Walt Whitman - painting by Miguel Tio.
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 Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s.
At the age of twelve, Whitman began 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.
He founded a weekly newspaper, 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
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, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. 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.
Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals and stayed in the city for eleven years. He 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.
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, NJ, 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. He stayed with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass gave Whitman enough money to buy a home in Camden.
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.
A Selected Bibliography
Leaves of Grass (1855)
Leaves of Grass (1856)
Leaves of Grass (1860)
Drum Taps (1865)
Sequel to Drum Taps (1865)
Leaves of Grass (1867)
Leaves of Grass (1870)
Passage to India (1870)
Leaves of Grass (1876)
Leaves of Grass (1881)
Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891)
Leaves of Grass (1891)
Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (1842)
Democratic Vistas (1871)
Memoranda During the War (1875)
Specimen Days and Collect (1881)
November Boughs (1888)
Complete Prose Works (1892)
To A STRANGER
by: Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
- ASSING stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
- You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking,
- (it comes to me as of a dream,)
- I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
- All is recall'd as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate,
- chaste, matured,
- You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
- I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor left my body mine only,
- You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
- I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,
- I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
- I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
Leaves of Grass - selection
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any
more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may
see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own
funeral drest in his shroud,
And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the
And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds
the learning of all times,
And there is no trade or employment but the young man following
it may become a hero,
And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d
And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and
composed before a million universes.
Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.