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The Life of Walt Whitman, His Works and Poetry Engagements


Walt Whitman was a renowned American poet for his literary works and as a successor to Virgil, Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante. In his book, Leaves of Grass, he wrote poems that celebrated love, democracy, friendship, and nature (Turpin, 2017). This monumental work earned praise from the audience and influenced Whitman’s fame in America and across the world. Despite his enthusiasm and creative poetic works, some readers and critics found Whitman’s themes and writing style unnerving. In this regard, Whitman received little public acclaim for his poetry during his lifetime due to the self-representation as an aggressive man, openness to sex topics, and stylistic innovations. Indeed, Whitman’s legacy became more pronounced after his death when he was regarded as one of the most iconic 19th-century poets (Bromwich, 2018). Whitman inspired several poets, including Willian Carlos Williams, Martin Espada, Ezra Pound, and C.K. Williams. Although Whitman’s achievements are sometimes obscured by hostile and unfair criticism, he is one of the greatest American poets. The latter shaped the poetry genre with his innovative, mystic, and informative works.

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Early Life

Whitman’s lineage originated from North America, and his parents also resided in the region. According to Turpin (2017), Whitman was born in West Hills, located in Long Island, in1819. Whitman was a second born in a family of nine children. His parents were Walter Whitman, an English man, and Louisa Van Velsor, a Dutch woman. Besides, they had little formal education and thus, practiced farming as their occupation. Although Whitman’s family traditionally owned large tracts of lands, Walt Whitman was born when they had significantly diminished, compelling his father to combine farming with carpentry. Later, Whitman’s father relocated to Brooklyn in 1823 where there was growth in real estate in the area, and thus, built cheap artisans’ houses (Bromwich, 2018). However, his inefficient management led to low income, which could not sufficiently meet his big family’s needs. Despite the financial challenges, Whitman joined a public school in Brooklyn. He dropped out of school at the age of eleven to assist his father in supporting the family.

Early Work and Poetry Engagements

Whitman started working at the tender age of twelve, and he engaged in the printing business. He was hired in Brooklyn as a printer and later taught in several country schools located in Long Island. During this teaching period, Whitman initiated the weekly newspaper publication known as the Long-Islander. By 1841, he lived in New York City, and his interests had shifted to journalism (Turpin, 2017). At the age of 23, Whitman was an editor of a daily newspaper in New York. He continued to excel in editing work, leading to his employment for the same role at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a relatively influential newspaper.

Nevertheless, Whitman’s support for the anti-slavery Democratic Party’s faction led to his dismissal from the Eagle in early 1848 (Bromwich, 2018). He moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, and worked for some months at the Crescent. He later returned to New York and revived anti-slavery journalism, but he failed, resulting in the real estate business. During this period, Whitman spent considerable time researching and reading literature. Whitman often visited the theater to see various Willian Shakespeare’s plays, leading to his intense love of music, mainly the opera. Besides, he read extensively in the New York’s libraries and at home, inspiring him to start experimenting with a new and innovative poetry style.

During his years as a printer, school teacher, and journalist, he had published instrumental poems and stories in popular magazines and newspapers. However, they demonstrated little or little literary and inventive potential. According to the Stacy (2017), Whitman had had enough poems in his unique style by the spring of 1855. The failure to find a publisher prompted him to sell a house to print his first copy of Leaves of Grass. In this edition, there was neither the name of the author nor that of the publisher, but the cover page contained Whitman’s portrait. Despite the book’s shortcomings, some poets led by Ralph Waldo Emerson applauded him, terming his work as the most extraordinary piece characterized by wisdom and uniqueness.

Whitman did not lose hope and continued practicing his writing style in his notepads. His insistent personality led to the printing of the second version of the Leaves of Grass. The collection comprised modifications of the first edition’s poetries as well as the new “Sun-Down Poem.” Unfortunately, this copy also failed to offer positive financial gains, compelling Whitman to return to his editing role at the Brooklyn Times. In the early 1860s, a Boston-based publisher produced the third edition in a more rearranged and enlarged manner than the previous versions (Bromwich, 2018). It contained appealing poems, including a record of Whitman’s life crisis. Although the 1860 version seemed promising, the emergence of the civil war led to the bankruptcy of the Boston publishing firm, thus adversely affecting the book’s marketing.

