By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Walt Whitman (1819-92) is one of the few great nineteenth-century American poets. With his innovative free verse and celebration of the American landscape, he made his poetry a sort of literary declaration of independence, his long, sprawling lines having an almost prophetic quality.
Whitman’s life fed into his distinctive poetry in numerous ways. Here are some of the key facts about his life and work, including some of the most interesting details of both.
1. Whitman was born on Long Island in New York, and raised in Brooklyn.
Walt Whitman was born Walter Whitman Jr. at West Hills, Huntington on Long Island in 1819. He remained close to his mother, as their letters from the Civil War period testify. His father was prone to bouts of irritability and anger, but Whitman’s relationship with his mother was strong.
2. He left school at just eleven years of age.
Whitman left formal schooling when he was eleven, in order to find work to help support his parents and siblings. Whitman was the second of nine children, so the family was a large one.
The young Whitman worked as an office boy for two lawyers and was then apprentice and ‘printer’s devil’ for the weekly Long Island newspaper, the Patriot. It was while working for the Patriot that Whitman learned about typesetting and printing: skills which would prove invaluable when he came to prepare his own unusual poetry for print years later.
3. Whitman founded his own newspaper while he was still a teenager.
Whitman set up the Long-Islander, his own newspaper venture, when he was just nineteen years old. In his early twenties, he also wrote a temperance tract, Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times, which he later dismissed as ‘rot’. He would be sacked from several newspapers for his radical views.
4. He had a formative experience in New Orleans.
In 1848, Whitman travelled to New Orleans to work on the Crescent newspapers in the city. While living there, he appears to have had some sort of epiphany, perhaps inspired by the long journey to and from New Orleans, which involved taking in the Hudson river, Niagara, and the Great Lakes. Other biographers point to a passionate affair with a local woman, while it’s even been suggested that Whitman had a homosexual relationship during this period.
Whatever happened, Whitman came to view himself as a kind of prophet for all of America.
5. His free verse was so innovative he had to design a special size of paper to accommodate them.
Walt Whitman’s lines of verse are often so long and rolling that the size of conventional books was insufficient: they literally couldn’t be contained within the average poetry volume of the nineteenth century.
So, Whitman designed his own special size of page – eight inches by eleven – with the wider page enabling his longer lines to be typeset more easily so they didn’t run onto a new line.
Whitman’s free verse was greatly inspired by the Old Testament psalms: unrhymed, rhythmically irregular, and varying between long and short in length according to the movement and mood of the poem. It was like nothing else American readers had seen before.
6. In fact, Whitman’s pioneering free verse may have helped to inspire the French revolution in vers libre.
In France, Whitman is thought to have helped to inspire the French version of free verse, vers libre, which was pioneered in the 1880s by the poet Gustave Kahn and others. Although Whitman’s direct influence on the French Symbolists is hard to pin down, he has been credited with helping to inspire French poets to innovate with the verse line and move away from more regular, traditional forms.
7. When he sent a copy of Leaves of Grass to another notable American poet, that poet burned his copy.
Whitman had difficulty getting Leaves of Grass published. So he enlisted the help of his neighbours to print a thousand copies of the original print run in 1855. Only one bookshop would stock it: Fowler & Wells, which had shops in both New York and Boston. According to Whitman, not one copy was sold.
Whitman sent complimentary copies of the book to numerous influential people in America, hoping for an endorsement from them. John Greenleaf Whittier was reportedly none too impressed by the scandalous nature of Whitman’s subject matter in his poems and burned the copy sent to him.
Since then, other poets have been more generous, acknowledging Whitman’s immense importance to the development of American poetry. Ezra Pound, who was born in the US but made a name for himself in Europe, called him ‘America’s poet’, adding: ‘He is America.’
8. His brother’s plight during the American Civil War inspired Whitman to help veterans of the war.
In December 1862, Whitman read a listing of the fallen soldiers which he interpreted as carrying a potential reference to his brother (the soldier was listed as ‘G. W. Whitmore’, but names were not always accurately rendered in the reports).
Whitman made his way south to find his brother, whom he found alive, to his relief. However, Whitman was profoundly affected by seeing the wounded soldiers and, in Washington, D. C., secured part-time work in the army paymaster’s office. This left Whitman time to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals in the area, which he did.
9. Unusually for a poet, he continued to expand his first volume of poems rather than simply publishing new ones.
Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the volume of poetry for which he is best-known, was first published in 1855. For the remaining thirty-seven years of his life, Whitman issued new editions of this collection, each new one larger and more expansive than the previous one.
10. He was reportedly fired from his job for writing Leaves of Grass.
After the end of the Civil War, Walt Whitman worked for the Department of the Interior, but he appears to have been fired in 1864 when the ‘scandalous’ 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass came to the attention of his employers. The book was also banned in Boston.
11. He is widely considered one of the two more important American poets of the nineteenth century.
Martin Seymour-Smith, in his colossal Guide to Modern World Literature, called Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson the only two great American poets the nineteenth century produced, not least because they are the only two American poets who innovated with what poetry could do (and with what it could be).