Walt Whitman

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Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist born on Long Island, New York. His most famous work is the collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass.



Walt Whitman, age 37, frontispiece
Walt Whitman, age 37, frontispiece

Whitman was born in a white farmhouse near present-day South Huntington, New York, on Long Island, New York, in 1819, the second of nine children. In 1823, the Whitman family moved to Brooklyn. Whitman attended school for only six years before starting work as a printer's apprentice. He was almost entirely self-educated, reading especially the works of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. After a two year apprenticeship, Whitman moved to New York City and began work in various print shops. In 1835, he returned to Long Island as a country school teacher. Whitman founded and edited a newspaper, the Long-Islander, in his hometown of Huntington in 1838 and 1839. Whitman continued teaching in Long Island until 1841, when he moved back to New York City to work as a printer and journalist. He also did some freelance writing for popular magazines and made political speeches. In 1840, he worked for Martin Van Buren's presidential campaign.

For two years he edited the influential Brooklyn Eagle, but a split in the Democratic party removed Whitman from this job for his support of the Free-Soil party. Between 1841 and 1859, Whitman edited one newspaper in New Orleans (the Crescent), two in New York, and four newspapers in Long Island. The 1840s saw the first fruits of Whitman's long labor of words, with a number of short stories published, beginning in 1841, and one year later the temperance novel Franklin Evans, published in New York, and "The Child's Champion," from 1842.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass was self-published at Whitman's expense in 1855, the same year his father died. At this point, the collection consisted of 12 long, untitled poems. Both public and critical response was muted. A year later, the second edition, including a personal letter of congratulations from Ralph Waldo Emerson that Emerson was surprised to see printed, was published. This edition contained an additional twenty poems. During the American Civil War, Whitman cared for wounded soldiers in and around Washington, D.C. He often saw Abraham Lincoln in his travels around the city, and came to greatly admire the President. Whitman's poems "O Captain! My Captain!" (popularized in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society) and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" were influenced by his profound grief after Lincoln's assassination in 1865.

After the Civil War, Walt Whitman found a job as a clerk in the U.S. Department of the Interior. However, when James Harlan, Secretary of the Interior, discovered that Whitman was the author of the "offensive" Leaves of Grass, he fired Whitman immediately. In 1877 he met a Canadian psychiatrist and author, Richard Maurice Bucke, who would become his personal physician, close friend and sanctioned literary executor. By the 1881 seventh edition of Leaves, the collection of poetry was quite large. By this time Whitman was enjoying wider recognition and the edition sold a large number of copies, allowing Whitman to purchase a home in Camden, New Jersey.

Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and was buried in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery, in a simple tomb of his own design. A dedication to Whitman is carved on the side of a rock face at Bon Echo Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. The inscription is the following excerpt from one of his poems.

My foothold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite;
I laugh at what you call dissolution;
And I know the amplitude of time.

Poetry and Influence

Whitman's poetry expressed the human energy of the bustling cities of New York and Brooklyn in the 19th century.  His Crossing Brooklyn Ferry was written before the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.
Whitman's poetry expressed the human energy of the bustling cities of New York and Brooklyn in the 19th century. His Crossing Brooklyn Ferry was written before the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.

Whitman and Emily Dickinson stand as the two giants of 19th-century American poetry. Whitman's poetry seems more quintessentially American; the poet exposed common America and spoke with a distinctly American voice, stemming from a distinct American consciousness. Whitman utilized creative repetition to produce a hypnotic quality that creates the force in his poetry, inspiring as it informs. His poetic quality can be traced indirectly through religious or quasi-religious speech and writings such as the Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's reconciliation with Whitman is revealed in the former's poem, A Supermarket in California.

Whitman is a writer whose influence reaches far beyond his native land—especially in Latin America, where Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda claims descent. Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa has also been inspired by Whitman's work. Whitman's poetry was a model for the French Symbolists, who in turn influenced the surrealists and "modern" poets such as Pound, Eliot, and Auden. The flavor of this power is exhibited in these lines from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry in Leaves of Grass (1855), his most famous work:

I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walked the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had received identity by my body,
That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body.

Whitman and Homosexuality

Walt Whitman, 1884.
Walt Whitman, 1884.

