Walt Whitman

Born: 1819

Place of Birth: Long Island, New York

Died: 1892

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is considered to be one of America’s best poets, journalists, and essayists. While his most famous collection of verses is “Leaves of Grass,” he contributed many pieces to American Literature.

  • Whitman was from a typical farming family that settled in the beginning of the 17thcentury in America. His father Walter, was English and his mother Louisa (Van Velsor) was of Dutch descent. None of his family had any kind of formal education, however, they did own a large area of land in the past. By the time Walt had been born, the land had been reduced and his father had become a carpenter.
  • Walt’s father relocated the family to Brooklyn, NY when he saw that it could offer opportunities. He started building inexpensive homes but was bad at managing and the family that now had nine children fell on poor financial times. Walt started working when he was 12 years old so that he could learn the trade of printing. He got jobs in Brooklyn and New York City and later taught in some of the Long Island rural schools. He then became a journalist and by the time he was 23 years old, he was editor of a New York daily newspaper and then later an editor of a more prestigious newspaper.
  • Whitman had very specific anti-slavery ideas and he lost his job at the better newspaper when he also supported the Democratic Party. He then moved to New Orleans, Louisiana where he worked for a newspaper for three months. It was there that he was exposed to the horrors of slavery and he returned to New York. From 1850 to 1855 Walt experimented in building homes as well as real estate.
  • At the age of 36 years, Walt had devoted much of his life in Long Island and New York, observing and visiting theaters. He had a love of opera and spent a lot of time in the libraries in New York. It was during this time that he began writing in a new style of poetry that he had developed. He had previously published a few pieces when he was a journalist and was expanding on the style.
  • With little luck in finding a publisher, he ended up making money enough in real estate to print his first edition of “Leaves of Grass.” He had paid for it himself and it didn’t show the name of any author, however, it did have his own portrait on the cover. His work drew the attention of the well-knew essayist and poet “Ralph Waldo Emerson.”  By 1856 Whitman printed the second edition of “Leaves of Grass” and continued practicing his new poetic style on a personal level.
  • When the second edition wasn’t a success he again took a job as an editor of a newspaper and in the next year found himself unemployed. In 1859 he had his third edition of “Leaves of Grass” published which by now had new poems and was re-arranged.
  • The Civil War broke out and with his publisher bankrupt he went to Fredericksburg where his brother was wounded. He took a temporary camp job in the Washington paymaster’s office and devoted his extra time visiting the dying and wounded soldiers, often bringing small gifts to both Union and Confederate soldiers cheer them up.
  • He got the job of Department of the Interior clerk in 1865 and was then dismissed when they found out he was the author of “Leaves of Grass.” Walt then got a job in the Attorney General’s office. His experience with the soldiers allowed him to write a war poem collection in 1865 called “Drum-Taps,” in which he used his free style of poetry. He wrote the “Sequel to Drum-Taps” in the fall of 1865 which included a eulogy to President Abraham Lincoln. His poetry was simple yet moving and he thought of the death of Lincoln as democracy’s first “great martyr chief.”
  • In 1867 Walt published the fourth edition of “Leaves of Grass” with a lot revisions and eight new poems. It was during this time that his poetry started getting more attention and praise. Whitman was receiving encouragement from some of the leading English writers.
  • In 1872 Walt experienced a stroke that caused him to be partially paralyzed. He became well enough to go to New Jersey where his mother was dying and then lived with his brother. He did recover enough to take a trip to the West and eventually got a publisher in Philadelphia for another edition of “Leaves of Grass.”  The popularity was good enough that it made him enough money to buy a small cottage in New Jersey where he spent the last of his days. The ninth edition of “Leaves of Grass” was published in 1892, the same year that Whitman died.


How many editions of Leaves of Grass were printed before Walt Whitman died?

What was the name of the first collection of poems that Walt wrote that reflected his experience with Civil War soldiers?

What type of family background did Walt Whitman come from?

What American President did Walt Whitman look up to?
President Abraham Lincoln

What famous essayist and poet paid attention to Whitman’s first edition of “Leaves of Grass?”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

What was Walt Whitman’s first job?
Learning the printing trade