Walt Whitman is both a major poet and an outstanding personality in the history of American literature. He rose from obscurity to monumental fame, coming to be as a national figure. His achievement is great, although it has been sometimes obscured by unfair, hostile criticism — or, conversely, by extravagant praise. He is essentially a poet, though other aspects of his achievement — as philosopher, mystic, or critic — have also been stressed.
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, on the West Hills of Long Island, New York. His mother, Louisa Van Velsor, of Dutch descent and Quaker faith, whom he adored, was barely literate. She never read his poetry, but gave him unconditional love. His father of English lineage, was a carpenter and builder of houses, and a stern disciplinarian. The first real poet of American English, Whitman created a language to express the spirit of American democracy and used that language to shape a vision of a new continent that still fires the American imagination.
Walt Whitman is America’s world poet—a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. In Leaves of Grass (1855, 1891-2), he celebrated democracy, nature, love, and friendship. This monumental work chanted praises to the body as well as to the soul, and found beauty and reassurance even in death.
Born on Long Island, Whitman grew up in Brooklyn and received limited formal education. His occupations during his lifetime included printer, schoolteacher, reporter, and editor. Whitman’s self-published Leaves of Grass was inspired in part by his travels through the American frontier and by his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson. This important publication underwent eight subsequent editions during his lifetime as Whitman expanded and revised the poetry and added more to the original collection of 12 poems. Emerson himself declared the first edition was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
Writing about the Statue of Freedom, Whitman noted that the pieces “are at present all separated, ready to be hoisted to their place. On the Capitol generally, much work remains to be done.” Sadly, at the end of a tumultuous year and decade, this observation still rings true. All the more reason amid today’s national rancor to revisit Whitman’s open embrace of the democratic ideal, his declaration that “every atom as belonging to me as good belongs to you,” no matter where you were born.
Ed Simon (@WithEdSimon) is a staff writer for The Millions, an editor at Berfrois and the author of “Furnace of This World; Or, 36 Observations About Goodness.”