This Day In Writing History
On May 31st, 1819, the legendary American poet, essayist, and journalist Walt Whitman was born. He was born Walter Whitman Jr. on Long Island, New York.
The second of nine children, Walt's childhood was restless and unhappy; the Whitmans moved frequently to dodge creditors, thanks to Walter Sr.'s bad investments.
Walt Whitman completed his primary education at the age of eleven and went off to learn a trade. He became a printer's devil (apprentice) for the Patriot, a weekly Long Island newspaper. He also worked for other newspapers and printers. In doing so, he became an expert at printing and typesetting.
While working for the Long Island Star newspaper, the teenage Walt Whitman determined to further his education and make a cultured gentleman of himself. He educated himself by becoming an active patron of the local public library.
He also joined a town debating society, regularly attended the theater, and began writing poetry, and his earliest works were published anonymously in newspapers.
By 1838, the nineteen year old Whitman, then living in New York City, was unable to find work in his trade because a massive fire had consumed most of the city's printing and publishing district.
Also, the economy had tanked in the Panic of 1837, a depression that would last five years. Whitman returned to his native Long Island and found work as a teacher. He taught at several schools, but found teaching to be an unsatisfying career.
He took jobs in the printing and newspaper business when he could find them. He also founded his own newspaper, the Long Islander, but ended up selling it ten months later. No copies of the Long Islander survived.
In 1840, Whitman was teaching again, at the Locust Grove School on Long Island, when a Presbyterian minister publicly accused him of homosexuality, which at the time was considered both disgraceful and illegal. Whitman, who was most likely bisexual, was not charged with a crime. However, he was reportedly tarred, feathered, and run out of town.
Walt Whitman moved back to New York City and spent the next ten years working for various newspapers. He added to his income by becoming a freelance writer of fiction and poetry. By 1846, he had become the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper.
He lost the position two years later due to political differences with the newspaper's owner, Isaac Van Anden. Whitman had used his position to publicly support his fellow Barnburners, angering Van Anden, who was a Hunker.
At the time, as a result of the recent economic crisis, the Democratic Party had become sharply divided between two rival factions, the Barnburners and the Hunkers. The Barnburners were the left wing reformers of the party.
They were called Barnburners because they believed that the best way to deal with crooked banks and corporations was to shut them down - the way a farmer burns down his barn to deal with a rat infestation. The Barnburners were also fierce abolitionists who demanded an immediate end to slavery.
The Hunkers were the professional politicians who hunker down in office. On the campaign trail, they promise everything. After being elected, they do practically nothing. They were conservative Democrats. They favored state bailouts of private banks with no regulatory strings attached.
Hunkers were stubbornly moderate on every political issue, including slavery. They found slavery distasteful, but were willing to maintain it for economic reasons. To abolish slavery, they believed, was too radical a step to take - too much of a risk to the economy. They refused to rock the boat.
After losing his editor's position, Walt Whitman continued to work in the newspaper business, but he was determined to make his mark as a poet. By 1850, he was working on the poems that would appear in his famous poetry collection.
With its breakthrough style of free verse and distinctly American voice, Leaves of Grass is rightfully considered one of the greatest American poetry collections of all time. The title was a pun; in the publishing business, leaves meant pages and grass was a slang term for a literary work of little artistic or commercial value.
The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855. It was a collection of twelve untitled free verse poems contained in 95 pages. Whitman paid for the book to be published at a Brooklyn print shop owned by two Scottish immigrants who had been friends of his for years.
Using his printing experience, Whitman designed the layout and did most of the typesetting himself. The initial press run was just under 800 copies. Instead of the poet's name, an engraved drawing of Whitman in his work clothes and jaunty hat appeared on the cover.
Leaves of Grass didn't sell a lot of copies at first, but it made a huge impact, especially on legendary American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman's friend, who had inspired him to write the book, which contained meditations on transcendentalism.
Emerson said of it, "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed... I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy." Not everyone agreed with his appraisal.