Another topic intertwined with Whitman's life and poetry is that of homosexuality and homoeroticism, ranging from his admiration for 19th-century ideals of male friendship to outright masturbatory descriptions of the male body ("Song Of Myself"). This is in contradiction to the outrage Whitman displayed when confronted about these messages in public, praising chastity and denouncing onanism. He also long claimed to have a black female paramour in New Orleans, and six illegitimate children. Modern scholarly opinion believes these poems reflected Whitman's true feelings towards his sexuality, but he tried to cover up his feelings in a homophobic culture. In "Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City" he changed the sex of the beloved from male to female prior to publication.

During the American Civil War, the intense comradeship (which often turned sexual) at the front lines in Virginia, which were visited by Whitman in his capacity as a nurse, fueled his ideas about the convergence of homosexuality and democracy. In "Democratic Vistas", he begins to discriminate between amative (i.e., heterosexual) and adhesive (i.e., homosexual) love, and identifies the latter as the key to forming the community without which democracy is incomplete:

It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it), that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof.

In the 1970s, the gay liberation movement made Whitman one of their poster children, citing the homosexual content and comparing him to Jean Genet for his love of young working-class men ("We Two Boys Together Clinging"). In particular the "Calamus" poems, written after a failed and very likely homosexual relationship, contain passages that were interpreted to represent the coming out of a gay man. The name of the poems alone would have sufficed to convey homosexual connotations to the ones in the know at the time, since the calamus plant is associated with Kalamos, a god in antique mythology who was transformed with grief by the death of his lover, the male youth Karpos. In addition, the calamus plant's central characteristic is a prominent central vein that is phallic in appearance.

Whitman's romantic and sexual attraction towards other men is not disputed. However, whether or not Whitman had sexual relationships with men has been the subject of some critical disagreement. The best evidence is a pair of third-hand accounts attributed to fellow poets George Sylvester Viereck and Edward Carpenter, neither of whom entrusted those accounts to print themselves. Though scholars in the field have increasingly supported the view of Whitman as actively homosexual, this aspect of his personality is still sometimes omitted when his works are presented in educational settings. See also Historical pederastic couples

Whitman Chronology


  • LEAVES OF GRASS, 1855 (first edition)
  • COMPLETE WRITINGS, 10 vol., 1902
  • CORRESPONDENCE, 1961-69 (4 vols., ed. by E.H. Miller)
  • PROSE WORKS, 1963-64 (2 vols., ed. by F. Stoval)
  • WALT WHITMAN: POETRY AND PROSE, 1982 (ed. by Justin Kaplan)
  • CORRESPONDENCE 1886-1889, 1989
  • CORRESPONDENCE 1890-1892, 1989
  • THE JOURNALISM: 1834-1846, 1998

Leaves Of Grass Selected Critical Bibliography

  • Adolph, Robert. "Whitman, Tocqueville, and the Language of Democracy." In Donald E. Morse, ed., The Delegated Intellect: Emersonian Essays on Literature, Science, and Art in Honor of Don Gifford (New York: Peter Lang, 1995), 65-88.
  • Ceniza, Sherry. "'Being a Woman . . . I Wish to Give My Own View': Some Nineteenth-Century Women's Responses to the 1860 Leaves of Grass." In Ezra Greenspan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 110-134.
  • Erkkila, Betsy. "Whitman and the Homosexual Republic." In Ed Folsom, ed., Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994), 153-171.
  • Greenberg, Robert M. Splintered Worlds: Fragmentation and the Ideal of Diversity in the Work of Emerson, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.
  • Maslan, Mark. "Whitman and His Doubles: Division and Union in Leaves of Grass and Its Critics." American Literary History 6 (Spring 1994), 119-139.
  • Newfield, Christopher. "Democracy and Male Homoeroticism." Yale Journal of Criticism 6 (Fall 1993), 29-62.
  • Olsen, Robert. "Whitman's Leaves of Grass: Poetry and the Founding of a 'New World' Culture." University of Toronto Quarterly 64 (Spring 1995), 305-323.
  • Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.
  • Stansell, Christine. "Whitman at Pfaff's: Commercial Culture, Literary Life and New York Bohemia at Mid-Century." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 (Winter 1993), 107-126.
  • Thurin, Erik Ingvar. Whitman Between Impressionism And Expressionism : Language Of The Body, Language Of The Soul. Lewisburg [Pa.] : Bucknell University Press ; London:Associated University Presses, 1995.

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