Whitman left school in 1830, worked as a printer's devil and later as a compositor. In 1838-39 he taught school on Long Island and edited the Long Islander newspaper. By 1841 he had become a full-time journalist, editing successively several papers and writing prose and verse for New York and Brooklyn journals. His active interest in politics during this period led to the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a Democratic party paper; he lost this job, however, because of his vehement advocacy of abolition and the "free-soil" movement. After a brief trip to New Orleans in 1848, Whitman returned to Brooklyn, continued as a journalist, and later worked as a carpenter.
In 1855 Whitman published at his own expense a volume of 12 poems, Leaves of Grass, which he had begun working on probably as early as 1847. Prefaced by a statement of his theories of poetry, the volume included the poem later known as "Song of Myself," in which the author proclaims himself the symbolic representative of common people. Although the book was a commercial failure, critical reviewers recognized the appearance of a bold new voice in poetry. Two larger editions appeared in 1856 and 1860, and they had equally little public success.
Leaves of Grass was criticized because of Whitman's exaltation of the body and sexual love and also because of its innovation in verse form—that it, the use of free verse in long rhythmical lines with a natural, "organic" structure. Emerson was one of the few intellectuals to praise Whitman's work, writing him a famous congratulatory letter. Whitman continued to enlarge and revise further editions of Leaves of Grass; the last edition prepared under his supervision appeared in 1892.
From 1862 to 1865 Whitman worked as a volunteer hospital nurse in Washington. His poetry of the Civil War, Drum-Taps (1865), reissued with Sequel to Drum Taps (1865-66), included his two poems about Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," considered one of the finest elegies in the English language, and the much-recited "O Captain! My Captain!" For a while Whitman served as a clerk in the Dept. of the Interior, but he was discharged because Leaves of Grass was considered an immoral book.
In 1873 Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke and afterward lived in a semi-invalid state. His prose collection Democratic Vistas had appeared in 1871, and his last long poem, "Passage to India," was published in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass. From 1884 until his death he lived in Camden, N.J., where he continued to write and to revise his earlier work. His last book, November Boughs, appeared in 1888.
Whitman was a complex person. He saw himself as the full-blooded, rough-and-ready spokesman for a young democracy, and he cultivated a bearded, shaggy appearance. Indeed, Whitman's early biographers John Burroughs and R. M. Bucke were so affected by the robust "I" of Whitman's poems and by the poet himself that they depicted him as a rowdy, sensual man, a great lover of women, and the father of several illegitimate children. Most of this was false. In reality Whitman was a quiet, gentle, circumspect man, robust in youth but sickly in middle age, who sired no children and is generally acknowledged to have been homosexual. Whitman had an incalculable effect on later poets, inspiring them to experiment in prosody as well as in subject matter.
See T. L. Brasher, ed., Early Poems and Fiction (1963) and H. W. Blodgett and S. Bradley, ed., Leaves of Grass (1965); his published prose, ed. by F. Stovall (2 vol., 1963-64); his uncollected prose, ed. by E. F. Grier et al. (6 vol., 1984); his daybooks and notebooks, ed. by W. White (3 vol., 1978); Collected Poetry and Prose (1982); his correspondence, ed. by E. H. Miller (6 vol., 1961-77); G. W. Allen, New Walt Whitman Handbook (1986); biographies by G. W. Allen (1955, rev. ed. 1969), J. Kaplan (1986), and J. Loving (1999); P. Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet (1984); D. S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America (1995); R. Roper, Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War (2008); T. Genoways, Walt Whitman and the Civil War (2009).
Born on Long Island, Whitman worked as a journalist, a teacher, a government clerk, and a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War in addition to publishing his poetry. Early in his career, he also produced a temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842). Whitman's major work, Leaves of Grass, was first published in 1855 with his own money. The work was an attempt at reaching out to the common person with an American epic. He continued expanding and revising it until his death in 1892. After a stroke towards the end of his life, he moved to Camden, New Jersey where his health further declined. He died at age 72 and his funeral became a public spectacle.
