Walter "Walt" Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse. His work was very controversial in its time, particularly his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sexuality.
The publication of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass in 1855 was the debut of a masterpiece that shifted the course of American literary history. Refreshing and bold in both theme and style, the book underwent many revisions over Whitman's lifetime, becoming an ever-transforming kaleidoscope of poems.
Leaves of Grass broke all of the established rules: ignored traditional rhyme and meter, spoke directly to the reader, and celebrated the beauty, the flaws and the animal sensuality of the human body. Whitman used the first person to create an image of himself as a reflection of the America he saw: "turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding."
"Walt Whitman, an American": so the poet introduced himself in the first poem of his first collection, and so he continues to be read and received, by fellow Americans and foreigners alike. His embracing of democracy and egalitarianism, his egoism and lack of refinement, his expansiveness and "adhesiveness", have all helped position Whitman as the "central poet of our literature,"
It was received by the poetry establishment with a mixture of contempt and admiration, a clear sign that Whitman's poetry did not fit the mold of the classical poets. During his lifetime Whitman would publish six very different editions of "Leaves of Grass". He did not, however, put his name on it until 1876, twenty years after the first edition.
In the introduction to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman gauged a poet's success by the extent to which the nation "absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." This democratic standard allowed the poet to forestall any condemnation from highbrow critics and to turn elite criticism into confirmation of the poet's egalitarian bona fides.
Democratic Vistas (1871), in its attacks on the misuses of national wealth after the Civil War, is relevant to conditions in our own time, and November Boughs (1888) brings together retrospective prefaces, opinions, and random autobiographical bits that are in effect an extended epilogue on Whitman's life, works, and times.
Whitman's prose is no less extraordinary. Specimen Days and Collect (1882) includes reminiscences of nineteenth-century New York City that will fascinate readers in the twenty-first, notes on the Civil War, especially his service in Washington hospitals, and trenchant comments on books and authors.
Whitman was a Radical Republican and was therefore a strong supporter of the Union Army during the American Civil War. He also reported on the conflict for the New York Times. He also published two collections of war poems Drum Taps (1865) and Sequel to Drum Taps (1866). This included several poems in praise of Abraham Lincoln.
Unable to find work, he rejoined his family on Long Island in 1836 and taught at several schools. In addition to teaching, Whitman started his own newspaper, the Long Islander. He subsequently edited numerous papers for short periods over the next fourteen years, including the New York Aurora and the Brooklyn Eagle, and published poems and short stories in various periodicals.
The second of nine children, Whitman was born in 1819 on Long Island, New York, to Quaker parents. In 1823 the Whitmans moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman attended public school. At age eleven he left school to work as an office boy in a law office and then as a typesetter's apprentice at a number of print shops.