Early Life and Career
Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York. He lived with his two parents and eight siblings in Brooklyn and Long Island through the 1820’s and 30’s. When Whitman was twelve, he began to teach himself the printer’s trade and began reading anything he could get his hands on: Homer, Dante, even the Bible. He worked as a printer until a fire brunt down the whole printing district and ruined the industry.
At the age of Seventeen, Whitman became a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Long Island and he continued to teach until he was twenty-two. He realized teaching was not the life for him and he did not enjoy it, so he decided to pursue journalism as his full-time career.
He worked for the Brooklyn Daily Eagleand created his own weekly newspaper The Long Islander. He left the two newspapers behind to become the editor of the New Orleans Crescent. In New Orleans he witnessed the horrors of slavery and when he later returned to New York he founded a “free soil” newspaper the Brooklyn Freeman.
Leaves of Grass
Whitman published the first copy of Leaves of Grass in 1855. It consisted of twelve poems and a preface. He self published it and sent a copy to Emerson, a leading transcendentalist author, in July of 1855. The first edition was not a smashing success, instead much more of a failure. A review published in The Atlantic by Thomas Wentworth Higginson said: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” With this negative review and many more like it, Whitman decided to publish anonymous reviews praising the book. It was not until Whitman got a letter back from Emerson that things started to turn around for the book.
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire.
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.
I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay my respects.
Whitman took this letter and published it on the back of his second edition of leaves of grass that contained thirty-three poems. This time it was much better received because people loved Emerson and trusted his judgment on books. Whitman Continued to edit and publish new versions of Leaves of Grass throughout his life.
Later Life and Career
At the start of the Civil War, Whitman worked as a freelance journalist and visited hospitals that were treating wounded soldier. In 1862, he visited his wounded brother in Washington D.C. The amount of suffering the young men in these hospitals was shocking to Whitman and so he decided to work in the hospitals and try to help the wounded. He worked in the hospitals for eleven years and found a job as the clerk for the Department of the Interior. He was later fired from that job because the Secretary of the Interior found out he was the author of Leaves of grass and took it to be a very offensive collection of poems. Whitman was never financially secure and had to take loans from prominent writers in England and the Sates. He had to give money to his widowed mother and also spent an excess amount of money on the soldiers in the hospitals.
In the 1870’s Whitman went to visit his dying mother and he suffered a stroke. He was forced to live in Camden, New Jersey with his brother until the 1882 edition of Leaves of Grass was published and he could afford to move into his own house. On March 26, 1892 Walt Whitman died in a clapboard house in Camden, New Jersey.
As we would expect, he went out with a bang and was buried in a tomb designed by none other than himself.