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Walt Whitman - Biography
Walt Whitman was born into a working class family on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York. The family moved to Brooklyn when he was at the age of four, which was the first of several movements the family undertook during Whitman’s childhood. Whitman was attracted by both rural and urban life and the shifts between rural and urban settings can also be traced in his poetry. He attended the newly founded Brooklyn public schools for 6 years, but his main education came from outside the school as he visited museums, went to libraries and attended lectures.
At the age of eleven he quit school and started life as a laborer. First he worked as an office boy for some prominent Brooklyn lawyers, who gave him a subscription to a circulating library, which again served his further education. In 1831, he became an apprentice on the Long Island Patriot and learned the printing trade. The fascination for printed objects remained for his entire life. At that time he furthered his self-education as he read romance novelists, went to the theater and attended lectures. By the time he was 16 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 several 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. He 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. During his time as a fiction writer he remained a successful journalist. Whitman left New York in 1845 and returned to Brooklyn where he wrote for the Long Island Star from 1845 to 1848, then became chief editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. He published little of his own poetry and fiction during this time. 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. 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, which rarely seem inspired or innovative. By the end of the decade, however, he had undertaken serious self-education in the art of poetry. There is little we know about the details of Whitman’s life in the early 1850s, so the cause for the change in his poetry is not clear. However, he seems to have been both an inspired poet and a skilled craftsman while writing his new kind of poetry and he seemed to fulfill the criteria of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description in his essay “The Poet”.
The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855. 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 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.”
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 between the first and the second edition was that all poems had long titles, each of which contained the word “poem” in it.
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 and - inspired by his relationship to Fred Vaughan - wrote the sequence of homoerotic love poems called the Calamus cluster. In 1860 the third edition of Leaves was published in Boston. That 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. 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 and continued nursing wounded soldiers. 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. In March he again returned to Brooklyn, where he arranged with a New York printer for the publication of Drum -Taps, his collection of Civil War poems. Shortly later the Civil War ended.
After the war, Whitman got to know Peter Doyle, with whom he probably had the most intense and romantic affair in his life. Whitman continued visiting soldiers in Washington hospitals during the first years following the war. In June 1865 Whitman was dismissed but directly got a new job which he held till 1874. In 1866 he took a leave to go to New York again and prepared for the new edition of Leaves. In 1870 the fifth edition of the Leaves appeared. Meanwhile the first British edition of his work had appeared.
In the late 1860s and 1870s Whitman’s health began to deteriorate and Doyle nursed him. In January 1873 Whitman suffered a stroke, then in May his mother died and he finally moved to Camden. Living in Camden, he published steadily despite his physical decline. Many English admirers of Whitman went to Camden to visit him, among them Oscar Wilde. Whitman had many troubles with the 1881-1882 edition of Leaves of Grass, as it was banned in Boston. The Deathbed edition, which was technically a reissue of the 1881-1882 Leaves with supplemental material, appeared in Whitman’s final year of life (i.e. 1892) and has the final shape as authorized by the poet. During his last months Whitman was in fact very sick and finally he died of tuberculosis with other contributing factors.
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- Alexandra Palme (Author), 2001, Walt Whitman - Biography, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/99066