On March 26, 1892, American poet and journalist Walt Whitman died. Considered one of America’s most influential poets, Whitman was known as the “Bard of Democracy,” with a writing career that spanned 50 years.
Whitman was born to a family of modest means on Long Island in 1819. It is thought that Whitman’s love for democracy and Americana stemmed from the beliefs of his parents, who named his younger brothers respectively George Washington Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, and Andrew Jackson Whitman. Thinking he could capitalize on the economic growth of New York City, Whitman’s father moved their family to Brooklyn when Whitman was only three. By age 11, Whitman was pulled out of school to work and help support his family by his father who had struggled to make ends meet.
He worked for several different newspapers learning about their printing presses and typesetting for many years. When he was 17, Whitman became a teacher on Long Island, a job he stayed at for a few years until founding his own newspaper, the Long Islander. He soon sold the newspaper and moved to New York City where he became editor of a few different newspapers including the Brooklyn Eagle. He was eventually fired from his job there for taking the “radical” or more liberal side on certain issues like women’s rights, immigration, and labor issues. He moved to New Orleans and became an editor of a paper there for a short time where he saw the horrific nature of slavery and the slave trade in the South.
In 1850, he began writing his most well-known work, Leaves of Grass. In the 12 unnamed poems, he finally began to find his true voice as a writer. Whitman paid for the first printing of the collection of poems himself, printing 795 copies. Poetic norms were let go in Leaves of Grass, and Whitman wrote using free verse and discarded traditional rhyming methods. No one paid much attention to Whitman’s first version of his now famous work, with the exception of fellow poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called the work “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom” to come from an American poet. Whitman would revise the work for the rest of his life, and the second edition was brought to the attention of writers Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott by Emerson, who both visited Whitman at his home.
When his third edition was ready to print, it seemed to be more commercially promising, but the beginning of the Civil War forced Whitman’s publisher to go out of business. Whitman then moved to Washington to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war. He began volunteering to visit wounded soldiers, which became a life-changing experience for the writer. He stayed in Washington for several years and found stable work with the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior.
The writer’s life took a turn for the worst in 1873 when he suffered the first of many strokes, which he called “whacks,” that left him partially paralyzed. That same year, he returned home to visit his sick mother, who died three days after his arrival. Feeling weak himself and unable to continue working his job in Washington, Whiman moved in with his brother in Camden, New Jersey. His 1882 edition of Leaves of Grass received good reviews and made Whitman enough money that he was able to purchase his own house in Camden.
In his last few years alive, Whitman began to receive much recognition for his work, but he was not happy with the state of American after the Civil War. Leaves of Grass had gone through seven editions and now contained around 300 poems. On March 26, 1892, Whitman died at his home in Camden at the age of 72. He was buried at Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery. Though Whitman is now known as one of the greatest poets in American history, he never felt he was accepted by his country. He once wrote, ”The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it. I have not gain’d the acceptance of my time.”