Walt Whitman was an American poet born on May 31 1819 to Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor in Long Island. He had a rough childhood due to economic hardships and finished his formal education at eleven years. He found a job after school to supplement his family’s income as an office boy. Later he got a job as an apprentice for a printing firm and began his interest in writing.
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However, he began to teach after a fire destroyed the printing district in New York in 1836 at seventeen years. He also started his own newspaper. His work raised a lot of controversy when he wrote it but he often considered as the “father of free verse” (Reynolds 314).
The aim of writing was to reach the common person whom he felt had been ignored by the literature of his time. Whitman was interested in politics and used his works to address political and democracy issues in the society.
His major work was his collection of poems called titled Leaves of Grass in 1855. The collection attracted negative criticism from many critics as they called the work obscene due to its sexual themes, which they found offensive. Consequently, he was sacked from his job at Brooklyn Eagle (Jason 87-91).
However, one man by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson gave Whitman’s poetry collection an approval and praised the work to his friends. The approval raised an interest in the book. Emerson gave the book his approval when he wrote Whitman a letter praising the book.
Thus, Emerson contributed greatly to Whitman’s career as the letter which written by Emerson was printed in the subsequent edition and helped to mitigate the negative criticism his first edition had attracted and made a positive statement about Whitman’s collection of poems.
The environment also influenced Whitman’s work. His milieu was one of mortality as he had encountered death when his infant sister when he was six years old. He also lost member of his family and other relatives. In addition while working as a printer he encountered stories about people that impacted his poetry for instance the poem Song of Myself, in which he shows violent ends.
Whitman encountered wounded and dying soldiers as he served as volunteer nurse and thus had a direct contact with the blood bath as shown in the poem A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest in which he expressed his disdain for the war (Scheick 173).
Whitman faced challenges throughout his life such as loss of employment and at times he just got by life through the help of his friends who would send him money from England and America. However, that did not deter him as he sought to help those in need. He was very interested in the lives of the people and the civil war changed him as he started taking care often people wounded in the war.
He volunteered as a nurse as army hospitals and used his money and donations from friends to buy supplies for the wounded (Callow 293). He also took care of his mother and brother and thus did not neglect his family.
Finally, Whitman passed on in March 26, 1892 from pneumonia. He left a lasting legacy because his works reflected the American society. He highlighted the plight of the oppressed such as the slaves thus his works championed for democracy in the society to give all people a fair chance. Thus, one cannot deny the fact that Whitman is one of the most influential American poets and the interest in his works today is proof.
Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.
Jason, Stacy. Walt Whitman’s Multitudes: Labor Reform and Persona in Whitman’s Journalism and the First Leaves of Grass, 1840-1855. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
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Scheick, William J. “Aspiz Harod. So Long! L Walt Whitman’s poetry of death.”
Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 21. 3 (2004): 173-175.