Biography of American Poet Walt Whitman Part 2

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)

Whitman went to New Orleans with his brother George and stayed for only two or three months; yet early biographers made much of the trip, because soon after his return he took up employment as a carpenter and began to work on the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Some say he had a mystical experience at this time; others say it was an affair with a high-born Creole woman--though the latter is unlikely. Perhaps it was just his sense of isolation, of being alone in a city of sultry earthiness, that drove him away from the editorial offices and toward the creation of his lifework.

While Whitman never married, and his sexual leanings were decidedly homoerotic, there is no documented evidence that he was a homosexual. In the "Calamus" section of Leaves of Grass, he sets out to sing songs of "manly attachment" and this he does, exquisitely. Whether these were personal love poems or merely poems idealizing platonic love is a question that biographers and psychoanalysts have argued for the last 100 years. A contemporary of Whitman's claimed he never saw the poet "bothered up by a woman," and indeed there is no record of any kind of his having had a romantic attachment to a female. However, when challenged on the subject by British admirer and critic John Symonds, Whitman "confessed" to having fathered six illegitimate children. The whereabouts of their mother or mothers was never discovered, and not one of the children appeared later to claim Whitman as a father. In all likelihood, as one critic surmised, these were "psychological children" born out of the need to father and procreate.

Upon the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman was awarded laurels by many of the literary figures of the time, Emerson's tribute being the most impressive. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," he wrote to Whitman. Whitman, however, was no intellectual; he felt more at home among the cabdrivers and dockmen with whom he spent many hours. He got on easily with all kinds of people. He was not so much chameleon in nature as multifaceted, showing different sides of himself to different types of acquaintances. No one knew the complete man. During this happy time when he experienced the first blush of fame, he frequented a bohemian watering hole in Brooklyn known as Pfaff's.

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