1819-1892 American Poet

At age 13 he became a printer's assistant on several papers around New York City. He worked his way up in the newspaper business until he was the founder/editor of a Huntington, Long Island, newspaper, The Long Islander. About 1848 he had begun writing poetry in earnest. His first published book of poetry was Leaves of Grass 1855. This was such a success that he continued to write and publish larger editions of Leaves of Grass.

Other volumes:

Specific poems he wrote include:

It wasn't until decades after his death that Whitman came to be recognized as one of the major American creative forces.

Sources: www.iath.virginia.edu/whitman/ McMichael, George, "Anthology of American Literature", Macmillan Publishing, NY, 1985 http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwhome.html Last Updated 03.30.03

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was the second son of Walter Whitman, a housebuilder, and Louisa Van Velsor. The family, which consisted of nine children, lived in West Hills, Long Island and Brooklyn in the 1820s and 1830s. At the age of twelve Whitman quit school to learn the printer's trade, and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible. Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of 17, he began his career as teacher in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career.

Whitman moved to Manhattan where he worked in the printing office of Park Benjamin's popular New World. During this time he began placing poems and prose in the influential Democratic Review. By 1842, Benjamin was soliciting a novel from Whitman for his magazine's popular "Books for the People" series. In November of that year Whitman's first separately published work, Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times appeared. Advertisements hailed Whitman as "one of the best Novelists in this country." The temperance novel was so contrived and melodramatic, however, that, in later life, Whitman seemed embarrassed by it, going so far as to tell Horace Traubel that it had been written under the influence of alcohol. Ironically, it was Whitman's best selling work during his lifetime.

He founded a weekly newspaper, the Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. It was in New Orleans that he experienced at first hand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city.

On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a "free soil" newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson. After resigning the editorship a year later, Whitman wrote for the New York Sunday Dispatch before briefly assuming the editorship of the New York Daily News. By 1851 he had suspended his formal relationship with journalism, contributing only occasional articles to various papers for the next few years while working as a carpenter in Brooklyn.

In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, and a forty-two-page appendix entitled "Leaves Droppings" of first edition reviews and a long open letter by Whitman in response. The focal point of "Leaves Droppings" is a laudatory letter of thanks from Ralph Waldo Emerson which Whitman received in return for a complimentary copy of the first edition. Whitman used the letter as an endorsement without Emerson's permission, going so far as to quote it on the spine of this edition. Emerson's immediate reaction to Whitman's promotional tactics is unknown, but, considering the book's stormy public reception, it is unlikely that he would have been pleased. During his subsequent career, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a "purged" and "cleansed" life. He wrote freelance journalism and visited the wounded at New York-area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman volunteered his afternoons nursing Union casualties in the area's many hospitals. Whitman stayed in the city for eleven years. First working as copyist for the army's paymaster, he then took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. Harlan fired the poet. When asked to reinstate Whitman by the Attorney General, absolutely refused to give the poet his position back. Though Whitman would eventually be transfered to the Attorney General's office, the obscenity issue continued to surround Leaves of Grass.

Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington he lived on a clerk's salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. He had also been sending money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him "purses" of money so that he could get by.

In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, where he had come to visit his dying mother at his brother's house. However, after suffering a stroke, Whitman found it impossible to return to Washington.

Between 1876 and 1881, the aging Whitman spent much of his time traveling. His first journeys took him to a friend's farm in Pennsylvania where he continued recuperating from his stroke. Once his health had returned, though, his travels expanded, visiting upstate New York (1878), Colorado (1879), and Ontario (1880).

He stayed with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass gave Whitman enough money to buy a home in Camden, New Jersey. In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of the book and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891). After his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.

There is a New Orleans story concerning Walt Whitman. He came to New Orleans, Louisiana in February 1848 and left May 27 that same year. He wrote for the 'Crescent' newspaper while there and, the story goes, he became involved with several Creoles and Creoles of Color during his visit. Creoles are persons whose antecedents were residents of New Orleans before 1803 and who had either French of Spanish family names. A Creole might be a person whose father was Spanish and whose mother was French. A Creole of Color was a person who matched all that criteria and who was fortunate enough to also have African ancestry. Generally, they were always freepersons. It is also said that he was introduced to hashish while here and attended several Voodoo ceremonies. Considering the quality of his poetry was good but somewhat mundane and turgid before his visit to New Orleans, and considering that, after his visit, he began to write the soaring and cosmic "Leaves of Grass" it is locally speculated that his experiences left a significant, even indellible, mark on the Poet's psyche. If you have ever had the good fortune to visit New Orleans, you perhaps have experienced the extremes which abide in that city and which stimulated Walt during his visit and can see how this story - True? False? I'd rather not know. -arose.