At the time he published his book, Whitman had been working for the United States Department of the Interior. His boss, Secretary of the Interior James Harlan, read Leaves of Grass, found its sexual content extremely offensive, and fired him. Literary critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold blasted it as "a mass of stupid filth."
Griswold's review made mention of the public accusation of homosexuality leveled against Whitman some fifteen years earlier, believing him to be guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians."
Whitman included Griswold's entire review, which nearly resulted in the publication of the second edition being cancelled, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.
Over the years, rather than write additional collections of poetry published under different titles, Whitman issued new, revised and expanded editions of Leaves of Grass that contained additional poems, revisions or deletions of previously published poems, and layout changes.
When the last edition, known as the Deathbed Edition because it was completed just before Whitman's death in 1892, was published, Leaves of Grass had been expanded from its original 12 poems to nearly 400.
In March of 1882, Whitman's then publisher, James R. Osgood of Boston, received a letter from the city's district attorney, Oliver Stevens, who had been contacted by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice regarding Leaves of Grass.
Stevens agreed with the Society that the book constituted "obscene literature" as defined by law. He called for the deletion of two poems, A Woman Waits for Me and To a Common Prostitute, and for the revision of ten other poems. If the publisher did not agree to these terms, he could face prosecution for obscenity.
Osgood wrote to Whitman, who dismissed Stevens' threat and refused to censor his book. When Osgood refused to republish it, Whitman found himself a new publisher, Rees Welsh & Company, who published a new, unexpurgated version of Leaves of Grass later that year.
Whitman believed that the controversy would boost sales, and he was right. Though some retailers refused to sell it, the book went through five reprint runs of 1,000 copies each. The first printing sold out in one day.
The censorship hoopla brought Leaves of Grass to the attention of more liberal critics, and Walt Whitman was finally - and rightfully - recognized as one of the greatest poets of all time, the master of free verse.
One critic, William Michael Rossetti, believed that with Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman had earned himself a place alongside William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri.
Critic, editor, and fellow transcendentalist George Ripley believed that the book radiated "vigor and quaint beauty." Susan Garnet Smith, a fan from Connecticut, wrote to Whitman, professing her love for him and offering to donate her womb if he wanted a child.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Whitman published his classic patriotic poem Beat! Beat! Drums! and his brother George joined the Union army. George sent Walt many detailed letters chronicling his experiences on and off the battlefield.
In December of 1862, the New York Times published a listing of the names of Union soldiers who had been wounded or killed in action. Concerned that one of the names, "First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore," was a misspelling of his brother's name - George W. Whitman - Walt set out to find him.
While traveling through the South mostly on foot, Whitman had his wallet stolen and was unable to find any information about Union soldiers in general or his brother George in particular.
Eventually, he found George alive, with just a minor wound on his cheek. Other soldiers weren't as lucky, and Walt was profoundly moved by the sight of all the severely wounded soldiers and the piles of their amputated limbs.
Whitman found work in the army paymaster's office and was granted leave to serve as a volunteer nurse. He would write of his wartime experiences in a newspaper article, The Great Army of the Sick. His brother George would later be captured in Virginia and interned at one of the Confederates' horrific POW camps.
In 1873, Walt Whitman suffered a stroke that left him mostly bedridden, but it didn't stop him from working on new editions of Leaves of Grass. Cared for by relatives, he lived in various places before buying himself a house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, now known as the famous Walt Whitman House.
He struck up a friendship with Mary Oakes Davis, a sea captain's widow who was boarding with a nearby family. She later moved in with Whitman (bringing her menagerie of pets with her) and became his housekeeper and caregiver in exchange for free room and board.
As the years passed, Walt Whitman's fragile health deteriorated. He died of bronchial pneumonia in March of 1892, at the age of 72.
If you would like to download the free public domain e-book of Leaves of Grass, you can find it here at Munsey's archive.
If you would like to download the free, unabridged public domain audiobook version, you can find it here at the LibriVox archive.
Quote Of The Day
"The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book." - Walt Whitman
Today's video features a reading from Walt Whitman's classic poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. Enjoy!