Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

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.

Walt Whitman (1869)
Walt Whitman (1869)

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.

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.

Primary Sources

(1) Walt Whitman wrote about his thoughts on hearing about the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Specimen Days (1881).

Even after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the gravity of the revolt, and the power and will of the slave States for a strong and continued military resistance to national authority, were not at all realized at the North, except by a few. Nine-tenths of the people of the free States looked upon the rebellion, as started in South Carolina, from a feeling of one-half of contempt, and the other half composed of anger and incredulity. It was not thought it would be joined in by Virginia, North Carolina, or Georgia. A great and cautious national official predicted it would blow over "in sixty days" and folks generally believed the prediction.

(2) Walt Whitman was living in Washington when the Union Army returned after the battle of Bull Run in July, 1861.

The defeated troops commenced pouring into Washington over the Long Bridge at daylight on Monday, 22nd July. The day drizzling all through with rain. The Saturday and Sunday of the battle had been parched and hot to an extreme - the dust, the grime, and smoke, in layers, sweated in, their clothes all saturated with the clay-powder filling the air - stirred up everywhere on the dry roads and trodden fields by the regiments, swarming wagons, artillery. All the men with this coating of sweat and rain, now recoiling back, pouring over the Long Bridge - a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck. Occasionally, a rare regiment, in perfect order, with its officers (some gaps, dead, the true braves) marching in silence, with lowering faces, stern, weary to sinking, all black and dirty, but every man with his musket, and stepping alive; but these are the exceptions.

(3) Walt Whitman worked in a Union Army camp hospital during the battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862.

21st December, 1862: Spend a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital since the battle - seems to have received only the worst cases. Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc., a full load for one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt.

23 December, 1862: The results of the late battle are exhibited everywhere about here in thousands of cases. Hundreds die every day, in the camp, brigade and division hospitals. These are merely tents, and sometimes very poor ones, the wounded lying on the ground, lucky if the blankets are spread on layers of pine or hemlock twigs, or small leaves. No cots; seldom even a mattress. Once in a while some youngster holds on to me convulsively, and I do what I can for him; at any rate, stop with him and sit near him for hours, if he wishes it.

(4) In his diary Walt Whitman recorded his visits to wounded soldiers in Washington (4th February, 1863)

Visited Armory Square Hospital. Supplied paper and envelopes to all who wished - as usual, found plenty of men who needed those articles. Wrote letters. Saw and talked with two or three members of the Brooklyn 14th Regiment. A poor fellow in Ward D, with a fearful wound in a fearful condition, was having some loose splinters of bone taken from the neighborhood of the wound. The operation was long, and one of great pain, yet, after it was well commenced, the soldier bore it in silence. He sat up, propped, was much wasted, had lain a long time time quiet in one position (not for days but weeks), a bloodless, brown-skinned face, with eyes full of determination.

One young New York man, with a bright, handsome face, had been lying several months from a disagreeable wound, received at Bull Run. A bullet had shot him right through the bladder, hitting him front, low in the belly, and coming out back. He had suffered much - the water came out of the wound, by slow but steady quantities, for many weeks - so that he lay almost constantly in a sort of puddle - and there were other disagreeable circumstances. At present comparatively comfortable, had a bad throat, was delighted with a stick of horehound candy I gave him, with one or two other trifles.

(5) In his diary Walt Whitman recorded the arrival of the wounded from the battle of Chancellorsville (May, 1863)

The wounded have begun to arrive from Hooker's command from bloody Chancellorsville. I was down among the first arrivals. The men in charge told me the bad cases were yet to come. If that is so I pity them, for these are bad enough. You ought to see the scene of the wounded arriving on the landing here at the foot of Sixth Street, at night. Two boat loads came about half-past seven last night. the pale, helpless soldiers had been debarked, and lay around on the wharf and neighborhood anywhere. The rain was, probably, grateful to them; at any rate they were exposed to it. The few torches light up the spectacle. All round - on the wharf, on the ground, out on side places - the men are lying on blankets, old quilts, etc., with bloody rags bound round heads, arms, and legs.

The attendants are few, and at night few outsiders also - only a few hard-worked transportation men and drivers. The wounded are getting to be common, and people grow callous. The men, whatever their condition, lie there, and patiently wait till their turn comes to be taken up. The men generally make little or do ado, whatever their sufferings. A few groans that cannot be suppressed, and occasionally a scream of pain as they lift a man into the ambulance. Today, as I write, hundreds more are expected, and tomorrow and the next day more, and so on for many days. Quite often they arrive at the rate of 1000 a day.

(6) In his book, Specimen Days, Walt Whitman described fighting during the American Civil War (1881).

What history, I say, can ever give - for who can know - the mad, determined tussle of the armies, in all their separate large and little squads. Who know the conflict, hand-to-hand, the writhing groups and squads, the cries, the din, the cracking guns and pistols, the distant cannon, the cheers and calls and threats and awful music of the oaths, the indescribable mix - the officers' orders, persuasions, encouragements - the strong shout, "Charge, men, charge", the flash of the naked sword, and rolling flame and smoke? Of scenes like this, I say, who writes the story. Of thousands, north and south, of unwritten heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible, impromptu, first-class desperations - who tells? No formal general's report, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, north or south, east or west. Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers.

(7) In his diary Walt Whitman recorded his visits to wounded soldiers in Washington (18th June, 1863)

In one of the hospitals I find Thomas Haley, company M, 4th New York cavalry. A regular Irish boy, a fine specimen of youthful physical manliness, shot through the legs, inevitably dying. Came over to this country from Ireland to enlist. Is sleeping soundly at this moment (but it is the sleep of death). Has a bullet-hole through the lung. I saw Tom when first brought here, three days since, and didn't suppose he could live twelve hours. Much of the time he sleeps, or half sleeps. I often come and sit by him in perfect silence; he will breathe for ten minutes as softly and evenly as a young babe asleep. Poor youth, so handsome, athletic, with profuse beautiful shining hair. One time as I sat looking at him while he lay asleep, he suddenly, without the least start, awakened, opened his eyes, gave me a long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier, one long, clear, silent look, a slight sigh, then turned back and went into his doze again.