Walt Whitman, in his poemSong of Myself” (1882), writes of the beauty of nature and the divinity of mankind. He sees the uniqueness and common bond of everything, especially his fellow man, whom he views as a fellow traveler in a romantic adventure. He first explains his own divinity, and then moves to show that the reader is also divine. Whitman celebrates the divinity of himself. To him, everything is sacred for he “hears and beholds God in every object” (1282). But if everything is sacred, he is more so: he can not “understand anything who… can be more wonderful” (1283) than himself. He places himself on a divine plane by stating “and nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is” (1271), a level that he modestly and joyously accepts. Whitman sees his life as a “perpetual journey” (1202), of which he is the central figure and hero; and he is a wild hero at that, unique in all the world, “not a bit tamed” (1330). For Whitman, this uniqueness is often (in some respects) synonymous with divinity. This concept leads Whitman to write that all, even the “kept-woman, sponger, thief” (375), are divine and are invited on his “perpetual journey” (1202), because they too are unique. He also stresses the common bonds they share, such as an adventurous spirit and love of life. He credits his achievements to the reader as much as to himself, saying “If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing” (356). He points to the divinity in common things, such as the “early redstart” (385), leading one to realize that one, unique in all the world, is even greater in one’s divinity. Whitman does not only celebrate other great warriors and poets, but also the “counquer’d and slain persons” (362), with as much or greater zeal than his successful fellow journeymen. It is in these slain and conquered and common people’s “ faces…that he sees God” (1284). Whitman sees God everywhere he looks, in the sunrise and sunset, the beggar and the lame, himself and his country. He sees this divinity as a common bond, one that unites the human race and the entire world in a holy and permanent union that is the natural order of things. Whitman uses this as a launching point for describing life as a journey, and exhorts one to live it fully and enjoy one’s own unique divinity.boo yah

Note: The numbers in parentheses are the line number, and they are actual quotations from "Song of Myself", some of the verb tenses have been slightly modified.
Walt Whitman
Edwin Arlington Robinson

The master-songs are ended, and the man
That sang them is a name. And so is God
A name; and so is love, and life, and death,
And everything. But we, who are too blind
To read what we have written, or what faith
Has written for us, do not understand:
We only blink, and wonder.

Last night it was the song that was the man,
But now it is the man that is the song.
We do not hear him very much to-day:
His piercing and eternal cadence rings
Too pure for us -- too powerfully pure,
Too lovingly triumphant, and too large;
But there are some that hear him, and they know
That he shall sing to-morrow for all men,
And that all time shall listen.

The master-songs are ended? Rather say
No songs are ended that are ever sung,
And that no names are dead names. When we write
Men's letters on proud marble or on sand,
We write them there forever.

The most provacative American writer during the antebellum period was Walt Whitman, a remarkably vibrant personality who disdained inherited conventions and artistic traditions. There was something elemental in Whitman's character, something bountiful and generous and compelling- even his faults and inconsistencies were ample. Born on Long Island farm, he moved with his family to Brooklyn and from the age of 12 worked mainly as handyman and journalist, frequently taking the ferry across the booming, bustling Manhattan. The city fascinated him, and he gorged himself on urban spectacle- shipyards, crowds, factories, shop windows. From such materials he drew his editorial opinions and poetic inspiration, but he remained relatively obscure until the first edition of Leaves of Grass caught the eye and aroused the ire of readers. Emerson found it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed," but more conventional critics shuddered at Whitman's explicit sexual references and groused at his indifference to rhyme and meter as well as his bouyant egotism.

The jaunty Whitman, however, refused to conform to genteel notions of art, and he spent most of his career working on his gargantuan Leaves of Grass, enlarging and reshaping it in successive editions. The growth of the book he identified with the growth of the country. While he celebrated America, Whitman also set out to "celebrate myself and sign myself." To his generation he was a startling figure with his frank sexual references to homoerotic overtones. He also stood out from the pack of fellow writers in rejecting the idea that a woman's proper sphere was in a supportive and dependent role.

