Walt Whitman is one of the most eminent poets of America who expressed the condition of nineteenth century American society in his works, which always reflected the cruel, unjust and discerning face of the country. In his period the Americans reviewed those illustrations unpatriotic so his poetic license was very much condemned. At the time of his death only he got recognition by his country.
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York. His father, Walter Whitman, Sr., was a carpenter and farmer. Whitman was named after his father. His origin was mixed with English and Dutch. He was the second son of Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor, the granddaughter of a sea captain. When Walt was not just even four years old, Walter Sr. with his family that consisted of nine children moved to Brooklyn, which was a growing city, across from New York. As he was not successful in any of his trade so he decided to try his fortune in house building. And when Walt was six year old, General Lafayette who visited the New York that time carried him. This is described in some of Walt’s stories (Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price).
Walt was born in a newly shaped United States. The young Whitman got lots of opportunities to gather experience from his farm life and the new city society that helped him to prepare his attitude for writing. Walt’s love for living close to the East River later reflected in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, published in 1856 where he has shared his experience that how as a child he used to ride ferries onwards and reverse to New York city. That was the most reminiscent experience in his life. This daily commuting became the symbol of the way from life to death and to life again (Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price).
In Brooklyn Whitman finished his elementary schooling. He spent his six years in Brooklyn public school with different backgrounds and age group children. He described later in his journals and poetry that he never liked physical punishment in schools. Except this formal education of schooling he received most of the significant education from outside like visiting museums and libraries and by attending lectures. He never forgot the first great lecture given by Quaker leader, Elias Hicks who was a very good friend of his grandfather Jesse.
In his boyhood, Whitman’s one of the favorite activities was to visit his grandparents on Long Island and the beauty of that mystical land attracted him a lot. His love to that place is revealed from his poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”. As Whitman grew up in both places like growing and energetic city Brooklyn and idle Long Island countryside, the double adherence of urban and rural life can be marked out in his poetry (Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price).
When Whitman finished his formal schooling, at the age of eleven, he started working as a clerk in a local office of some lawyers where his work was related to the libraries and there he got chance to start with his informal education. His love to get engaged with everyone in conversation and discussion also increased his knowledge. He was also a nonstop reader. When other celebrated writers of his time were taking well-arranged education from private institutions, Whitman was busy in gathering information about history, literature, music and some other fields from the fastest growing city New York.
In 1831 he learnt printing trade during being an apprentice in Patriot, a newspaper and started liking written word. Here he observed how the thoughts could be changed in to language and soon could be transmitted to the readers. As he was mainly self-taught, he became familiar with the works of Dante, Shakespeare, Homer and the Bible. At the age of twelve only he also added his words in the newspaper.
In 1833, his family moved back to the West Hills. Whitman was alone in the city experiencing the freedom that could make his career. These were the years, which taught him the changing parameters of life that reflects in his poetry also. In his poetry, journalism and prose one can find focus on the history of Brooklyn, Long Island and New York City.
Walt was living separately from his family and was increasing his knowledge from different sources like in the libraries he read about Sir Walter Scott, James Cooper and other romance novelists. He saw the theatres where he liked Shakespeare a lot. Richard III had always been Whitman’s favorite play. He gathered lots of knowledge from different lectures of Francis Wright who was a Scottish Women’s right advocate (Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price).
At the age of sixteen he was about to set his career in the printing trade and news paper when in two cases of fire destruction in the printing industry of New York city stopped him and in 1836 Whitman joined his family back in Hampstead.
Though Whitman had very little formal education still he developed some skills of reading and writing through the profession of apprentice in the newspaper. That was sufficient for the type of teaching he could do for some time. He opposed his father who wanted him to work on their new farm, as he never wanted to be a farmer. Only teaching was the career left for him to support him and his family in a very bad financial situation.
In his five years of teaching profession he taught in many different towns of Long Island with a very little payment. Whitman proved to be a good teacher and he encouraged the students to think instead of only reciting. He discouraged the punishment and he involved the students in educational games. Whitman’s educational philosophy can be understood in his poem “There Was a Child Went Forth” commemorating extra curricular learning. He valued the variety of education. His suspicion for the classroom is produced from the poem “Song Of Myself” where a child ask the question “What is a grass?” and this is the question that makes Whitman thinking for a simple question. He kept himself energetic by discussing about societies. He also did campaigning for Martin Van Buren’s and became the hard worker for the Democratic Party.
