Walt Whitman And His Impact On Other Poets And Writers

Script, 2001

6 Pages

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Walt Whitman

- Born into a working class family on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York

- Father = carpenter & farmer (named after his father)

- Moved to Brooklyn at the age of four

- 5 brothers and 2 sisters

- merely respect for his father, close relationship to his mother

- during childhood: family moved a lot around Brooklyn

- Whitman loved living close to the East River

- hence his love for ferries and for the people who worked on them

- attended the newly founded Brooklyn public schools for 6 years (mostly children of poor families attended public schools)

- but his main education came outside the school -> autodidact (visited museums, went to libraries, attended lectures)

- loved to visit his grandparents on Long Island -> hence his livelong love for the Long Island shore

- experience of both rural and urban life -> attracted to both ways (shifts between rural and urban settings can also be traced in his poetry)

- quit school by the age of 11

- started life as a laborer: worked as an office boy for some prominent Brooklyn lawyers, who gave him a subscription to a circulating library

- in 1831: apprentice on the Long Island Patriot (liberal, working class newspaper) -> learned the printing trade

- already contributed to the newspaper at the age of 12 (first signed article in 1834 in the New York Mirror)

- fascination with printed objects remained for his entire life (concern for how his words looked on a page)

- Whitman was left alone in the city at the age of 14, as his family moved back to West

Hills -> this experience made him quite independent

- At that time he read Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper and other romance novelists, went to the theater, where he fell in love with Shakespeare’s plays (Richard III was his favourite) and attended lectures (e.g. Frances Wright, who was a Scottish radical emancipationist and women’s right advocate)

- By the time he was 16, he was a journeyman printer and compositor in New York City -> then some fires destroyed the major printing and business centers of the city, so he retreated to Long Island, joining his family again

- He spent the next five years teaching school in at least 10 different Long Island towns, which was some of the unhappiest time in his life

- He already wrote poems at this time (but they were rhymed, conventional verses) and sometimes used them in class

- Employed quite a progressive way of teaching

- Interrupted teaching in 1838 to start his own newspaper The Long Islander, but it folded within a year

- Two years later he abruptly quit his job as a teacher

- He decided to become a fiction writer and therefore felt the need to return to New York City and re-establish himself in the world of journalism

- His best years for fiction were between 1840 and 1845 when he placed his stories in a range of newspapers (about 20 different newspapers and magazines printed his early fiction and poetry)

- Addressed in his early stories important professional and psychological matters

- Supported the booming temperance movement in the 1840s and also wrote a novel dealing with typical topics for the temperance movement called Franklin Evans, which interestingly sold more copies than anything else he published in his lifetime

- His concern for the temperance issue may have derived from his father’s drinking habits or from his own drinking tendencies when he was an unhappy schoolteacher

- During his time as a fiction writer he remained a successful journalist

- Whitman left New York in 1845 and returned to Brooklyn, but was still connected to New York (as he visited the opera quite often, for example -> fascinated with voice)

- Back to Brooklyn he wrote for the Long Island Star from 1845 to 1848, then became chief editor of the Brooklyn Eagle

- Published little of his own poetry and fiction during this time, but introduced literary reviewing to the Eagle

- Whitman finally lost his position as an editor for the Eagle because the publisher could no longer abide Whitman’s support of the anti-slavery movement

- In 1846, Whitman traveled to New Orleans with his youngest brother Jeff to work for a newly launched newspaper

- He was fascinated with the melding of races and backgrounds and the diversity of languages, but also shocked by seeing how slaves were treated there

- His stay lasted only three months, as his brother was often ill and the newspaper-owners seemed to fear that Whitman would embarrass them because of his unorthodox ideas (especially about slavery)

- Throughout the 1840s, Whitman wrote conventional poems, often echoing Bryant, Shelley and Keats

- These poems rarely seem inspired or innovative

- By the end of the decade, however, he had undertaken serious self-education in the art of poetry

- An increasing number of friendships with radical thinkers and writers led Whitman to rethink his attitude toward the issue of race and blacks became a central element in his poetry

- Convey his political efforts through the means of experimental poetry

- Whitman as a writer places himself in the space between master and slave to join them

- There is little we know about the details of Whitman’s life in the early 1850s, so it is not clear what was the cause for the change in his poetry

- however, he seems to have been both an inspired poet and a skilled craftsman while

writing his new kind of poetry and he seems to fulfill the criteria of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description in his essay “The Poet”

- Whitman paid for the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which contained 12 untitled poems, out of his own pocket and had 795 copies printed; it appeared fittingly on the Fourth of July, 1855

- His joy about the publication of Leaves was diminished by the death of his father, which also meant that he became the father-substitute for his family

- Whitman sent copies of the book to several famous writers and the only one who responded was, fittingly, Emerson, who wrote back : “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