Influences on Walt Whitman, a Causal Analysis

When the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in 1831, he was enthralled with the freedom that democracy afforded U.S. citizens. In his classic Democracy in America, Tocqueville catalogued the equality among people of differing social status, the power of the judiciary, and the open exchange of ideas via newspaper and spoken word. He contrasted the United States with Russia and asked what type of people a democratic society such as ours would produce. Although supportive of democracy, he warns us that “democracy hides one’s descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

Americans, however, were more optimistic of their own condition and cherished a tradition unknown to Tocqueville. The first generation of post-revolutionary Americans looked nostalgically back to the heroes of the American Revolution. Even the next few generations revered figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Marquis de Lafayette. Although Americans had a rich tradition, Tocqueville was right in his prophecy that democracy forces one to look inward. The eminent American R. W. Emerson wrote, “Every one for himself, driven to find all his resources, hopes, rewards, society and deity within himself.” However, he, like most Americans, disagreed with Tocqueville’s assertion that democracy would result in alienation. Regardless of whether or not Americans were traditional and companionable or modern and self-reliant, they were in a unique position, participants in the first large-scale test of democracy. Being an American in the nineteenth century meant balancing between the past and the forward-looking present. It is this curious mixture of tradition and the cutting-edge that made “America’s Poet” Walt Whitman the man he was.

Growing up in the 1820’s, Whitman’s parents trained him as a radical Democrat. In the spirit of the post-Revolutionary War idealists, Whitman, Sr. instructed Walt and his brothers that one should stand up for the working class tradesmen, farmers, and “the people,” and that banks and blue-collared people were nemeses. Whitman later apotheosized these laborers throughout “Song of Myself” and in “A Song for Occupations,” in which he exclaims

In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields I find the developments, And find eternal meanings.

In the traditional democratic spirit, Whitman’s father told stories about American history and held him in awe throughout lengthy panegyrics about revolutionary heroes such as Washington, whom Whitman idolized his entire life, attributing to him “courage, alertness, patience, faith.” Later in his life, he venerated a democratic hero of his own time, Abraham Lincoln, in various lectures and in his classic poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” as well as the sad "O Captain! My Captain!"

Another formative factor in Whitman’s life was the essays, novels, and lectures from many freethinking individualists of the time. Whitman’s parents were supporters of feminist and reformer Frances Wright. At a young age, Walt attended her lectures and read her novel A Few Days in Athens, in which she writes, “The first and last thing I would say to man is think for yourself.” This line of thought is evident in Whitman’s “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” in which the speaker abandons lectures and sermons for participation in learning. Walt also read his parents’ issues of the egoistical Free Enquirer and the French thinker Count Constantine de Volney’s The Ruins, an attack on Christianity. Whitman later said, “trouble not concerning the existence of god,” a reference to the Count’s work. Walt adopted Wright’s value of free thought and Volney’s heresy. Never in his life did he unthinkingly accept an idea. A product of their literature, Walt was a staunch believer in the individual’s mind, the “I over the Not-I,” as he put it.

Several scientific and medical “marvels” in the 1840’s promised to change lives; these fads affected Whitman as well. Whitman regularly engaged in hydropathy, or water cure, when it became popular in New York. This treatment purported to flush the body of poisons via enemas and long “exomosis” soaks in distilled water. Advocates of hydropathy also encouraged healthy eating and the drinking of unadulterated water. After experiencing the joys of this fad, Walt vowed to live a clean, moderate lifestyle, both dietary and physical. He began a strict exercise regimen and rarely drank alcohol or fatty foods. The strong, healthy individual that hydropathy encouraged is evident throughout Whitman’s entire lexicon of poetry. At the same time, the pseudo-science phrenology claimed to help one reach his full potential by “depressing” and “elevating” different bumps in the skull. Whitman visited popular phrenologists and wrote letters to newspapers praising this “breakthrough.” The idea of “Animal Magnetism” attracted Whitman as well. Proposed by Orson Fowler, a leading phrenologist, this theory claimed that all living things radiate electricity, connecting all creatures in a vast magnetic web of life. It bridged mind and matter and accounted for uncanny phenomena such as telepathy. Whitman viewed this theory as the connection between the “I” and the “Not-I,” and frequently refers to it in his poetry. When he “sings the body electric” and speaks of sexuality as magnetic, he alludes to the now-discarded theory of Animal Magnetism.

