Walt Whitman: Biography and Literary Works

Also Read



      Walt Whitman was born in 1819 and spent his early childhood on a little farm at Long Island, which he always called by its Indian name Paumanok. Presently the family moved to Brooklyn, and the boy grew up to love the noise and the crowd of the city streets even more than he loved the sea and the open country.

      In the city Whitman received a little education, of the common-school kind then he was by turns office boy, printer, teacher of a district school, carpenter, idler, reporter, and editor of small newspapers. By inclination he was something of a vagabond, not keeping any job longer than it pleased him, nor recognizing any social ties which interfered with what he considered his personal freedom. He made one leisurely journey down the Ohio to New Orleans returning on foot by way of the Great Lakes and Canada, seeing practically the whole of the country as it then was, and making comrades of all classes of the laboring people. He came back to Brooklyn, worked at various jobs, wrote newspaper sketches and poems of a very ordinary kind, lived with his mother, and paid his board when he had the money. At thirty-six years of age, he published his first small volume, Leaves of Grass (1855), making a radical departure from all his previous methods of writing, and from that time he followed an entirely new trail In literature.

Whitman’s Significant Time Spent in Hospital

      A noteworthy aspect of Whitman’s life was his hospital service, - a tender, helpful service, without pay and above reward. His soldier brother was wounded in 1862, and Whitman hurried to the front to take care of him. From the camp he followed some of the stricken soldiers to Washington, and found in that city a huge hospital, its surgeons and nurses over-worked in caring for fifty thousand sick and wounded, while thousands more came pouring in, a ghastly flood, after every battle. The situation touched Whitman deeply, and securing a small position in a government office, he gave all his spare time to the hospitals, making himself useful in every possible way to the suffering soldiers. In his Drum-Taps he had caught the popular view of war - the brass bands, the flags, the thrill of bugles and the long roll of the drums; but now he sees, as he says, “the real war, which will never get into books”:

Aroused and angry
I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face dropp’d and I resigned myself
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead

      When that generous service was ended, Whitman’s health was broken; but he had gained a strength of spirit unknown to him before. His later poetry is still crude and often spoiled by egotism, but a deeper rhythm, like the beating of a heart, creeps into it; and the coarseness vanishes, together with the animal pleasure of mere physical sensations. He had learned that man has a soul also, and at times the soul appears to him as of more consequence than the body. For some ten years, he was a government clerk in Washington, and for the remainder of his life, he resided in Camden, New Jersey. His Leaves of Grass, which he republished ten times with additions and corrections, brought him a very small income, and in the later years of his life he was largely dependent on friends, who gave freely because of his service and his genius.

      These later years, though troubled by pain and poverty, were not without their triumph. Though the public would not read his verses, a few good critics acknowledged his power and his little house became the pilgrimage from all parts of America and England. With all his comradeship and love of crowds, Whitman was always secretive about himself, and, as he has the habit of posing in his poetry, the biographer is often baffled in his search for truth. Towards the end of his life, however, we have the testimony of many who visited Whitman, and almost without exception these speak of him as one who had learned the discipline of living, who met suffering with patient heroism, and who left upon all his friends the impression of gentleness and sincerity.

Principal Works

      Poems: Leaves of Grass, 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871, 1876, 1881-1882; 1888, 1891-1892; Drum-Taps, 1865; Passage to India, 1871; After All, Not to Create Only, 1871; As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free, 1872; Two Rivulets, 1876; November Boughs, 1888; Good-bye My Fancy; 1891. Essays, Notes and Studies: Democratic Vistas, 1871; Memoranda during the Ute 1875-1876; Specimen Days and Collect, 1882-1883; Complete Prose Works, 1882; An American Primer: 1904.

      Letters and Journals: Calamus edited by Richard M. Bucke, 1897; The Wound Dresser, edited by Richard M. Bucke, 1898; Letters Written by Walt Whitman to his Mother, 1866-1872, edited by Thomas B. Harned, 1902; Walt Whitman's Diary in Canada, edited by William S. Kennedy, 1904; The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman, edited by Thomas B. Harned, 1918.

      Novel: Franklin Evans, 1842.
Short Stories: The Hard-Breed and Other Stories, 1927.

Previous Post Next Post