Born as Walter Whitman in 1819, Walt Whitman became one of the most influential poets of the United States, despite his work recieving heaviy criticism during his lifetime. A humanitarian and “father of free verse” in poetry Whitman’s most recognisable work Leaves of Grass was accused of being heavily obscene and radical in a time of slavery, discontent and civil war.
Whitman left school aged 11 and went into employment to help support his family. Deprived of the extensive education many of his literary peers would receive, Whitman instead observed much of the literary world in his various jobs at newspapers and printing agencies. Whitman worked as a teacher for a period of time and, after receiving little or no fulfilment from the job, founded his own newspaper The Long Islander in 1838. The publication was sold the following year and unfortunately, no copies of The Long Islander that were produced under Whitman’s eye have survived to the present day.
Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1855 out of his own pocket, and many who read it bandied it as obscene, profane and pretentious. Less than 800 copies were originally produced. Ralph Waldo Emerson is often noted as the most approving critic of this particular work and his attitude brought much of the fame, or infamy, to what would become an American classic.
Deeply affected by the travesties of the American Civil War, due in large part to his brother George’s involvement on the front line, Whitman produced later works reflecting on the nature of war, further fuelling the humanitarianism in his poetry. George spent a period of time as a prisoner of war in Virginia, which caused Whitman much distress, but George was later released, and survived the war. Whitman’s sexuality was repeatedly called into question during his lifetime, and remains so today, with critics attributing homosexuality or bisexuality ‘at least’ to him because of the sexual imagery and ideas present in his early poetry.
Whitman suffered two paralytic strokes as well as sunstroke in his final years, and eventually died on 26th March 1892. After lifelong struggles for fame and literary recognition, his funeral was a nationally recognised affair, and Walt Whitman is now hailed as a revolutionary of his time, a national literary tradition, and a successful, appreciated poet.