Walt Whitman

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Whitman, Walt

(Walter Whitman), 1819–92, American poet, b. West Hills, N.Y. Considered by many to be the greatest of all American poets, Walt Whitman celebrated the freedom and dignity of the individual and sang the praises of democracy and the brotherhood of man. His Leaves of Grass, unconventional in both content and technique, is probably the most influential volume of poems in the history of American literature.

Early Life

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.

Leaves of Grass

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 in 1856 and 1860 had equally little public success. During the years he worked on Leaves of Grass, he financed his poetry with journalism and potboiler books. Two of the latter are the pulp serial Life and Adventures of Jack Engle (1852) and, written under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, the self-improvement manual Manly Health and Training (1858).

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 versefree verse,
term loosely used for rhymed or unrhymed verse made free of conventional and traditional limitations and restrictions in regard to metrical structure. Cadence, especially that of common speech, is often substituted for regular metrical pattern.
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 in long rhythmical lines with a natural, "organic" structure. EmersonEmerson, Ralph Waldo
, 1803–82, American poet and essayist, b. Boston. Through his essays, poems, and lectures, the "Sage of Concord" established himself as a leading spokesman of transcendentalism and as a major figure in American literature.
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 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.

Later Life and Works

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); C. K. Williams, On Whitman (2010).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Whitman, Walt


Born May 31, 1819, in West Hills, near Huntington, N.Y.; died Mar. 26, 1892, in Camden, N.J. American poet.

The son of a farmer, Whitman worked as a messenger, typesetter, and teacher while writing short stories, essays, and poems. In 1846 he became the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, a daily. In 1855 he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which was warmly received by H. D. Thoreau and R. W. Emerson. During the Civil War, Whitman tended the sick and wounded in military hospitals. From his wartime experiences he derived the subject matter for his 1865 verse collections Drum-Taps and A Sequel to Drum-Taps; the latter included the elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In 1873, Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke.

In Leaves of Grass, the poet echoed the main ideas of Transcendentalism: the harmony of the universe, friendship as the means by which the individual “I” is able to unite with the “Over-soul, ” and rebellion against church dogmatism and the strictures of Puritanism. To these, however, he added his own celebration of the flesh and reverence for science and technology, which provoked Emerson’s animadversion.

Whitman is generally regarded as the poet of world democracy, a concept he defined in cosmic terms. Although an admirer of democracy, which by his time had become largely bourgeois, he was not blind to its faults. He believed, however, that in the future the people, acting as a creative historical force, would conceive a more nearly perfect form of democracy, one not limited by national boundaries. This conviction led the poet to espouse universal egalitarianism as an ideal, for he saw everywhere the internal similarity of all phenomena, reflected in his own indissoluble kinship with his fellow man. As a consequence, although he glorified personal freedom and asserted the spiritual beauty and dignity of every human being, Whitman placed secondary importance on the individual, as such; the individual’s fate and unique nature did not concern him as much as the universe to which the individual belonged.

Whitman chose industrial America as one of his major themes, writing odes, for example, to smokestacks, blast furnaces, machines, and locomotives. These poems made Whitman a precursor of the modern urban poets. Although he also wrote poems in honor of revolutionaries—Italian, Austrian, French—in his attitude toward American reality he remained essentially a reformist.

As a stylist, Whitman was a bold innovator, introducing prosaic speech into his verse and making use of “catalogs, ” or series, of images. In his hands, unrhymed free verse became extraordinarily pliant and responsive. Whitman became famous in Europe during his lifetime. In Russia, for example, I. S. Turgenev in 1872 translated several of his poems, which, however, were left unpublished. L. N. Tolstoy also showed an interest in Whitman, although he did not always express favorable opinions of the poet’s work. A Russian translation of Leaves of Grass by K. I. Chu-kovskii was published in 1907. Whitman’s poetry influenced the work of the Russian futurist poets, particularly that of V. V. Khlebnikov and, in part, the early verse of V. V. Mayakovsky.


The Complete Poetry and Prose, vols. 1–2. New York, 1948.
The Correspondence, vols. 1–3. New York, 1961–64.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. proiz.: List’ia travy, proza. Moscow, 1970.


Chukovskii, K. I. Moi Hitmen [2nd ed.]. Moscow, 1969.
Mendel’son, M. O. Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo Uitmena, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1969.
Traubel, H. With Walt Whitman in Camden, vols. 1–5. Carbondale, 111., 1908–64.
Masters, E. L. Whitman. New York, 1937.
Allen, G. The Solitary Singer. New York, 1967.
A Century of Whitman Criticism. Bloomington, Ind.-London [1969].
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Whitman, (Walter) Walt

(1819–92) poet, writer; born in West Hills, Huntington, Long Island, N.Y. He was educated in Brooklyn (1825–30) where his father, a carpenter and farmer, had moved about 1823. He left school about age 12, and after working as an office boy, at age 13 he became a printer's assistant on several papers around New York City. While exposing himself to opera and theater, he began to contribute occasional pieces to newspapers (including some of the earliest reports of baseball games); at one stage he taught in various schools on Long Island (1836–41). In 1838 he was the founder/editor of a Huntington, Long Island, newspaper, The Long Islander. He continued educating himself through his reading and between 1841–48 contributed to various magazines—both fiction and commentary—and worked as an editor on several newspapers in and around New York City, most especially the Brooklyn Eagle (1846–48); he was fired from this last post because of his outspoken antislavery views. He then journeyed to New Orleans where for three months he wrote for the New Orleans Crescent. On returning to Brooklyn, he continued writing for and editing various newspapers (1848–62), and occasionally helping his father build houses. Meanwhile, about 1848 he had begun writing poetry in earnest. In 1855 he gathered 12 of these relatively long poems and self-published them as Leaves of Grass. Its radically free-flowing style and intensely personal subject matter did not engage the public or critics—although when Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "I greet you at the beginning of a new career," Whitman stamped that on the cover of an enlarged second edition (1856). In December 1862 he went to Virginia to find his brother who had been wounded in a battle; he stayed in Washington, D.C., to serve as a nurse in hospitals with wounded Civil War soldiers. He obtained a job as clerk in the Department of the Interior in 1865 but was soon fired when it was discovered he was the author of Leaves of Grass, already regarded as scandalous because of its frank sexual allusions. (His second volume of poems, Drum Taps (1865), was more acceptable to the public.) He then found a job in the attorney general's office (1865–73) but when he suffered a paralytic stroke he moved to Camden, N.J. He continued to write and publish larger editions of Leaves of Grass (his deathbed edition appearing in 1892) and also published the second of his prose works, Specimen Days (1882; his first was Democratic Vistas, 1877). Revered by a small band as "the Good Gray Poet," he held court in Camden, his reputation actually higher in Europe. It was only in the decades after his death that Whitman came to be recognized as one of the major American creative forces.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.