The most profound effect on Whitman’s life was a result of his closeness to death. When he was a child, he visited his mother’s family’s burial ground, “two or three score graves.” From then on, he would be obsessed with the notion of death. During his schooldays, he was shocked after learning that the frigate Fulton had exploded, leaving fifty crewmembers dead. Later on, during his apprenticeship at the journal Patriot, he worked with a known grave robber, who likely told Walt sepulchral stories and showed him his bone collection. His preoccupation with death is evident in various poems, such as “The Dead Emperor.” Once the Civil War broke out, Whitman spent most of his time caring for wounded soldiers in Washington D.C. There he experienced firsthand the fading of human life. He records his feelings of sorrow in “Song of Myself,” in which he mourns the countless lives lost during battle. At the same time, his nearness to death made him nearly insensitive to it. In his poetry, he even exalts death, exclaiming

Great is death…Sure as life holds all parts together death holds all parts together; Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light, death is as great as life.

Testament to the profound impact that death and loss had on Whitman, this curious love-hate relationship with death is a common theme throughout Leaves of Grass.

Whitman was undoubtedly one of the most mysterious and intriguing figures of the nineteenth century. He, like most Americans, faced a peculiar crossroads of old beliefs and new ones. Whether or not democracy would thrive depended on them to create a tradition for future Americans. This generation passed democracy’s test, inventing ways to make life easier, ensuring rights for all citizens, and, in the case of Whitman, writing our nation’s song. Whitman’s society prompted him to write the best collection of poetry America had yet produced. Leaves of Grass would be passed down to future generations of Americans, reminding them that we are at that same crossroads. Whitman reminds us to cherish our history and to look forward to anything we might face as Americans.

Sources: Kaplan Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York. Simon and Schuster.

“If he knew that an Eskimo sat in a kyak, immediately there was Walt being little and yellow and greasy, sitting in a kyak,” -D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence’s scathing criticism precisely captures how the idealistic intentions in Walt Whitman’s poetry are undermined through his own prejudice perspective.

Among Whitman's more famous poems is “Salut Au Monde!” wherein he tries to transcend racial boundaries by recording all people and all places in an egalitarian effort to draw everyone and everywhere in the entire world together in a single joyous festival that is his poem. While he does succeed in the inclusion of many peoples, his descriptions of selected groups are less than flattering. Indeed, despite his boldly pronounced democratic ideals and claims for equality for all people, “Salut au Monde!” as well as several other works leak none-too-subtle undertones of jingoism, orientalism and flat out racism.

One of Whitman’s faults in trying to spread the ideals of equality is that his poetry often reflects his personal underlying beliefs that people are not equal in nature. Near the end of “Salut au Monde!” he illustrates this while addressing several dozen ethnics groups and says, “You will come forward in due time to my side." The implication here and elsewhere in this poem is that certain groups of people from certain places are somehow separate, apart or inferior. A person cannot “come forward” unless they are already behind.

Another instance where this underlying assumption becomes visible is when he estranges America from the rest of the world, which he identifies as one large clump. “Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east – America is provided for in the west,” he proclaims, lumping three continents full of radically different cultures and people together through the misnomers of “east” and “west”. Identifying an entire hemisphere and a majority of the world’s population as simply “the east” hardly promotes diversity.

To divide the world into “East” and “West” halves in such a manner is used to elevate America while demeaning everyone else in the world. This is an example of orientalism, which according to Edward Said's definition in his book of the same name denouncing the practice, “operates in the Western attempt to mark off the rest of the world in order to distinguish the West’s own alleged exceptionalism." While historians and social scientists observe this pervasive and troubling trend in generally “Western” thought, Whitman employs orientalism to degrade not only traditional targets of Asia and Africa, but also Europe, in an effort to distinguish America’s virtues. It ends up being just a more subtle form of racism, whether intentional or not.

More examples illustrating his orientalism can be found in other poems like “Starting from Paumanok,” when he says, “See revolving the globe, / The ancestor-continents away group’d together, / The present and future continents north and south, with the isthmus between." He overtly creates an elitist hierarchy with the Americas on top as the “present and future” continents while the rest of the world is pigeon holed as “ancestors.”

