Ezra Pound called Walt Whitman, who was born 200 years ago today, “America’s poet … He is America.”
Whitman wrote about the lives of working people, sexual outsiders, and seekers after answers to life’s mysteries that went beyond typical Christian pieties.
He was born on Long Island in New York on May 31, 1819, but he grew up in Brooklyn, where he spent most of his life. His family was poor and he received only a brief period of formal education, leaving school at the age of 11 to go to work.
He was apprenticed to a printer at the age of 12. He was surrounded by the printed word and read voraciously. He became steeped in the classics, the works of Dante, Virgil, Shakespeare, and particularly The King James Bible whose rolling cadences he later used in his own poetry.
At the age of 17 he got a job as a school teacher (despite his own lack of education). He later worked as a newspaper reporter and editor.
During the American Civil War Whitman volunteered as a care-giver to wounded Union soldiers in New York. His brother, George Washington Whitman, was wounded in the war and Whitman moved to Washington, D.C., to care for him.
Whitman remained in Washington for 11 years. He worked first as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but was fired from that job when it was discovered that he was the author of Leaves of Grass with its explicit, overtly homoerotic poems, which the Secretary of the Interior considered to be obscene.
He then found work as a clerk in the Attorney General’s Office, where part of his work involved interviewing former Confederate soldiers seeking government pardons.
In 1873, at the age of 52, Whitman suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He moved to Camden, New Jersey, and lived with his brother George until 1882, when a new edition of Leaves of Grass brought him enough money to buy a modest home of his own.
Whitman spent his remaining years in Camden, adding new poems to Leaves of Grass and receiving visitors and admirers. He died in 1893 at the age of 72.
Leaves of Grass, which grew to 383 poems by its final edition, is Whitman’s crowning achievement. In it Whitman struggles with love, friendship, sexuality and death.
The category of “gay man” didn’t exist yet in Whitman’s day and Whitman’s frank celebration of physical love, often unambiguously homosexual, caused problems for some readers.
During his lifetime Whitman’s work was more popular and well regarded in England than in America but today he is accepted as one of the greatest and most influential poets in the American canon, and one of the few academically sanctioned writers from his era who is still widely read for pleasure .