Biography of American Poet Walt Whitman Part 3

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)

But this relatively calm and carefree life was to be altered irrevocably on Apr. 13, 1861, with the firing on Fort Sumter. On Apr. 16 Whitman wrote in his diary a rededication to a clean, wholesome life. He left Pfaff's and his bohemian friends for good and, in early 1862 journeyed to Washington to find one of his brothers, who had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Before finding him, Whitman passed by a pile of amputated arms and legs. He stopped in horror, wondering if his brother's limbs might be somewhere in the pile. It turned out that his brother was only slightly wounded, but the sight of such wholesale carnage left an indelible impression. He stayed on at the army camp and made the rounds of the wounded, talking with them, writing letters home for them, procuring tobacco for them (although Whitman himself did not smoke).

He had found another calling, one in which he could extend manly sympathy where it was sorely needed and much appreciated. Except for brief trips, he remained in Washington for the duration of the war. Through contacts, he was able to get employment, first with the army paymaster, later with the government, but as before, it was only a means to an end. His main interest was his vocation as a volunteer nurse. A lonely man, he was now loved and needed by hundreds of young boys who would call to him, "Walt, Walt! Come back to us again!"

He became attached to several young soldiers whom he wrote about to his mother. He felt he had a real contribution to make in saving lives, for he gave the boys hope and encouragement-psychological boosts which did as much good in some cases as the poorly equipped and meagerly staffed medical teams could do. He wrote in Specimen Days, "In my visits to the hospitals I found it was a simple matter of personal presence and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism."

Prolonged emotional strain led to a paralytic stroke in January, 1873. After partially recovering, he left Washington, D.C. and went to live with his brother, George, in Camden, N.J. Several months after his arrival, Whitman witnessed the death of his mother. This experience, together with his own illness, left him in a state of shock and depression from which he never fully recovered.

For the rest of his life, Whitman lived in Camden, where he eventually bought a house. From this home, he operated a modestly profitable mail-order book business, selling his works in the U.S. and Europe. During this period, Whitman, who was now surrounded by admiring disciples, was generally considered to be America's greatest poet by critics and other literary people.

For quite a while, he was given money by a British widow, Anne Gilchrist, who had fallen in love with him upon reading Leaves of Grass and had traveled to the States to be near him. She proposed marriage, but he diplomatically declined and they remained merely friends, to her dismay.

Whitman died in 1892 at his home in Camden.

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