Snapshot Walt Whitman Biography

“Produce great persons. The rest follows.” – Walt Whitman

Sepia-toned portrait of Walt Whitman, featuring the poet in a contemplative pose with his hand on his cheek and elbow resting on a table. He is dressed in a dark, formal 19th-century suit with a wide-lapel jacket and a white shirt visible at the collar. Walt sports a full, bushy beard and is wearing a light-colored, wide-brimmed hat. His gaze is directed off to the side, giving a thoughtful and introspective appearance.
Walt Whitman, 1872

Born on May 31, 1819, in New York, Walt Whitman entered the world as the second of Louisa and Walter Whitman Sr.’s nine children. The Whitman homestead was often filled with the bustling energy and camaraderie of a large family. But despite the warmth and support of close-knit kin, the weight of financial hardships was ever-present, resulting in Walt leaving school at eleven. He took up various jobs, from teaching to journalism, which exposed him to the broad spectrum of American life.

Walt became a writer best known for his poetry, particularly his collection “Leaves of Grass,” which he began writing in the 1850s and continued to revise and expand throughout his life. His poetry celebrated the beauty and diversity of America and its people, and he explored themes such as nature, love, and democracy. However, his work was also controversial, and some of his poems were banned for their explicit content. Despite the controversy, Walt continued to write and publish throughout his life.

Civil War Years

Walt’s involvement in the Civil War began in December 1862 when he traveled to Falmouth, Virginia, in search of his brother George, who was listed as either dead or injured after the Battle of Fredericksburg. While George had only suffered a minor injury, Walt was deeply affected by the sight of the countless wounded and dying soldiers. He decided to stay in Washington, D.C., to help tend to the injured.

Walt, who did not have formal training as a nurse, played an important role as a caregiver and visitor. He comforted the injured and the dying, often reading to them and writing letters for them. His role was as much emotional and spiritual as it was physical.

The war’s brutal realities and his close contact with its victims profoundly impacted Walt. He bore witness to the immense suffering and loss, reshaping his understanding of life, death, and the human spirit, that left a lasting impact on his work. His wartime writings are marked by a deep empathy, a recognition of shared humanity, and a somber reflection on the costs of conflict. The poet who once celebrated the boundless spirit of individualism came to focus on the collective pain and resilience of a nation torn apart.

After President Lincoln’s assassination, Walt, who greatly admired the President, wrote one of his most famous works, “O Captain! My Captain!”

Later Years

Walt’s later years were plagued by health issues, perhaps stemming from his tireless efforts during the Civil War. Walt suffered a paralytic stroke in 1873 but continued writing and publishing. He settled in Camden, New Jersey, where he became a local fixture, known for his long beard, wide-brimmed hat, and affable nature.

By the end of his life, Whitman had established himself as a significant figure in American literature. His innovative style, radical themes, and deep connection to the human experience left an indelible mark on both his contemporaries and future generations of writers. He passed away on March 26, 1892.


Snapshot Walt Whitman Biography Sources

  • Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.
  • Willcox, Louise Collier. “Walt Whitman.” The North American Review, vol. 183, no. 597, 1906, pp. 281–96. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25105615. Accessed 31 Aug. 2023.

Notes

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