Biography of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman into an American working-class farming family in the early nineteenth century. When Whitman was four, his father moved the family to Brooklyn, New York. During Whitman’s childhood, New York City was still developing into a major urban center, and much of his work alludes to the expansion of this metropolis. Young Whitman often traveled between Brooklyn and Manhattan by ferry, which inspired him to frequently address themes of crossing and gathering in his poetry.

Whitman attended public school in Brooklyn. On weekends and during holidays, he often visited his grandparents on their farm on Long Island - a pastoral setting that provided a stark contrast to the bustling urban environment of New York City. As a result, Whitman developed a dual love of the city and the countryside. At the age of eleven, Whitman finished his formal education and began working as an office boy. However, he was a voracious reader and continued to educate himself independently. In 1831, he began working at a small newspaper. There, he had the opportunity to publish his first work, a group of essays on life in New York.

Whitman then spent five years as a teacher in several country schools on Long Island. Whitman was extremely frustrated that many of his students were behind in their studies and did not seem to respond to the established curriculum. Soon, he refused to conduct his classroom using these regular teaching methods. Instead, he often used his own poetry as a teaching tool. Though Whitman was quite unhappy during this time in his life, these experiences created the foundation for Whitman's theory of education and learning and inspired several of his poems.

Whitman briefly returned to print journalism as the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. He lost his job in 1848 after engaging in a heated political debate with the newspaper’s owner. After that, Whitman made the bold proclamation that he was going to become a poet. Whitman began writing Leaves of Grass around 1850. By 1855, he had completed a first edition, which he printed himself. The collection received several complimentary reviews from literary critics, but several years passed before it was widely distributed.

Whitman and his family experienced many hardships during the Civil War. Whitman’s brother enlisted in the Union Army and was captured by Confederate soldiers. Whitman himself worked as a clerk in Washington, D.C. until he was fired, purportedly because the Secretary of the Interior found a copy of Leaves of Grass and objected to the sexual content. After losing his job, Whitman started working on another edition of Leaves of Grass, which was published in 1868.

In the later years of his life, Whitman lived in Camden, New Jersey. He continued to write and publish new versions of Leaves of Grass. He assembled the final edition of the book, which would later be called the "deathbed" edition, in 1891. Critics believe that this version is the most complete representation of Whitman's vision. Walt Whitman died of complications from pneumonia in 1892 and is buried in Camden.


Study Guides on Works by Walt Whitman

Whitman published some of his earliest poetry in the New York Mirror, but it wasn't until years later that he decided to leave his career as a newspaper editor and become a full-time poet. Around 1850, he began to write what would become Leaves of...