Walt Whitman is often regarded as the first Urban Poet; his work is considered to be a landmark in the history of American literature.
Whitman’s first published work was titled Leaves of Grass, which he initially self published in 1855. Leaves of Grass would become a life work for Whitman, taking on nine new editions in all, with many additions and revisions, over the course of his life.
Walt Whitman was born in Long Island, New York in the year 1819. He began his working career at the age of twelve, in the printing trade and soon became a journalist. He spent a great deal of time observing the streets of New York and in many ways educated himself, through the plays of William Shakespeare, through his love of music, especially Opera, and his extensive reading in the libraries of New York
Whitman’s true love was of poetry and in particular the form of free verse which he developed, having no rhyme or meter and yet still exquisitely crafted. Whitman believed that the purpose of a poet was to express their personality through verse, and the personality that he cultivated was that of the poetic spokesman for the young America
During the American Civil War, Walt Whitman had a life changing experience when he went to visit his brother George, who had been wounded in battle. After witnessing the horrors of war, Whitman spent much time assisting and visiting wounded and dying soldiers in hospitals.
Walt Whitman was one of the most famous exponents of American Transcendentalism, which is the belief in an ideal spiritual state that transcends the physical and empirical. This state is realized through the individual’s intuition, rather than through doctrines of established religions. This spiritual outlook seems to have shaped much of Whitman’s works.
Whitman has become a symbol of American democracy, mostly through his role as a champion of the common man. His ideals of preserving the individual’s integrity amid the pressures of mass civilization are still current today. Perhaps he is remembered more for the artistry of his work, than for his social ideals. T.S. Eliot said, “When Whitman speaks of the lilacs or the mockingbird his theories and beliefs drop away like a needless pretext.”
The Society for the Suppression of Vice claimed in 1881 that Leaves of Grass was an immoral work. It seems this generated a good deal of publicity, because Whitman was soon able to purchase a cottage in Camden where he spent the rest of his life.
In 1888, Walt Whitman’s complete works were published along with the eighth edition of Leaves of Grass. The ninth edition was published in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death.
“Whitman, Walt.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 25 Mar. 2007