Life During the Civil War Years

The occurrence of the 1861 civil war led to various adverse effects, which shaped Whitman’s life. According to Turpin (2017), Whitman was forced to move to Fredericksburg to take care of his brother, who was hurt in the battle. Secondly, Whitman also started a casual job in the office of the paymaster. In his free time, he visited injured soldiers hospitalized in Washington healthcare facilities. Whitman dedicated his low wage to purchase small gifts for Union and Confederate military officers while inspiring their laughter and joy to mitigate their mental depression. In January 1865, Whitman got a job as the clerk in the Interior Department but was fired the same year because the department’s secretary perceived the Leaves of Grass’s content as indecent (Stacy, 2017). Understanding that life is full of mysteries and challenges, Whitman used the influence of his friend, Willian O’Connor, to get a job opportunity in the office of the attorney general.

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During the conflicts, Whitman wrote a collection of war poems, commonly known as the Drum-Taps, which demonstrated his free-verse type of poetry. He thrilled his readers because he used oratorical excitement to create awareness of the civil war’s meaning and its implications. For instance, the verse “Beat! Beat! Drums!” expressed the battle’s bitterness, thus helping people envision the misery implicated in American society by the outbreak of the civil war. According to Bromwich (2018), in 1865, Whitman published the Sequel to Drum-Taps that contained a composition dedicated to President Abraham Lincoln. In the poem, Whitman could not hide his anger for the American’s democracy advocate’s assassination and expressed his disgust from the cruelties of the war. Accordingly, Whitman’s prose imageries in the Specimen Days and Collect, revolving around the civil war and published in the early 1880s, were also influential due to their poignant messages and direct simplicity.

Later Life and Legacy

Whitman continued with his poetry works after the civil war. In 1867, he published the fourth edition of the Leaves of Grass that contained much rearrangement and revision (Stacy, 2017). This version included eight new poems, while others were obtained from the Drum-Taps. Whitman’s works started receiving considerable recognition in the late 1860s. The leading English writers significantly inspired him, and thus, he collaborated with other authors and publishers to add value to his previous literature. Notably, civil and non-governmental organizations safeguarded his work from unauthorized writers. For example, the Society for the Suppression of Vice highly condemned James R. Osgood, who published the Boston edition without Whitman’s permission. Indeed, the threat of prosecution forced Osgood to give the copyright of his publication to Whitman.

As Whitman’s works gained popularity, he received offers from different publishers, including Rees Welsh and David McKay. The Leaves of Grass reached a level that attracted interest from writers of other spheres of life. The newspaper publicity marketed the book leading to increased sales, which enabled Whitman to purchase a modest cottage in Camden. By 1892, his book had already been in its ninth edition (Bromwich, 2018). Therefore, the primary source of Whitman’s legacy is entrenched in his captivating, mystic, and informative poetry, mainly covered in the Leaves of Grass book.

Additionally, his fame emanated from government offices’ engagements as a clerk in Washington and the Department of Justice. Ideally, his service at the federal government escalated Whitman’s reputation as he worked for several years before his resignation in 1874 due to illness (Stacy, 2017). To date, Whitman is a celebrated American author who introduced his new free-verse writing style and supported anti-slavery while creating awareness of the ills of the civil war through his poetry works.


Whitman started experiencing health problems in the early 1870s, possibly due to elongated emotional strains. According to Turpin (2017), Whitman was diagnosed with stroke in 1873, which left him partially paralyzed. With notable health progress, he moved to Camden, New Jersey, to see his mother, who was also ill. Indeed, her death inflicted significant grief, which influenced his decision to stay at his brother’s home in Camden. Despite the signs of recovery, his consistent health problems led to his death in 1892, and he was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.


Despite some criticisms surrounding his poetry, Whitman inspired a wide array of dedicated media that continue to grow up to date. His use of a revolutionary approach in both style and subject helps readers understand crucial American history concepts. Whitman’s contributions in the Leaves of Grass motivate innovative thinking about the United States and the entire world’s problems. He courageously expressed his feelings regarding the ills of slavery and civil wars, thus educating people on the dire need to reject selfish desires. Indeed, he set a significant precedent on how citizens should compassionately treat their soldiers who experience psychological torture in wars. Significantly, Whitman acts as a source of encouragement to individuals who have failed to pursue their education due to family and financial issues. He demonstrates that a person can achieve his or her ambitions with the right desire and commitment. Some selections from the Leaves of Grass are taught mainly in universities and schools. Therefore, Whitman remains one of America’s most innovative poets, and his works will remain an inspiration to many future generations.


Bromwich, D. (2018). Whitman’s assumptions: “Song of Myself,” in Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman. Social Research: An International Quarterly, 85(3), 503-519.

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Stacy, J. (2017). Walt Whitman’s journalism. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 34(3), 358-361.

Turpin, Z. (2017). Introduction to Walt Whitman’s “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 34(3), 225-261.

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