Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass


"Yes my brother I know,

The rest might not, but I have treasur'd every note,

For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,

Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,

Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts,

The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,

I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,

Listen'd long and long." ("Sea-Drift", Leaves of Grass)

Walter Whitman was born in West Hills near Huntingdon on Long Island, New York, May 31 1819 and spent some of his youth in Brooklyn. Due to his limited formal education he began his working life as an office boy and was subsequently a printer, journalist, and itinerant schoolteacher around Long Island. He also entered the political fray as a Democrat before moving to New Orleans, back to New York, to St Louis and Chicago writing for various newspapers and journals after 1848. He published some of his own writings but it was not until well into his thirties that he displayed the poetic powers that would make him America's most influential poet of the nineteenth century.

It was in the year 1855 that he emerged explosively onto the American literary scene with an extremely personal, even narcissistic, volume of poetry called Leaves of Grass. It was radical in the freeness of its verse that seemed to defy rhythm and rhyme to create its own sound world. He shortened his name to Walt as part of his reinvention and Ralph Waldo Emerson (a considerable influence upon him) wrote to inform him memorably, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career". Further, he wrote that Leaves of Grass was, "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed". This was high praise but not undeserved.

For many years Whitman continued to add to the initial twelve poems, with twenty-one new poems in the 1856 second edition, 122 in the third of 1860 and more in six more editions of revisions and additions. Whitman was involved in the American Civil War as a clerk in Washington and a nurse (1862-5) in a volunteer hospital. The experience here affected him greatly and some of his feelings on the subject can be found in his Drum-Taps (1865) that was later included in Leaves of Grass and in the prose piece Memoranda during the War (1875).

Whitman was not accepted by the public at large, possibly due to his sexual frankness and homosexuality, possibly due to the rough image he cultivated. However, his star rose with the praise bestowed upon him by English writers such as Swinburne and Rossetti. Although his later writing from Camder, New Jersey (particularly after a paralytic stroke in 1873) lacked the verve and originality of the earlier poetry he was the prime influence upon writers such as Hart Crane and Allen Ginsberg due to his new exploration of individual freedom and radical experimental writing.

The Walt Whitman Collection Offers access ot the four Walt Whitman notebooks
Withman's Birthplace Information on Walt Withman's birthplace
Charm.net A brieg biography on Walt Whitman

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