The Remarkable Life of Walt Whitman – A Poet for America

Walt Whitman, the poet who revolutionized American poetry, is best known for his monumental work, Leaves of Grass.

Whitman was a visionary writer who engaged with themes ranging from equality, individualism, democracy, and freedom. Born in West Hills, N.Y., on May 31, 1819, Whitman was a self-taught man who left school at t1 to try various jobs, including teaching, journalism, and printing.

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman. (2023, May 6). In Wikipedia.

In this biography, we delve into the extraordinary life of the man who influenced the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other famous poets.

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Walt Whitman’s early days

Walt Whitman grew up in a working-class family as one of nine children. He began his writing career as a journalist and editor for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

In 1848, Whitman moved to New Orleans. He was a journalist for The New Orleans Crescent newspaper and explored his creative side by writing poetry. Whitman encountered different kinds of music and culture, which later influenced his work. Living in New Orleans enlivened and inspired Whitman.

But Whitman suffered a stroke in 1848, leaving him with permanent physical disabilities. He returned to Brooklyn, where he opened a print shop and worked as a freelance journalist. During this time, Whitman began forging connections with other writers and intellectuals, setting the stage for his literary career.

Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman first published Leaves of Grass in 1855. The poetry collection was a direct challenge to the traditional literary conventions of his time. The book, which Whitman revised and updated frequently throughout his life, was a long poem consisting of free verse, unconstrained by meter or rhyme.

Whitman’s bold and direct style, which drew inspiration from his life, celebrated all aspects of the human experience, including the physical body and sexuality. Despite being criticized for its radical content, the book became an instant success. It established Whitman’s place as one of America’s most significant poets.

“I exist as I am, that is enough, If no other in the world be aware I sit content, And if each and all be aware I sit content.”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Nearly two centuries after its initial publication, Leaves of Grass continues to be a famous and influential work in the United States. Many celebrate its revolutionary style and content, and the book remains an essential cultural touchstone in American literature. High school and college students nationwide still study Leaves of Grass each year. Its themes of equality, individualism, democracy, freedom, and sexuality are still relevant today.

Whitman’s views on democracy and America

Whitman was a believer in democracy and often referenced it in his work.

One of Walt Whitman’s most famous works is “O Captain! My Captain!” a poem he wrote in 1865 to commemorate the death of President Abraham Lincoln. The poem reflects on the loss of America’s beloved leader. It also celebrates Lincoln’s legacy as a symbol of strength and hope for the nation.

Through vivid imagery, Whitman paints an emotional portrait of grief, mourning, and reverence for Lincoln’s leadership during some of America’s darkest hours. He also pays tribute to Lincoln’s courage and wisdom in uniting a divided country during the Civil War. With its powerful words and evocative message, “O Captain! My Captain!” remains one of Whitman’s best-known poems today.

“O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done, 
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won, 
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, 
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;”

Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain!”

In “Democratic Vistas,” an essay he wrote in 1871, Whitman lamented the corruption and greed he saw in American society. Whitman challenged Americans to be more critical of their government and institutions with his quill as his sword. He believed that the political and social equality of the individual was one of the cornerstones of democracy.

Influencing the Beats

Walt Whitman’s work influenced generations of writers who came after him. His unconventional and eclectic style, which blurred the distinctions between prose and poetry, paved the way for the 1950s Beat Generation writers, such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.

Whitman’s unconventional and eclectic style, which blurred the lines between prose and poetry, provided a blueprint for the Beats to follow. He celebrated all aspects of human experience, including physicality and sexuality, allowing them to explore these themes in their works. Whitman also challenged Americans to be more critical of their government and institutions.

“The most important poet of America ever was Walt Whitman,” Ginsberg said. “He absorbed the entire continent into himself.”

And Jack Kerouac wrote in his book On the Road, “Walt Whitman is America’s world poet – he contains multitudes.”

Whitman’s legacy and impact

Walt Whitman passed away on March 26, 1892, in Camden, N.J., at 72. His legacy, however, lived on.

Prominent writers such as Mark Twain and William Dean Howells praised Whitman as a poet of the people. Today, Whitman continues to inspire poets and everyday people through his poetry, inviting readers to celebrate the beauty of life and the human spirit.

Whitman’s poetry is a testament to his exemplary life and enduring spirit. He remains an icon of American literature, who shook the foundations of established literary conventions and sought to create a truly democratic world through his writing.

Whitman’s legacy is a reminder of the power of individualism, equality, and the enduring spirit of the human soul.

See works featuring Walt Whitman on Amazon.

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