Whitman was born in a white farmhouse near present-day South Huntington, New York, on Long Island, New York, in 1819, the second of nine children. In 1823, the Whitman family moved to Brooklyn. Whitman attended school for only six years before starting work as a printer's apprentice. He was almost entirely self-educated, reading especially the works of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare.
After a two year apprenticeship, Whitman moved to New York City and began work in various print shops. In 1835, he returned to Long Island as a country school teacher. Whitman also founded and edited a newspaper, the Long-Islander, in his hometown of Huntington in 1838 and 1839. Whitman continued teaching in Long Island until 1841, when he moved back to New York City to work as a printer and journalist. He also did some freelance writing for popular magazines and made political speeches. In 1840, he worked for Martin Van Buren's presidential campaign.
Whitman's political speeches attracted the attention of the Tammany Society, which made him the editor of several newspapers, none of which enjoyed a long circulation. For two years he edited the influential Brooklyn Eagle, but a split in the Democratic party removed Whitman from this job for his support of the Free-Soil party. He failed in his attempt to found a Free Soil newspaper and began drifting between various other jobs. Between 1841 and 1859, Walt Whitman edited one newspaper in New Orleans (the Crescent), two in New York, and four newspapers in Long Island. While in New Orleans, Whitman witnessed the slave auctions that were a regular feature of the city at that time. At this point, Whitman began writing poetry, which took precedence over other activities.
The 1840s saw the first fruits of Whitman's long labor of words, with a number of short stories published, beginning in 1841, and one year later the temperance novel, "Franklin Evans," published in New York. However, one often-reprinted short story, "The Child's Champion," dating from 1842, is now recognized to be the most important of these early works. It established the theological foundation for Whitman's lifelong theme of the profoundly redemptive power of manly love.
The first edition of Leaves of Grass was self-published at Whitman's expense in 1855, the same year Whitman's father passed away. At this point, the collection consisted of 12 long, untitled poems. Both public and critical response was muted. A year later, the second edition, including a letter of congratulations from Ralph Waldo Emerson, was published. This edition contained an additional twenty poems. Emerson had been calling for a new American poetry; in Leaves of Grass, he found it.
During the American Civil War, Whitman cared for wounded soldiers in and around Washington, D.C. He often saw Abraham Lincoln in his travels around the city, and came to greatly admire the President. Whitman's poems "O Captain! My Captain!" (popularized in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society) and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" were influenced by his profound grief after Lincoln's assassination in 1865.
After the Civil War, Walt Whitman found a job as a clerk in the U.S. Department of the Interior. However, when James Harlan, Secretary of the Interior, discovered that Whitman was the author of the "offensive" Leaves of Grass, he fired Whitman immediately.
For many, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson stand as the two giants of 19th-century American poetry. Whitman's poetry seems more quintessentially American; the poet exposed common America and spoke with a distinctly American voice, stemming from a distinct American consciousness. The power of Whitman's poetry seems to come from the spontaneous sharing of high emotion he presented. American poets in the 20th century (and now, the 21st) must come to terms with Whitman's voice, insofar as it essentially defined democratic America in poetic language. Whitman utilized creative repetition to produce a hypnotic quality that creates the force in his poetry, inspiring as it informs. Thus, his poetry is best read aloud to experience the full message.
Song of Myself
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
"Pioners! O Pioneers"
COME, my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready;
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp edged axes? Pioneers! O pioneers!
For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger, 5
We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend, Pioneers! O pioneers!
O you youths, western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you, western youths, see you tramping with the foremost, Pioneers! O pioneers!
Have the elder races halted? 10
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied, over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden, and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!
All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers! 15
We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing, as we go, the unknown ways, Pioneers! O pioneers!
“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
a long poem, it begins:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Whitman did write prose, and if his prose shows up on the GRE, it will likely come from here:
In this essay, Whitman justly criticizes America for its "mighty, many-threaded wealth and industry" that mask an underlying "dry and flat Sahara" of soul. He calls for a new kind of literature to revive the American population ("Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does").
It ends: We see our land, America, her literature, esthetics, &c., as, substantially, the getting in form, or effusement and statement, of deepest basic elements and loftiest final meanings, of history and man -- and the portrayal, (under the eternal laws and conditions of beauty,) of our own physiognomy, the subjective tie and expression of the objective, as from our own combination, continuation, and points of view -- and the deposit and record of the national mentality, character, appeals, heroism, wars, and even liberties -- where these, and all, culminate in native literary and artistic formulation, to be perpetuated; and not having which native, first-class formulation, she will flounder about, and her other, however imposing, eminent greatness, prove merely a passing gleam; but truly having which, she will understand herself, live nobly, nobly contribute, emanate, and, swinging, poised safely on herself, illumin'd and illuming, become a full-form'd world, and divine Mother not only of material but spiritual worlds, in ceaseless succession through time -- the main thing being the average, the bodily, the concrete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstructures of the future are to permanently rest.