In 1838, he tried to start his own newspaper ‘The Long Islander’. He also bought a press and kept his brother George as an assistant. Though he actively wrote, published and edited still, he could not continue long in this field and unwillingly he had to continue in teaching and by 1841 his teaching career was almost at end. He was happy with his newspaper work and could not find happiness in teaching.
In the late 1840s, Whitman wrote some journalistic pieces and by the early 1860s, he permanently left teaching career, as he did not find himself suited in this career. Then he decided not to make his career in fiction writing, instead establish himself in the career of journalism. His poetry and fiction was published in about twenty newspapers and magazines. His stories were published in Democratic Review, the most reputed magazine of the nation. His stories are full of professional and psychological matters.
His story ‘The Shadow and The Light of a Young Man’s Soul’ narrates Whitman’s own attitude. In the story, the hero, Archibald Dean, left the New York City due to a fire incident and took the charge of a school. H e successfully wrote some novella about rising temperance movement. Benjamin who was Whitman’s partner published his Franklin Evans; or the Inebriate in New World. Whitman’s handling romance and passion in this novel is remarkable. Approximately, 20000 copies of Franklin Evans were sold. This was the novel that Whitman completed in three days.
Whitman supported temperance movement in his another two stories- ‘Wild Frank’s Return’ and ‘The Child’s Champion’ Soon he started another novel ‘The Madman’ on the theme of temperance but he left it in the middle. It is assumed that his temperance issue came from the drinking habits of his father or may be his habit of drinking at the time of school teaching.
Whitman and The Leaves of Grass:
Having faith in his own fictional journey of national importance, Whitman published his Leaves of Grass on 4 July 1855. He believed that he could give his poetry to the common men and when Leaves of Grass got published, he imagined himself the poet of America and referred himself “one of the roughs”, a common man (Pierce A. Jason, 1992).
The poem clearly classified Whitman’s goal as a national poet who was a self styled poet. Leaves of Grass had the series of edition making the poet and nation’s life unique (Pierce A. Jason, 1992).
His ‘The Leaves of Grass’ became the notorious collection. In 1855, he got it published privately, as no reputed publisher was ready to publish it. The 19th century Americans were not ready to accept the subjects like homo-sexuality, respect for prostitutes, religious references about Adams and Eves that was the subject of this work.
Whitman included the civil war thing in the third edition of ‘The Leaves of Grass’ as the war erupted in 1861. At that time Abraham Lincoln’s assassination affected him a lot and he got inspiration to write his most remarkable poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom”. His war poetry titled “Drum Taps” was added in to Leaves of Grass. He would declare that his leaves of Grass spin around the four years of civil war (Pierce A. Jason, 1992).
Whitman was never discouraged. He never stopped revising “The Leaves of Grass” and kept on adding poems. He added poems at leas eight times. For the first edition of “The Leaves of Grass”, he paid from his own pocket and got only 795 copies printed. Whitman never put his name on the title page of the book and that was assumed unconventional and it was understood that not putting the name on the title page was much about America not the writer himself.
Whitman never got married and never left America. He never lost his hope even in his last years, though he was badly criticized for his work “The Leaves of Grass”. He always kept his self-esteem.
In 1881, again the disputable publication of “The Leaves of Grass” appeared. Same time Whitman published “Specimen Days and Collect”. In 1888, his collection of newspaper pieces “November Boughs” was published.
On May 26, 1892 Whitman died. And after death he got lot of recognition. American poetry got enriched with the poetic ideas of Whitman. He emphasized on the natural and simple way of poetry. His use of free verse put deep effect on the poetry. His poems have variety in rhythm.
After his death he left many notes about the intention of writing “The Leaves of Grass”. He was a tolerant, contended and joyful man. Whitman’s place in American history is mysterious. It seems that it is based on the ideas upon which America was established (Pierce A. Jason, 1992).
Biography of Walt Whitman, http://utut.essortment.com/waltwhitmanbio_pmq.htm
Folsom, Ed and Price, Kenneth M., Biography of Walt Whitman, http://whitmanarchive.org/biography/index.html
Carpenter Edward, Days with Walt Whitman With Some Notes On his Life and works
Folsom, Ed and Price, Kenneth, Rescripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction To His Life and Work.
Pierce, Jason A., 1992, Walt Whitman and the development of Leaves of Grass, http://library.sc.edu/spcoll/amlit/whitman.html
The Life of Walt Whitman, http://www.poetseers.org/early-american-poets/walt-whitman/whitman-biography/
Walt Whitman, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/wwhitman.htm