Walt Whitman, one of nine children, was born in West Hills, Long Island on 31st May, 1819. The family moved to Brooklyn in 1823 where his father found work as a carpenter.
Whitman left school at twelve and began work as a printer. He continued his studies and eventually became a teacher on Long Island and edited the local newspaper, the Long Islander.
In 1841 Whitman moved to New York. and worked for several newspapers including the editorship of New York Aurora and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A member of the Free-Soil Party, Whitman was a strong opponent of slavery and in 1848 his radical political views resulted in him being sacked as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
After making several attempts at radical journalism, Whitman moved into the real estate business and made a living building and selling houses. Whitman continued to write and in 1855 he privately published a book of twelve poems entitled, Leaves of Grass. In the introduction to the book Whitman proclaimed himself the symbolic representative of common people. The sexual content of the poems resulted in some critics declaring it to be an immoral book. The book sold badly and unable to become a full-time poet, Whitman returned to journalism, working as editor of the Brooklyn Times (1856-1859).
A new edition of Leaves of Grass, which contained 124 new poems, appeared in 1860. Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the book but it was ignored by most critics at the time. However, Whitman's use of colloquial language and everyday events, represented a turning-point in the history of American poetry.
Whitman was a Radical Republican and was therefore a strong supporter of the Union Army during the American Civil War. His brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, and Whitman went there to visit him in hospital. When he returned to Washington he spent his spare time visiting soldiers at Armory Square Hospital. He also reported on the conflict for the New York Times. He also published two collections of war poems Drum Taps (1865) and Sequel to Drum Taps (1866). This included several poems in praise of Abraham Lincoln.
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
After the war Whitman worked as a clerk in the Department of the Interior in Washington but was dismissed when it was discovered he was the author of Leaves of Grass. The Secretary of the Interior, like many people at the time, considered it to be an indecent book. Whitman worked in a series of menial jobs and continued to write with Democratic Vistas appearing in 1871.
In 1873 Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke and for the next twenty years lived in a semi-invalid state. Whitman now left Washington for Camden, New Jersey where he spent the remainder of his life. A new edition of Leaves of Grass, now containing 293 poems, was published in 1881. He also published a collection of prose writings, Specimen Days (1881) and newspaper pieces, November Boughs (1888). Walt Whitman died in on 26th March, 1892.