WALT WHITMAN 1819-1892
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1840. Oil-on-canvas painting by Charles Osgood, courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
Walt Whitman,Leaves of Grass (first edition). Frontispiece: Samuel Hollyer engraving based on a Gabriel Harrison daguerreotype. Brooklyn: 1855Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (fifth edition). Frontispiece: W.J. Hennessey engraving. Washington: 1872Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Walt Whitman,Leaves of Grass (first edition). Brooklyn: 1855Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.Cover Art.
Editions of Leaves of GrassBrooklyn: 1855; Brooklyn: 1856; Boston: 1860-1861; New York: 1869; Washington: 1871; Camden, New Jersey: 1876; Boston: 1881-1882; Philadelphia: 1888, Philadelphia: 1891-1892.Library of Congress.
Walt Whitman: Biography(based on: Steven Olsen-Smith, “Walt Whitman.” Writers of the American Renaissance: An A-Z Guide. Ed. Denise D. Knight. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. 404-414.) • Son of Walter and Louisa Velso Whitman, working-class parents • Father: • outspoken supporter of democratic ideals and the rights of common Americans • Opponent of religious orthodoxy • Failed repeatedly as a businessman • Reported to have been emotionally volatile
Walt Whitman: Biography • Mother: • Quaker heritage • Suffused warm maternal affection and maintained cohesiveness within the family before and after the death of Walter Sr. in 1855 • Walter Jr. was their second child
Walt Whitman: Biography • Walter Whitman Jr. was born May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Long Island • Parents had nine children; last child, Edward, was mentally retarded and physically disabled • Walt loved Edward and made him the main beneficiary of his will in 1892
Walt Whitman: Biography • Family moved to Brooklyn, NY, when Walt was 4 years old • Here, Walt attended public school until he was 11 • He became a printer’s apprentice for a local newspaper when he was 12 or 13 (Ben Franklin, anybody?) • Begins publishing his writing in popular New York magazine Mirror • Family moves back to the country
Walt Whitman: Biography • Walt joins them later and teaches school, works as printer, and briefly establishes his own newspaper, The Long-Islander • Walt rarely holds down a job for a long time; he disliked systematic labor and tended to roam • Impressions from his long walks through countryside, towns, and cities (esp. New York) would leave a profound impression on his work
Walt Whitman: Biography • He moves to Manhattan in 1841; first works for the fashionable World and editing (in 1842) the New York Aurora • He writes conventional literature with little resemblance to his later works. • Journalism of the 1840s: impressions of his explorations of New York life
Walt Whitman: Biography • “research”: strolling Broadway, the Battery, and other lively places in Manhattan • Dressed as dandified man-about-town, with hat, cane and boutonniere • Observing and mingling with “people of all classes and stages of rank” (Aurora, “Our City”) • These excursions inspired Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman: Biography • 1848: Whitman is dismissed after two years as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (newspaper), because of his support of the “Wilmot Provisio” of 1846, which sought to outlaw slavery in all new US territories • Travels to New Orleans and takes a job at the Crescent • Uses his travel observations as material for regional depictions in Leaves of Grass • He stays in New Orleans for only 3 months and returns to Brooklyn
Walt Whitman: Biography • 1855: Publication of Whitman’s first volume of poetry: • Leaves of Grass • Strongly influenced by Emerson’s 1844 essay “The Poet” • This essay welded Whitman’s enthusiasm for America as a nation with his rising literary aspirations • Leaves of Grass was unprecedented in both FORM and CONTENT when it appeared in 1855, but it became archetypal for later poetic traditions
Walt Whitman: Biography • Whitman sent Emerson a copy of Leaves of Grass • Emerson responded with a letter, greeting him “at the beginning of a great career” • Whitman used the letter to promote himself, publishing it in the New York Tribune and including it in the second edition (1856) of Leaves of Grass, which even had this greeting printed on the book’s spine!
Walt Whitman: Biography • Critics slammed Whitman for including this praise • Whitman further annoyed the critics by publishing in his 1856 edition his response to Emerson’s letter, a prose manifesto extending Emerson’s views and foretelling a national literature that would promote • Political and cultural destiny of America • Sexuality of humanity • Nature
Walt Whitman: Biography • Poetic triumph accompanied by personal crises • Father dies in 1855 • Poem “Live Oak, with Moss,” seems to document a failed homosexual relationship • 1860: publishes a greatly expanded edition of Leaves of Grass • 1861: Civil War begins • 1862: Whitman travels to Virginia in search of his wounded brother George
Walt Whitman: Biography • Whitman is overwhelmed by the carnage of the Civil War and volunteers as a nurse, without pay, at military hospitals in Washington, D.C. • Under impression of the Civil War, he writes collection of poems, Drum-Taps • Whitman delays publication of the collection to include elegy composed to honor Abraham Lincoln (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”)
Walt Whitman: Biography • He briefly holds a government job in the Bureau of Indian Affairs; is fired because Secretary of Interior James Hartland objected to sexual imagery in Leaves of Grass • He receives another government job in U.S. Attorney General’s Office through the help of friends • William Douglas O’Connor lauded his character in a pamphlet entitled The Good Gray Poet and John Burroughs published Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person • Thus: increased critical and social acclaim
Walt Whitman: Biography • 1873: Whitman has first in a series of paralytic strokes • He moves to Camden, NJ, to be close to his brother George • His mother dies that year in Camden • Leads a rather lonely life in the 1870s, while continuing to work on poetry and prose • 1875: second stroke • Later 1870s: increasing visits from literary admirers
Walt Whitman: Biography • 1880s: literary fame rises while his health declines • 1881: Boston firm printed a new authorized edition of his writings • 1882: publisher suppresses the book after the Massachusetts District Attorney threatens to prosecute on the basis of obscenity laws (thus: Leaves of Grass one of a long list of banned or challenged books)
Walt Whitman: Biography • Publication resumed by a Philadelphia publisher and sales multiplied as a result of the publicity • 1884: Whitman purchased his first home in Camden • Continues to receive visitors and is supported in his daily needs by a series of young male friends; last: Horace Traubel, who published the 11-volume With Walt Whitman in Camden based on his conversations with Whitman
Walt Whitman: Biography • Weakened by strokes and tuberculosis, Whitman dies of pneumonia on march 26, 1892. • His wake and funeral were attended by thousands, many of whom knew Whitman not from his poetry but his familiar presence on Camden’s streets, wharves, and ferries