Whitman's sexuality is often discussed alongside his poetry. Though he is usually labeled as either homosexual or bisexual, it is unclear if Whitman ever had a sexual relationship with another man. Whitman was concerned with politics throughout his life. He supported the Wilmot Proviso and opposed the extension of slavery generally, but did not believe in the abolitionist movement.
At age eleven Whitman concluded formal schooling. He then sought employment, due to his family's financial situation, originally as an office boy for two lawyers and later as an apprentice and printer's devil for the weekly Long Island newspaper the Patriot, edited by Samuel E. Clements. There, Whitman learned about the printing press and typesetting. He may have written "sentimental bits" of filler material for occasional issues. Clements aroused controversy when he and two friends attempted to dig up the corpse of Elias Hicks to create a plaster mold of his head. Clements left the Patriot shortly after, possibly as a result of the controversy.
After his teaching attempts, Whitman went back to Huntington, New York to found his own newspaper, the Long Islander. Whitman served as publisher, editor, pressman, and distributor and even provided home delivery. After ten months, he sold the publication to E. O. Crowell, whose first issue appeared on July 12, 1839. No copies of the Long-Islander published under Whitman survive. By the summer of 1839, he found a job as a typesetter in Jamaica, Queens with the Long Island Democrat, edited by James J. Brenton. He left shortly thereafter, and made another attempt at teaching from the winter of 1840 to the spring of 1841, then moved to New York City in May. There, he initially worked a low-level job at the New World, working under Park Benjamin, Sr. and Rufus Wilmot Griswold. He continued working for short periods of time for various newspapers, particularly as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle for two years, as well as contributing freelance fiction and poetry throughout the 1840s.
Whitman claimed that after years of competing for "the usual rewards", he determined to become a poet. He first experimented with a variety of popular literary genres which appealed to the cultural tastes of the period. As early as 1850, he began writing what would become Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry which he would continue editing and revising until his death. Whitman intended to write a distinctly American epic and used free verse with a cadence based on the Bible. At the end of June 1855, Whitman surprised his brothers with the already-printed first edition of Leaves of Grass. George "didn't think it worth reading".
Whitman paid for the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself and had it printed at a local print shop during their breaks from commercial jobs. A total of 795 copies were printed, though the author's name was not given. Instead, facing the title page was an engraved portrait done by Samuel Hollyer. The book received its strongest praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a flattering five page letter to Whitman and spoke highly of the book to friends. The first edition of Leaves of Grass was widely distributed and stirred up significant interest, in part due to Emerson's approval, but was occasionally criticized for the seemingly "obscene" nature of the poetry. Geologist John Peter Lesley wrote to Emerson, calling the book "trashy, profane & obscene" and the author "a pretentious ass". On July 11, 1855, a few days after Leaves of Grass was published, Whitman's father died at the age of 65.
In the months following the first edition of Leaves of Grass, critical responses began focusing more on the potentially offensive sexual themes. Though the second edition was already printed and bound, the publisher almost did not release it. In the end, the edition went to retail, with 20 additional poems, in August 1856. Leaves of Grass was revised and re-released in 1860 again in 1867, and several more times throughout the remainder of Whitman's life. Several well-known writers admired the work enough to visit Whitman, including Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.
Amidst the first publications of Leaves of Grass, Whitman had financial difficulty and was forced to work as a journalist again, specifically with the Brooklyn's Daily Times starting in May 1857. As an editor, he oversaw the paper's contents, contributed book reviews, and wrote editorials. He left the job in 1859, though it is unclear if he was fired or chose to leave. Whitman, who typically kept detailed notebooks and journals, left very little information about himself in the late 1850s.
