Walt Whitman is regarded as one of the greatest writers of America. He takes his place amongst the greats of English language literature like Dante and William Shakespeare. A fine writer of the transcendentalism and realism movement, Whitman wrote on varied themes of love, nature, friendship, and democracy. His artistry reflected the glories of mundane life, and this is perhaps why his works resonate deeply with the ordinary, average man just as well they are hailed by the literati.
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Born in 1819, in Brooklyn, Walt Whitman came from a modest family with eight siblings. His childhood was not the happiest. His Father Walter Whitman sr. though well-read and encouraged independent thought was alcoholic, sometimes abusive, and overall unstable family life. He dropped out of school at 11 years to support his family. This however did not stop him from chasing knowledge. He became a voracious reader and took up various jobs as an errand boy for two lawyers one of whom tutored him, then a doctor, and then as editor’s apprentice for the Patriot, learning about the printing press and typesetting.
His time as editor developed his interest in writing and made him realize the power of the written word. His work as a reporter fed his hungry appetite for reading. He gathered information, checked facts for his stories, and observed the realities surrounding him making these experiences the inspirations for his works.
In 1836, the now seventeen-year-old Walt’s father wanted him to take care of farm chores but he wanted none of that, instead, he took a job as a teacher of a one-room schoolhouse at Southold, Long Island, New York. In the next five years, he worked as a teacher at different schools in cities as well as the countryside engaging with more people. He adopted more creative ways of teaching to inculcate critical thinking rather than cramming and was anti corporal punishment. He believed in his students and tried to be a father figure to them, saying in his later life “Though a bachelor, I have several boys and girls that I consider my own”.
His laid-back and brooding nature gave him a reputation of a shameless idler and a dreamer, and young as he was there might be a little truth in that. At twenty-two, he started in his leisure time that his profession granted, and wrote a series of articles for the Long Island Democrat. His try at poems and stories however gave mediocre results, mostly conventional and awkward though death was the recurrent theme, his art was yet to be developed.
His magnum opus Leaves of Grass is a culmination of Whitman’s life experiences and views. His thirty-six years of life were spent in New York and Long Island where he developed a love for music particularly opera and also frequented the theaters. Whitman self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 without his name instead of a portrait of himself on the cover. The work remained essentially unrecognized by the general public but was appreciated by Ralph Waldo Emerson declaring that it was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed”.
In between his subsequent additions and correction of Leaves of Grass, the Civil War had engulfed America through which Whitman, a clerk in Washington DC, spent time in assisting the wounded and dying soldiers, encouraging them. These experiences also inspired poems such as Drum-Taps and an elegy to President Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard”.
Leaves of Grass received little acclaim in his lifetime as some were averse to his works because of its openness about sex, his self-expression, and his new innovations taking influences from biblical poetry. Deemed immoral it also affected his profession and was relieved from his jobs. However, well-received in Europe, he continued to write poetry enriching the Leaves of Grass that is now considered as a landmark in American Literature. In 1873 He moved to New Jersey after suffering a stroke to live with his brother. His funeral was attended by over a thousand people who he influenced during his lifetime and his legacy endures, inspiring generations of writers.
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Written By: Aakriti Bhandari
Editor and Team Lead: Ashutosh Sharma
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