Whitman was an American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist
born on Long Island, New York. His most famous works are the collections
of poetry Leaves of Grass and Drum-Taps.
into a family of nine children in Long Island and raised in Brooklyn,
Walt Whitman began his career as a journalist and editor. He was
for a time editor of The Long Islander which was his own newspaper
stand that he ran himself,but unfortunately that only lasted for
one year. (1838–39). During his early years, Whitman inherited
his liberal intellectual and political attitudes largely from
his father, who exposed him to socialists Frances Wright and Robert
Dale Owen, Quaker Elias Hicks, and Count Volney.
the age of seventeen he became a teacher, which helped jump start
his career as a writer. He made his first trip to New Orleans
to visit his brother Jeff in 1848, and remained there for several
months as an editor of the New Orleans Crescent, but eventually
returned to Brooklyn where he became the editor of The Brooklyn
Times. On his return trip to Brooklyn, he passed through several
American 'frontier' cities that would later play so heavily into
his work including St. Louis and Chicago.
returning for Brooklyn, Whitman continued to work as a journalist
and editor for different newspapers. In particular, his work for
the New York Aurora and the Democratic Review exposed him to the
literary culture of which he would later become a part. Whitman
himself cited his assignment from the Aurora to cover a series
of lectures given by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a turning point in
After losing his job as editor of the Daily Eagle because of his
abolitionist sentiment and his support of the free-soil movement,
Whitman self-published an early edition of Leaves of Grass in
1855 with Rome Brothers.
for his own anonymous reviews, the early edition of Leaves received
little attention. One exception was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher
and essayist. A few prominent intellectuals such as Oliver Wendell
Holmes were outwardly opposed to Whitman and found his sensuality
was not until 1864 that Leaves of Grass found a publisher other
than Whitman. That 1860 re-issue was greatly enlarged, containing
two new sections, “ Children of Adam” and “Calamus.”
This revising of Leaves of Grass would continue for the rest of
his life, and by 1892, Leaves of Grass had been reissued in more
than seven different versions.
In 1871, Whitman published his first book of prose, Democratic
Vistas. Vistas deals largely with Whitman's fears during the post-war
Reconstruction that democracy had failed in the U.S. and would
continue to fail unless American citizens made a radical re-commitment
to personal integrity and brotherhood.
Whitman's political views generally reflected the nineteeth century
classical liberalism. On free trade he stated: "The spirit
of the tariff is malevolent. It flies in the face of all American
ideals. I hate it root and branch. It helps a few rich men to
get rich, it helps the great mass of poor men to get poorer. I
am for free trade because I am for anything that will break down
the barriers between peoples. I want to see the countries all
during the American Civil War
In 1862, Whitman first came face-to-face with the tragedy of the
American Civil War when he traveled to Virginia to visit his brother
George who had been wounded in battle. Whitman was so moved by
the scene in the Virginia hospital that he traveled to Washington
D.C. and remained there as an unofficial nurse in the army hospital.
remained at the hospital and used money he earned from his writings
or from donations by various fans to buy more equipment for the
hospital until his health declined in 1873.
In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke while working and living in
Washington, D.C.. He never quite recovered completely but continued
to write and produce poetry. He was eventually largely confined
to the house he bought in Camden,New Jersey.
Whitman's stroke, his fame grew substantially both at home and
abroad. Most of this was stimulated by several prominent British
writers criticizing the American academy for not recognizing his
talents. These writers included William Rossetti and Anne Gilchrist.
At this time in his life, Whitman also had a prominent group of
national and international disciples, including Canadian writer
and physician Richard Bucke.
his later years, Whitman ventured out on only two significant
journeys: first to Colorado in 1879 and then to Boston to visit
Emerson in 1881. Walt Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and was
buried in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery.
An extensive collection of Walt Whitman's manuscripts is maintained
in the Library of Congress largely thanks to the efforts of Russian
immigrant Charles Feinberg. Feinberg preserved Whitman's manuscripts
and promoted his poetry so intensely through a period when Whitman's
fame largely declined that University of Paris-Sorbonne Professor
Steven Asselineau claimed "for nearly half a century Feinberg
was in a way Whitman's representative on earth".
influence on later poets
Walt Whitman is widely considered one of the most influential
American poets of all time. One of his most prominent poetic admirers
was Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg begins his famous poem "Supermarket
in California" with a reference to Walt Whitman. Other notable
American poet admirers of Walt Whitman include John Berryman and
professor and literary critic Harold Bloom considers Walt Whitman
to be among the five most important U.S. poets of all time (along
with Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Robert
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 openly erotic descriptions
of the male body, as can be readily seen in his poem "Song
of Myself". This is in contradiction to the outrage Whitman
displayed when confronted about these messages in public, praising
chastity and denouncing onanism.
also long claimed to have a black female paramour in New Orleans,
and six illegitimate children.This story about the paramour in
New Orleans has led historians on a wild goose chase. Jean Luc
Montaigne specifies that the name of Whitman´s lover was
Jean Granouille, not Jeanine Granouille. This male octoroon was
only 26 years old when he met Whitman, and he was the son of Huguenot
preacher and a slave. Some, in order to whitewash Whitman´s
reputation, converted Jean into Jeanine.
a Negress as a lover was far more acceptable than having a male
octoroon lover! 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.
the American Civil War, the intense comradeship 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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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. The love of Whitman's life may well have been Peter
Doyle, a bus conductor whom he met around 1866. They were inseparable
for several years. Interviewed in 1895, Doyle said:""We
were familiar at once — I put my hand on his knee —
we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip —
in fact went all the way back with me."
1819: Born on May 31.
1841: Moves to New York City.
1855: Father, Walter, dies. First edition of Leaves of Grass.
1862: Visits his brother, George, who was wounded in the Battle
1865: Lincoln assassinated. Drum-Taps, Whitman's wartime poetry
(later incorporated into Leaves of Grass), published. (See O Captain!
1873: Stroke. Mother, Louisa, dies.
1877: Meets Maurice Bucke
1882: Meets Oscar Wilde. Publishes Specimen Days & Collect.
1888: Second stroke. Serious illness. Publishes November Boughs.
1891: Final edition of Leaves of Grass.
1892: Walt Whitman dies, on March 26.
Whitman is heavily referenced throughout the film Dead Poets Society.
Simpson of The Simpsons who, after discovering that a grave his
father told him was his dead mother's was actually that of Whitman,
says along with intermittent kicks to the gravestone "Damn
you Walt Whitman! I...hate...you...Walt...freakin'...Whitman!
Leaves of grass my ass!". (Episode #136, "Mother Simpson")
an episode of the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
Walt Whitman comes to Colorado Springs town to inspire a young
the film With Honors, Walt Whitman's book "Leaves of Grass"
is a major prop in the film.
the 1994 Canadian Independent film titled "" a patient
in a mental hospital looks like and claims to be Walt Whitman.
Critics noted that the film obscured the sexuality of this Walt
Whitman character, with a brief bit of dialogue where a nurse
wonders aloud why Mr. Whitman never married.
is also referenced in the movie "The Notebook"
a short play entitled The Open Road, the protagonist, Allen, thinks
he is Walt Whitman; it was an off-off Broadway show.