As the American Civil War was beginning, Whitman published his poem "Leaves of Grass/Book XXI#Beat! Beat! Drums!" as a patriotic rally call for the North. Whitman's brother George had joined the Union army and began sending Whitman several vividly detailed letters of the battle front. On December 16, 1862, a listing of fallen and wounded soldiers in the New York Tribune included "First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore", which Whitman worried was a reference to his brother George. He made his way south immediately to find him, though his wallet was stolen on the way. "Walking all day and night, unable to ride, trying to get information, trying to get access to big people", Whitman later wrote, he eventually found George alive, with only a superficial wound on his cheek. Whitman, profoundly affected by seeing the wounded soldiers and the heaps of their amputated limbs, left for Washington on December 28, 1862 with the intention of never returning to New York.
In Washington, D.C., Whitman's friend Charley Eldridge helped him obtain part-time work in the army paymaster's office, leaving time for Whitman to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals. He would write of this experience in "The Great Army of the Sick", published in a New York newspaper in 1863 and, 12 years later, in a book called Memoranda During the War. He then contacted Emerson, this time to ask for help in obtaining a government post. Another friend, John Trowbridge, passed on a letter of recommendation from Emerson to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, hoping he would grant Whitman a position in that department. Chase, however, did not want to hire the author of a disreputable book, referring to Leaves of Grass.
The Whitman family had a difficult end to 1864. On September 30, 1864, Whitman's brother George was captured by Confederates in Virginia, another brother, Andrew Jackson, died of tuberculosis compounded by alcoholism on December 3. That month, Whitman committed his brother Jesse to the Kings County Lunatic Asylum. Whitman's spirits were raised, however, when he finally got a better-paying government post – a low grade clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior – thanks to his friend William Douglas O'Connor. O'Connor, a poet, daguerreotypist and an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, had written to William Tod Otto, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, on Whitman's behalf. Whitman began the new appointment on January 24, 1865, with a yearly salary of $1,200. A month later, on February 24, 1865, George was released from capture and granted a furlough because of his poor health. By May 1, Whitman received a promotion to a slightly higher clerkship and published Drum-Taps.
Effective June 30, 1865, however, Whitman was fired from his job. His dismissal came from the new Secretary of the Interior, former Iowa Senator James Harlan. Though Harlan dismissed several clerks who "were seldom at their respective desks", he may have fired Whitman on moral grounds after finding an 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. O'Connor protested until J. Hubley Ashton had Whitman transferred to the Attorney General's office on July 1. O'Connor, though, was still upset and vindicated Whitman by publishing a biased and exaggerated biographical study, The Good Gray Poet, in January 1866. The fifty-cent pamphlet defended Whitman as a wholesome patriot, established the poet's nickname and increased his popularity. Also aiding in his popularity was the publication of "O Captain! My Captain!", a relatively conventional poem to Abraham Lincoln, the only poem to be anthologized during Whitman's lifetime.
Part of Whitman's role in the Attorney General's office was interviewing former Confederate soldiers for Presidential pardons. "There are real characters among them", he later wrote, "and you know I have a fancy for anything out of the ordinary. In August 1866, he took a month off in order to prepare a new edition of Leaves of Grass which would not be published until 1867 after difficulty in finding a publisher. He hoped it would be its last edition. In February 1868 Poems of Walt Whitman was published in England thanks to the influence of William Michael Rossetti, with minor changes which Whitman reluctantly approved. The edition became popular in England, especially with endorsements from the highly respected Anne Gilchrist. Another edition of Leaves of Grass was issued in 1871, the same year it was mistakenly reported that its author died in a railroad accident. As Whitman's international fame increased, he remained working in the attorney general's office until January 1872. He spent much of 1872 caring for his mother who was now nearly eighty and struggling with arthritis. He also traveled and was invited to Dartmouth College to give the commencement address on June 26, 1872.
Early in 1873, Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke; his mother died in May the same year. Both events were difficult for Whitman and left him depressed. He moved to Camden, New Jersey to live with his brother George, paying room and board until he bought his own house on Mickle St. in 1884. Around this time, he began socializing with Mary Oakes Davis, the widow of a sea captain, who lived nearby. She moved in with Whitman on February 24, 1885 to serve as his housekeeper in exchange for free rent. She brought with her a cat, a dog, two turtledoves, a canary, and other assorted animals. During this time, Whitman produced further editions of Leaves of Grass in 1876, 1881, and 1889.