In one bed a young man, Marcus Small, company K, 7th Maine. Sick with dysentery and typhoid fever. Pretty critical case, I talk with him often. He thinks he will die, looks like it indeed. I write a letter for him to East Livermore, Maine. I let him talk to me a little, but not much, advise him to keep very quiet. Do most of the talking myself, stay quite a while with him, as he holds on to my hand.

Opposite, an old Quaker lady sits by the side of her son, Amer Moore, 2nd U.S. Artillery. Shot in the head two weeks since, very low, quite rational, from hips down paralyzed, he will surely die. I speak a very words to him every day and evening. He answers pleasantly, wants nothing. He told me soon after he came about his home affairs, his mother had been an invalid, and he feared to let her know his condition. He died soon after she came.

(8) Walt Whitman was in Washington when news was published about the battle at Gettysburg (4th July, 1863)

As I went down the Avenue, saw a big flaring placard on the bulletin board of a newspaper office, announcing "Glorious Victory for the Union Army!" Meade had fought Lee at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, yesterday and the day before, and repulsed him most signally, taken 3,000 prisoners.

I walked on to Armory Hospital - took along with me several bottles of blackberry and cherry syrup, good and strong, but innocent. Went through several of the wards, announced to the soldiers the news from Meade, and gave them all a good drink of the syrups with ice water. Meanwhile the Washington bells are ringing their sundown peals for Fourth of July, and the usual fusillades of boys' pistols, crackers, and guns.

(9) In his diary Walt Whitman wrote how he often saw Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War (12th August, 1863)

I see the president almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town. He never sleeps at the White House during the hot season, but has quarters at a healthy location some three miles north of the city, the Soldiers' Home, a United States military establishment. I saw him this morning about 8.30 coming in to business, riding on Vermont Avenue. He always has a company of twenty-five or thirty cavalry, with sabres drawn and held upright over their shoulders. They say this guard was against his personal wish, but he let his counselors have their way. Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going grey horse, is dressed in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, etc., as the commonest man. I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln's dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression.

(10) Walt Whitman, November Boughs (1888)

One of my war time reminiscences comprises the quiet side scene of a visit I made to the First Regiment U.S. Colored Troops, at their encampment on July 11, 1863. Though there is now no difference of opinion to enlisting blacks during the earlier years of the secession war. Even then, however, they had their champions. "That the colored race," said a good authority, "is capable of military training and efficiency, is demonstrated by the testimony of numberless witnesses, and by the eagerness displayed in the raising, organizing, and drilling of African troops. Few white regiments make a better appearance on parade than the First and Second Louisiana Native Guards. The same remark is true of other colored regiments. At Milliken's Bend, at Vicksburg, at Port Hudson, on Morris Island, and wherever tested, they have exhibited determined bravery, and compelled the plaudits alike of the thoughtful and thoughtless soldiery.

(11) Manchester Guardian (22nd June, 1887)

It is easy to discover why Walt Whitman is no prophet in his own country. The Americans are intensely conservative, and they like their fashions, their religion, their poetry to be as proper as possible and on lines of general assent. There are a few enthusiasts for Whitman here, as there are with us: but ours is a growing number, and I question if there is much increase in the States.

His books do not sell in sufficient numbers to yield him an income to live upon, and it is a sad reflection, as one sees this fine old man so paralysed that he has a difficulty in walking, to think he has to exist by the generous help of friends mostly abroad. He is incapable of doing anything to make a popular success, and he pays that penalty of neglect which has always been borne by such devoted souls.

It is satisfactory to find, however, that there is no complaining, no whining, but a dignified cheerfulness that is absent in the too-many-millioned American. I had to say to Whitman that at last I could find a little rest in body and mind while in his presence in his homely cottage. There is no mistaking the keen interest he takes in you and those you speak of, but you are conscious that he is possessing his soul in peace, and there is a sort of aloofness about him that is as rare as it is delightful out here.

The little room at Camden, New Jersey, was in a litter of newspapers, magazines and books. It had not yet got to the unendurable point, which I was assured came now and then, and resulted in a clearing-up. He was deeply engaged, with his feet at the stove, in Bowden's Life with Shelley. He keenly enjoyed the book, he told me, and was anxious to know what we thought of it in England. He was glad, too, to hear of the Shelley Society and its work.

I was soon at home, and we talked about all sorts of things, big and little, for a couple of hours. I was sorry to hear that there was no pension awarded for his services in the war. There was no tone of complaint or dissatisfaction in his words as he spoke of this, but a cheerful acquiescence. He had heard from Tennyson too, who wished him to come to England. This is not possible, for although the old man looks hale and hearty, he can go but very short distances on his own.

(12) C. L. R. James, Whitman and Melville (1933)

Whitman is the most comprehensive of the American intellectuals of this period, one of the most unusual figures in the realm of literature and an American who is the opposite pole to Melville. Like Melville he embodies American and international characteristics; like Melville what he represents, what he expressed is clearer than ever today. But whereas Melville grows from year to year, Whitman shrinks. This poet, with the reputation of having devoted his life and work to the struggle for American and world democracy, may yet end by being excoriated by the popular masses everywhere, if they take any notice of him at all. He is, on the surface, an enigmatic figure. But there is no enigma about him really. We have to ignore all the things Whitman said about himself and depend entirely upon the literature as literature - by watching that we shall be able to reconstruct the real Whitman.