who had a box at the same office. The 2¢ was for local delivery. The 3¢ paid the normal non-local mail rate, and the 5¢ and 10¢ were used in combination for heavier letters and special rates. The denominations also shared a consistent coloring scheme: 1¢ is bright blue green; 2¢ is rose carmine; 3¢ is bright red violet; 5¢ is ultramarine; and 10¢ is dark brown.
Each category has its subjects arranged with the oldest birth date going on the 1¢ stamp, down to the most recent birth date on the 10¢ stamp. Each category has its own dedicated symbol in the engraving — a scroll, quill pen and inkwell for authors; a winged horse (Pegasus) for poets; the “Lamp of Knowledge” for educators; laurel leaves and the pipes of the Roman god Pan for composers; and inventors had a cogwheel with uplifted wings and a lightning flash to symbolize power, flight, and electricity. The artists and the scientists have multiple symbols. Artists have either a paint palette and brush (for painters), and the sculptors have a stonecutting hammer and chisel. Scientists had the classical symbol of their particular profession.
The 5-cent ultramarine Walt Whitman stamp (Scott #867) was released on February 20, 1940, with first day ceremonies held at the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey. This was sponsored by the Fifth Annual Stamp Exposition of the Association of South Jersey Stamp Clubs (SOJEX 1940), held at the Walt Whitman Hotel in Camden February 17-20. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing used the Rotary Press to print 22,207,780 copies of the stamp, perforated 10½ x 11.