Author Spotlight: Walt Whitman

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Walt Whitman arrived on the American literary scene at a time when it was transitioning from transcendentalism to realism. Transcendentalism, the artistic fight against the general spirituality of the time, and realism, a realistic art movement, are both present in his work. Today, Whitman is widely regarded as one of the most well-known writers of the American canon, earning himself a nickname as the “father of free verse.” His most famous work, Leaves of Grass, was seen as overly provocative and garnered sour reviews. Despite this, Whitman established himself as one of the leading writers of the time. Here, we’re putting the spotlight on this master of free verse to better understand his life and writing.

 The Years That Formed the Writer

 Whitman was born in May 1819, and was the second of nine children. When he was four, his family moved from West Hills, Long Island to Brooklyn, New York, where they were forced to move from home to home due to financial struggles. As an adult, the writer would frequently remark on the restlessness and poor living conditions that his impoverished family faced. Whitman was only eleven years old when he finished schooling, and he was immediately sent to work to provide income for his family. He started at a Long Island newspaper, where he learned about the printing press and typesetting.
By 16, Whitman had moved to New York City to take a job as a compositor. However, after several years of personal financial trouble, coupled with the Panic of 1837, Whitman returned home to live with his family. He attempted teaching, but was not taken by the profession. Long-Islander was a newspaper Whitman founded shortly after moving to Huntington, New York in 1839. He served as the publisher, editor, pressman, and distributer for the paper. However, after ten months, he sold the paper and returned to teaching. 

The Beginning of His Success

 Whitman began exercising his writing muscles in the 1840s when he published a series of essays titled “Sun-Down Papers--From the Desk of a Schoolmaster.” Throughout the 1840s and 50s, Whitman wrote several freelance fiction and poetry pieces. In 1852, he published a serialized novel called 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. He published a 47,000-word series entitled Manly Health and Training under the pen name Mose Velsor in 1858. The book instructed men on beard grooming, nude sunbathing, bathing in cold water, and finding comfortable shoes – a large departure from his previous and future pieces.

Poet and author Walt Whitman.
With the publication of Leave of Grass, Whitman began experiencing a shift in his career. He had started writing the piece in 1850, intending to craft the next great American epic. Initially, Whitman was forced to self-publish the text, but it immediately caught reader’s attentions. In particular, the poem titled “Song of Myself.” Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson was a deep admirer of the piece and commented on it in a five page letter to Whitman.
On the other hand, Geologist Peter Lesley sharply criticized Whitman’s work, calling it “trashy” and “obscene.” There was enough backlash after a publisher released the second printing that they almost didn’t release a third. In the end, they chose to publish, and Leaves of Grass was reprinted in 1860 and again in 1867.

Struggles in the Years That Followed

 Despite being met with widespread attention for his work in Leaves of Grass, Whitman experienced much hardship in the years following. His brother George was captured by Confederates during the Civil War. Shortly after, his brother Andrew died from tuberculosis, and Whitman had to commit his brother Jesse to a mental hospital. He received a better paying job, but was quickly let go when it was discovered that he was the author of the morally skewed Leaves of Grass. He was recommended by a friend for a role as Assistant Secretary of the Interior, but was turned down on moral grounds.
Events lifted when a collection of his poems was published in England and gained wide acclaim. He earned the high respects of famed English writer Anne Gilchrist. After suffering a debilitating stroke in 1873, Whitman moved in with his brother in Camden, New Jersey. As he aged, Whitman continued writing, producing several revised versions of Leaves of Grass, and writing countless poems.
Whitman died in March 1892 after suffering from severe bronchial pneumonia. His body was available for public viewing at his Camden home - a place that is still open for the public to visit. Today, Whitman is regarded as one of the country’s first “poets of democracy.” Despite the controversy his work invited, it pushed boundaries and challenged norms, fashioning Whitman as one of the greatest poets in American history.