Friendship Poems

Walt Whitman Biography

Walter Whitman, the second of nine children to be born to Walter and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, was born in West Hills, Town of Huntington, Long Island, on May 31, 1819. From the moment he was born, he was nicknamed Walt to distinguish him from his father. When Whitman was four, his family moved from West Hills to Brooklyn, where the family lived in a series of different homes because of bad investments made by elder family members. Whitman looked back on his childhood as a restless and unhappy period due to his family’s difficult economic status.

When Whitman was eleven years old, he dropped out of school so that he could get a job to help his family’s financial situation. One of his first jobs was as an apprentice and printer’s devil for the weekly Long Island newspaper, The Patriot. It was here that Whitman learned about the printing press and typesetting; it has been speculated that he wrote sentimental bits of filler material for occasional issues. The following summer Whitman worked for another printer in Brooklyn.

When Whitman’s family decided to move back to West Hills in the spring, Whitman made the decision to stay behind and continue working. He took a job at Alden Spooner’s shop; Spooner was the editor of the leading Whig newspaper the Long-Island Star. Whitman published some of his earliest poetry in the New York Mirror while working for Spooner. When Whitman was 16, he left the Star and Brooklyn so that he could move to New York City, where he worked as a compositor.

In May 1836, Whitman rejoined his family, who were now living in Hempstead, Long Island. Until the spring of 1838, Whitman taught intermittently at various schools, but he was never satisfied being a teacher. After his teaching attempts, Whitman went back to Huntington, New York to found his own newspaper. After ten months, he sold the publication to E.O. Crowell, found a variety of other jobs, such as a typesetter, and even went back to teaching for a while.

After years of trying to make a living doing other jobs Whitman finally determined that he was meant to be a poet. When he first began writing, he experimented with a variety of popular literary genres that appealed to the cultural tastes of the period.

Beginning in 1850, Whitman began writing what would become known as Leaves of Grass. This was his main collection of poetry and he would continue editing and revising it until he died. Whitman’s idea was to write a distinctly American epic and he used free verse with a cadence based on the Bible. Whitman paid for the publication of Leaves of Grass himself and had it printed at a local print shop during their breaks from commercial jobs. There were 795 copies printed and not one of them had an author given, though Whitman did refer to himself in the body of the text. During the first publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman was faced with financial difficulties and was forced to work as a journalist again. He did this until he left the position to seek work in Washington during the Civil War period.

In early 1873, Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke and his mother passed away. The combination of these two events left Whitman depressed. He moved to Camden, New Jersey to live with his brother, George, until he bought his own house in 1884. On February 24, 1885, Mary Oakes Davis, who brought with her an assortment of animals, moved in to serve as Whitman housekeeper in exchange for free rent. During this period, Whitman produced further editions of Leaves of Grass in 1876, 1881 and 1889.

Whitman died on March 26, 1892. Before his death, he had prepared a final edition of Leaves of Grass; it was nicknamed the “Deathbed Edition.” In anticipation of his death, he commissioned a granite mausoleum shaped like a house. He was buried in this tomb at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.


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