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Walt Whitman

He has been called "The most American of poets." He has been dubbed "The good gray poet." He has also been called, "America's first gay man."

Walt Whitman Early Years

Whitman was born in Long Island, New York, in May 1819, and grew up in a nine-child home in Brooklyn. During his formative years, Walt was influenced by his father's liberal political stance, and exposure to such socialists as Quaker Elias Hicks and Count Volney.

Whitman's formal education ended when he was 11, but he found work among words in a print shop as an apprentice.

His early literary career included a year-long stint as editor for The Long Islander when he was 19 years old, and 10 years later, he spent several months with the New Orleans Crescent, before returning to New York to edit The Brooklyn Times.

For two years, 1846 to 1848, Whitman edited the Brooklyn Eagle, using its pages to expound on many subjects. Whitman lost his position after siding with the free-soil "Barnburner" wing of the Democratic Party against the newspaper's owner, Isaac Van Anden, who held conservative views that clashed with Whitman's strong stance against slavery.

While working for the New York Aurora, one of Whitman's assignments was to cover a series of lectures given by naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. That chance encounter contributed to Whitman's future philosophy.

Whitman's Body of Work

Whitman initially self-published a collection of his poems, titled Leaves of Grass. As the first of seven continually expanding re-issues of the collection, it received little initial public acclaim, save from Emerson. Outspoken critics included Oliver Wendell Holmes, who chided Whitman for his "sensual obscenity."

In the 1860 version of Leaves, Whitman expanded the work with the highly volatile "Calamus" and "Children of Adam" clusters. Those additions openly broached the subject of "male bonding," Whitman style — a brush with homosexuality and homoeroticism. That is especially transparent in "Song of Myself," even though he tried to mask his true feelings by claiming to have a black concubine in New Orleans, along with six illegitimate children.

His call was to celebrate friendship and "manly attachment," or "adhesiveness." A heterosexual relationship, which he also embraced, was referred to as "amativeness." During the Reconstruction era, in 1871, Whitman opined in Democratic Vistas, a book in prose, that democracy in the U.S. had failed and would continue down that dark path unless and until there was a "radical recommitment to personal integrity and brotherhood."

A century later, his views, especially lyrics from the 45-poem "Calamus" cluster, became the manifesto of the 1970s gay liberation movement.

The Civil War experience

Upon hearing that his brother, George, was wounded, Whitman traveled to Virginia to lend aid and comfort. The carnage he witnessed spurred him to volunteer as an unofficial nurse for the Union army for the next three years, in Washington, D.C.

The bloody surroundings also inspired a group of war poems, Drum Taps. In it he includes two poems about President Lincoln, the elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and the oft-quoted "O Captain! My Captain!"

Health Issues

In 1873, Whitman suffered the first of several strokes that would hamper his mobility, but not his work. He was confined, for the most part, to his home in Camden, New Jersey, and made little effort to get out and about, with the exceptions of a trip to Colorado in 1879, and a sojourn to Boston to visit Emerson in 1881.

By some coincidence, Whitman's fame increased after his stroke, both at home and abroad. Such British writers as Anne Gilchrist and William Rossetti, as well as Canadian Richard Bucke, railed against American academia for failing to acknowledge his talent, which eventually placed him among the great writers of the 19th century.*

Whitman died in March 1892 and was laid to rest in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.

The Whitman Legacy

Walt Whitman has been called one of the five greatest American poets — along with Hart Crane, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens — or oftentimes, simply "the best."

Among those writers he had an influence on were future novelist Bram Stoker of the Dracula genre; and poet Allen Ginsberg, who penned "Howl."
*Noted American authors in the mid-19th century included Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau, among others.