As the end of 1891 approached, he prepared a final edition of Leaves of Grass, an edition which has been nicknamed the "Deathbed Edition". He wrote, "L. of G. at last complete—after 33 y'rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old". Preparing for death, Whitman commissioned a granite mausoleum shaped like a house for $4,000 and visited it often during construction. In the last week of his life, he was too weak to lift a knife or fork and wrote: "I suffer all the time: I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony — monotony — monotony — in pain.
Whitman died on March 26, 1892. An autopsy revealed his lungs had diminished to one-eighth their normal breathing capacity, a result of bronchial pneumonia, and that an egg-sized abscess on his chest had eroded one of his ribs. The cause of death was officially listed as "pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general miliary tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis. A public viewing of his body was held at his Camden home; over one thousand people visited in three hours and Whitman's oak coffin was barely visible because of all the flowers and wreaths left for him. He was buried in his tomb at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden four days after his death. Another public ceremony was held at the cemetery, with friends giving speeches, live music, and refreshments. Later, the remains of Whitman's parents and two of his brothers and their families were moved to the mausoleum.
Whitman's sexuality is sometimes disputed, although often assumed to be bisexual based on his poetry. The concept of heterosexual and homosexual personalities was invented in 1868, and it was not widely promoted until Whitman was an old man. Whitman's poetry depicts love and sexuality in a more earthy, individualistic way common in American culture before the medicalization of sexuality in the late 1800s. As Whitman biographer Jerome Loving wrote, "the discussion of Whitman's sexual orientation will probably continue in spite of whatever evidence emerges." Though Leaves of Grass was often labeled pornographic or obscene, only one critic remarked on its author's presumed sexual activity: in a November 1855 review, Rufus Wilmot Griswold suggested Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians". Whitman had intense friendships with many men throughout his life. Some biographers have claimed that he may not have actually engaged in sexual relationships with men, while others cite letters, journal entries and other sources which they claim as proof of the sexual nature of some of his relationships.
Peter Doyle may be the most likely candidate for the love of Whitman's life, according to biographer David S. Reynolds. Doyle was a bus conductor whom Whitman met around 1866 and the two were inseparable for several years. Interviewed in 1895, Doyle said: "We were familiar at once — I put my hand on his knee — we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip — in fact went all the way back with me. In his notebooks, Whitman disguised Doyle's initials using the code "16.4".A more direct second-hand account comes from Oscar Wilde. Wilde met Whitman in America in 1882, and wrote to the homosexual rights activist George Cecil Ives that there was "no doubt" about the great American poet's sexual orientation — "I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips," he boasted. The only explicit description of Whitman's sexual activities is second hand. In 1924 Edward Carpenter, then an old man, described an erotic encounter he had had in his youth with Whitman to Gavin Arthur, who recorded it in detail in his journal. Late in his life, when Whitman was asked outright if his series of "Calamus" poems were homosexual, he chose not to respond.
There is also some evidence that Whitman may have had sexual relationships with women. He had a romantic friendship with a New York actress named Ellen Grey in the spring of 1862, but it is not known whether or not it was also sexual. He still had a photo of her decades later when he moved to Camden and referred to her as "an old sweetheart of mine". In a letter dated August 21, 1890 he claimed, "I have had six children - two are dead". This claim has never been corroborated. Toward the end of his life, he often told stories of previous girlfriends and sweethearts and denied an allegation from the New York Herald that he had "never had a love affair".
The literary critic, Harold Bloom wrote, as the introduction for the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass:
Whitman's vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the Beat movement and its leaders such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the 1950s and 1960s as well as anti-war poets like Adrienne Rich and Gary Snyder. Whitman also influenced Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and was the model for the character of Dracula. Stoker said in his notes that Dracula represented the quintessential male which, to Stoker, was Whitman, with whom he corresponded until Whitman's death.