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Walt Whitman | Biography

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Early Life and Publications

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in Long Island, New York, which he referred to by its Native American name, Paumanok. His parents, Louisa Van Velsor and Walter Whitman, proved their love of country by naming several of Whitman's younger brothers after United States presidents. Many scholars trace at least some of Whitman's patriotism back to his childhood and parental influence. From humble beginnings, Whitman was mostly self-taught and worked early on as a printer's apprentice for newspapers, learning the trade and later becoming an editor and a journalist.

As a journalist, he covered many stories in New York City's neighborhoods and often spoke out for women's and immigrant's rights, which caused clashes with his superiors. He also spent some time in New Orleans as the editor of the Crescent and witnessed the brutality of slavery firsthand. This period of his life influenced views expressed in his poetry that all people are equal.

Before self-publishing Leaves of Grass anonymously in 1855, Whitman wrote several short stories and the temperance novel Franklin Evans (1842), achieving middling success. The temperance movement (circa 1820–1930) discouraged drunkenness, and some scholars suggest Whitman may have written the novel as a response to his father's alcoholism.

Publication of Leaves of Grass

Literary reviews for the original 12 unnamed poems in Leaves of Grass were mixed. Only American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most respected literary figures of that time, reacted enthusiastically to Whitman's work. Whitman was pleased enough to include Emerson's private letter to him as an endorsement of the work, without Emerson's permission, when Whitman published the second edition in 1856. Whitman continued to expand and edit his original poems, publishing a total of nine editions of Leaves of Grass until the last one right before his death on March 26, 1892.

Influence and Legacy

Because of his unconventional form and subject matter, especially with regard to physical expressions of love, Whitman's work was viewed as obscene in some circles and banned. It was only after his death that Whitman was properly recognized and celebrated for being one of the most influential American poets, both a voice of marginalized people and the "father of free verse" (poetry that does not rhyme or have a regular meter).

Whitman's work was revolutionary in many ways, doing away with rhyme and strict meter (a linguistic sound pattern using stressed and unstressed syllables) to find its own purely American rhythm. It has some characteristics of transcendentalism, a 19th-century American philosophical and literary movement with a focus on the inherent goodness of the soul. It also has much in common with realism, an artistic movement focused on providing everyday and mundane details rather than romanticized or idealized imagery, that would become popular after the end of the American Civil War (1861–65).

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