- Leaves marked the change in Whitman’s poetic style, as he wrote in a kind of

experimental verse cast in unrhymed long lines with no identifiable meter

- Whitman didn’t put his name on the title page of the book, which indicated that the author spoke not for himself so much as for America

- The new poet pictured in Whitman’s book is a poet who speaks from and with the whole body and who writes outside in nature

- The second edition of Leaves of Grass published in 1856 contained 20 additional poems and was Whitman’s first attempt to create a pocket-size edition

- Another difference to the first edition was that all poems had long titles, each of which contained the word “poem” in it (as if to counter criticism)

- In these years Whitman met some of the nation’s best-known writers (e.g. Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott) and started cultivating his image as an artist

- He was influenced by the women’s right activists

- Inspired by his relationship to Fred Vaughan, a young Irish stage driver, Whitman wrote the sequence of homoerotic love poems called the Calamus cluster

- In 1860 the third edition of Leaves was published in Boston, so Whitman had to travel to Boston, then considered the literary capital of the nation (btw.: Whitman is a major part of the reason that America’s literary center moved from Boston to New York)

- The 1860 edition contained some quite shocking poems for that time, since Whitman wrote much about the human body with all its parts regarded as equal

- Furthermore Whitman started to arrange the poems into various clusters and groupings

- This edition sold quite well and had many reviews, most of them positive

- Whitman now was a recognized author

- In 1861 the Civil War broke out

- Whitman wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Standard and soon began visiting wounded soldiers who were moved to New York hospitals and also wrote about them

- These visits served both his fascination with the human body (he once said that had he not become a writer he would have become a doctor) and his interest for the diversity of the nation

- Seeing the nation divided Whitman’s beliefs and prospects for unified diversity were under attack

- In 1862 he went to Virginia to seek out his brother in the battlefield at Fredericksburg

- The horrors of what he saw there inspired him to write the Civil War poems and made him devote himself to nursing the wounded soldiers in the Civil War hospitals

- In 1863 he went to Washington , D.C., where he got a part-time job as a copyist in the Paymaster’s office

- There he continued nursing wounded soldiers, always independent of organizations

- Toward the end of the year he went back to New York to visit his family, but soon returned to Washington, where he also came to know many people who would be important to him in the future

- As the war entered the final year, Whitman was facing physical and emotional exhaustion, so he got back to New York for a rest in 1864

- Friends arranged a clerkship at the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior, so Whitman returned to Washington in 1865

- While working in this bureau he came to experience Native Americans

- In March he again returned to Brooklyn, where he arranged with a New York printer for the publication of Drum -Taps

- Shortly later the Civil War ended

- After the war, Whitman got to know Peter Doyle, a 20-year-old Irish Immigrant and former Confederate soldier, who was probably the most intense and romantic affair in his life

- Whitman continued visiting soldiers in Washington hospitals during the first years

following the war

- In the late 1860s and 1870s Whitman’s health began to deteriorate and Doyle nursed him

- In June 1865 Whitman was dismissed and directly got a job as a clerk in the Attorney

General’s office, which he held till 1874

- In 1866 he took a leave to go to New York again and prepare for the new edition of

Leaves, which is the most carelessly printed edition and the most chaotic of all editions

- In 1870 the fifth edition of the Leaves appeared

- Meanwhile first British edition of his work had appeared

- In January 1873 Whitman suffered a stroke, then in May his mother died and Whitman finally moved to Camden, where his emotional state began to improve again

- Living in Camden, he published steadily despite his physical decline

- Many English admirers of Whitman went to Camden to visit him, among them Oscar


- Whitman had many troubles with the 1881-1882 edition of Leaves of Grass, as it was banned in Boston

- As an autobiography and prose counterpart to the Leaves, Specimen Days was issued

- Beginning in the late 1870s and continuing for about a decade Whitman offered lectures regularly on Lincoln, whom he admired very much

- In March 1884 Whitman moved into the only home he ever owned (still in Camden)

- The Deathbed edition, which was technically a reissue of the 1881-1882 Leaves with

supplemental material appeared in Whitman’s final year of life and has the final shape as authorized by the poet

- During his last months Whitman was in fact very sick, he made preparations for his death (he had a mausoleum built and wrote his last will in December 1891)

- Finally he died of tuberculosis with other contributing factors

Conclusion: Whitman has had an extensive impact on other poets, on fiction, film, architecture, music, painting, dance and other arts in many parts of the world; he had special influence on minority writers; he served as an icon for socialists and communists; no U.S. writer has had a comparable influence in as many parts of the world

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Walt Whitman And His Impact On Other Poets And Writers
University of Bonn
Literaturwissenschaftliches PS "American Poetry from Bradstreet to Dickinson"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
336 KB
Walt, Whitman, Literaturwissenschaftliches, American, Poetry, Bradstreet, Dickinson
Quote paper
Alexandra Palme (Author), 2001, Walt Whitman And His Impact On Other Poets And Writers, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/99065


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