by Princess McCann
Born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York, Walter Whitman Jr., was a poet most known for his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. Before becoming a poet, Whitman worked as a journalist, editor and teacher. Known to use transcendentalism and realism in his work, Whitman published Leaves of Grass on July 4, 1855, funding the project himself. In the first edition of the book, none of the poems had titles; they were titled in later editions. The original copy included 12 poems but the final edition contained 400 poems. He would publish eight editions during his lifetime. The final copy, called the deathbed edition, was published in 1892. The New York Herald announced the book in January 1892:
Walt Whitman wishes respectfully to notify the public that the book Leaves of Grass, which he has been working on at great intervals and partially issued for the past thirty-five or forty years, is now completed, so to call it, and he would like this new 1892 edition to absolutely supersede all previous ones. Faulty as it is, he decides it as by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance.
Whitman died at 72 on March 26, 1892 in Camden, New Jersey and is buried in New Jersey.
Though Whitman faced criticism after first releasing Leaves of Grass, he sent Ralph Waldo Emerson a copy and Emerson wrote to him on July 21, 1855 praising his poetry book. Emerson was popular in the Boston literary scene at the time, while Whitman was early in his poetry career. Whitman would use the letter to promote his book in newspapers and used Emerson’s line “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” for the revised version he released in 1856. Whitman also anonymously published his own reviews of Leaves of Grass in 1855, praising himself with the declaration “an American bard at last!”
Whitman is sometimes credited with creating free verse. Free verse poetry is unrhymed and without a regular meter. However, one of his most famous poems included in later editions of Leaves of Grass, “O Captain! My Captain!,” on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, does include rhyme. Whitman moved to Washington, DC, during the Civil War and worked in a hospital helping those wounded. He also gave lectures on Lincoln’s death.
Whitman influenced many poets like Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, June Jordan, Ralph Ellison, Ezra Pound, and Allen Ginsberg. Hughes’s poem “I, Too” is said to be inspired by “I Hear America Singing” by Whitman. Leaves of Grass remains one of the greatest representations of American poetry and an evolving poet.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York: The Limited Editions Club, 1942); Pequot Library Special Collections