Biography of American Poet Walt Whitman Part 1

About the famous American poet Walt Whitman, history and biography of the author of Leaves of Grass and Song of Myself.


WALT WHITMAN (1819-1892)

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

--From "Song of Myself"

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass could stand as an autobiography, as a self-portrait, and as the lifework of the man who first sounded his "barbaric yawp" in 1855. The book provoked a furor of praise and condemnation unequaled by any other American work of literature. John Burroughs, Whitman's friend, admirer, and biographer, agreed with those who felt that "the man and the book are one." This was exactly the illusion Whitman wished to create. In one of his poems, "So long," he said to all who would separate the two:

Camerado, this is no book,

Who touches this touches a man.

And yet the two were of course separate. The Walt Whitman portrayed in Leaves of Grass was transcendental, as much myth as man. The mortal Walt was born to a family of English and Dutch extraction on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Long Island, N.Y.

He was one of nine children, the eldest and youngest of whom were mentally unsound and plagued the family with their breakdowns and hysteria.

Whitman's father, of English stock, was a decent carpenter but less talented as a farmer. As the family grew, he was unable to provide for it on the farm in West Hills, so they all moved to Brooklyn Village, thus providing young Walt with his first memory. He later recounted that they had arrived in Brooklyn the day of the horse race between Eclipse and Henry. Eclipse was owned by a wealthy Northerner who had challenged the owner of the finest Southern horse to a race. Even as early as this--May 27, 1823--Yankee sympathy was running high, and there was much celebration when Eclipse won-an innocent portent of things to come.

Walt attended school in Brooklyn only to the age of 13. But he continued his education in the printing and newspaper offices of Brooklyn and, later, New York City. His youth was spent working as copyboy, printer, schoolteacher, and editor, but none of these occupations interested him for long. He never held a job for more than a few months. His heart was in writing. However, the writing he did at the time--though well accepted--was undistinguished and of the typical romantic sort. He even wrote a temperance tract thinly disguised as a romance. It was not until he had made a fateful trip to New Orleans in 1848 to accept a job on the Crescent, a New Orleans newspaper, that his career as a major poet began.

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