Another aspect of orientalism is making cultures seem exotic, primitive and backwards. Whitman is guilty of this in various spots in “Passage to India.” Take the following examples: “Eclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables,” “Old occult Brahma interminably far back," and “Passage indeed O soul to primal thought." By using patronizing diction like primitive, occult, far back, and primal, he delivers a backhanded put down to Indian civilization.

Section 10 of “Salut au Monde!” continues these uncomplimentary insults of people around the globe. In these particular lines, Whitman’s Americentric worldview totally undermines the friendly idealism he boasts of the rest of the poem. He writes,

“I see vapors exhaling from unexplored countries, / I see the savage types, the bow and arrow, the poison’d splint, the fetich, and the obi. / I see African and Asiatic towns, / I see Algiers, Tirpoli, Derne, Mogadore, Timbuctoo, Monrovia, / I see the swarms of Pekin, Canton, Benares, Delhi, Calcutta, Tokio, / I see the Kruman in his hut, and the Dahoman and Ashanteeman in their huts, / I see the Turk smoking opium in Aleppo,"

Once again, his diction used to describe these people is belittling. Lacking any mention of dignity, civilization or diversity, he discloses that these “unexplored countries” use archaic weaponry and religious artifacts that have shamanistic connotations in an attempt to make them appear backwards and exotic. Furthermore, he insults well over half the world’s population by portraying all these “African and Asiatic towns” as representative of “savage types.” Quite simply, this is painting a large portion of the world to be barbaric hut-dwellers. As critic Dana Phillips says, “The sounds and the sights Whitman references are intended to type the nationalities and ethnicities he documents – that is, to stereotype them: to identify their ‘species’ and fix them in place, so that they might then be deployed as the relatively stable terms of an implicit comparison." Keeping these racial stereotypes in mind while considering the orientalism Whitman uses to isolate America and elevate it, his desire for egalitarian treatment of all peoples is severely undermined.

Despite this, Whitman often enjoys a lofty reputation as a great celebrator of equality and racial diversity with little or no reservations about these passages in “Salut au Monde!” that strongly point otherwise. Some point to the line, “You dim-descended, black, divine-soul’d African, large, fine-headed, nobly-form’d, superbly destin’d, on equal terms with me!” as evidence of Whitman’s favorable treatment to African heritage.

While this is indeed a powerful line in support of their position, quotes from section 12 in “Salut au Monde!” present a completely contradictory view:

“You Hottentot with clicking palate! You woolly-hair’d hordes! / You own’d persons dropping sweat-drops or blood-drops! / You human forms with the fathomless ever-impressive countenances of brutes!”

The paradoxes in his stance on respecting diversity and promoting egalitarianism are perhaps more closely wound together in this series of lines than anywhere else in this poem. While the second line beginning with “own’d persons” is in sad recognition of slavery and the pain it causes, the two lines surrounding it are arguably the most racist remarks in his works!

Labeling an entire ethnic group as a “horde” could hardly be considered anything other than racism. He goes on to strongly imply that they aren’t even human; he calls them “human forms,” as if their physical resemblance to humans is only coincidental and needs clarification. Continuing several lines later, he says, “You Austral negro, naked, red, sooty, with protrusive lip, groveling, seeking your food!” Once again, Whitman lassoes an entire hemisphere, this time the southern, and applies a degrading label of red, naked sootiness.

The majority of casual and critical readers of his works have long accepted the sincerity of his bold claims for believing in equality. These readers aren't necessarily wrong, as Whitman was indeed a product of his times and indeed a better spokesperson for equality than all his contemporaries (possibly excluding Mark Twain). It is just unfortunate that “Salut au Monde!” shows many counterproductive stereotypes and mindsets of the peoples and cultures Whitman claims to believe are “on equal terms" with himself.


Literature in English II at Kent State University, Stark Branch. Spring semester 2004.

Phillips, Dana. "Nineteenth-Century Racial Thought and Whitman's 'Democratic Ethnology of the Future.'" Nineteenth-Century Literature Vol. 49, No. 3, December 1994, p. 289-320.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Whitman, Walt. Selected Poems. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1991. All quotes are from "Salut au Monde!" unless otherwise noted.

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