Walt Whitman gave the United States its first unique voice in poetry. In his groundbreaking poetry collection Leaves of Grass and other works, he celebrated America and its people with a language and style not seen before.
Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, New York. When he was 5, his family moved to Brooklyn. Although Whitman's formal education did not go beyond elementary school, he was an enthusiastic reader from an early age.
When Whitman was 12 he was apprenticed to the printer of a newspaper, the Long Island Patriot. He worked as a printer until 1836, when he began teaching on Long Island. Between terms he read and wrote. By the age of 19, he was both a teacher and a newspaper writer and editor.
In 1846 he became editor of a newspaper called the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He spent his evenings in New York City, where he went to art shows, museums, the theater, and the opera. He also visited prisons, hospitals, courts, and schools — wherever there were people he could observe.
Whitman left the Eagle in 1848 when he disagreed with the owner's political views. For the next year, he expressed his opinions and his opposition to slavery in his own newspaper, The Freeman. He then took a job on a New Orleans newspaper. The job did not last long, but his trip to Louisiana gave Whitman a chance to see more of the country.
In 1855 Whitman published a book of poems called Leaves of Grass. The first edition was not popular because the poems did not have a regular rhythm or rhyme. But Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of it, "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has contributed."
Leaves of Grass became Whitman's lifework, and he continued to issue new editions throughout his life. His most famous poem, "Song of Myself," appeared in every edition. In 1856, he added "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," which states his belief that all people are part of eternity. The 1860 edition contained "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," one of his most beautiful poems.
Whitman's poems are almost like chants. They praise democracy, the beauty of nature and human beings, and the great force of love. They also illustrate his view that death is a natural part of life.
When his younger brother George was wounded during the U.S. Civil War, Whitman went to Virginia to care for him. He then worked in the army hospitals in Washington, D.C., until the end of the war. His war poems were published as Drum Taps (1865). They too became part of Leaves of Grass.
In 1873 Whitman had a stroke. He moved to Camden, New Jersey, to stay with George. He released several more editions of Leaves of Grass before he died on March 26, 1892.
Biography provided by Stern, Jerome H. "Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)." The New Book of Knowledge. Grolier Online, 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015