Whitman was born to uneducated farmers, descendants of immigrants from Holland and England who came to the New World in the first half of the 17th century. Whitman's parents were not successful as farmers, and in 1823 they moved to Brooklyn. Walter attended a public school. At the age of 12 he started working in the printing industry in Brooklyn and later in New York City. He served as a school teacher in Long Island, worked as a journalist and was even the editor of a newspaper in Brooklyn. Until 1855, he did not have a stable source of income. During certain periods he even sought employment in construction and real estate, while continuing, intermittently, to work in journalism.
During his time in New York Whitman spent a lot of time in the city libraries, attended performances of Shakespeare's plays, and started to write poetry. In the beginning of 1855, Whitman published a short book of poetry. The book, which was published anonymously – neither the author nor the publishing house were mentioned – was funded by Whitman with the money he earned from a house sale. This was the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The book didn't garner much public attention among readers or critics, but the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Whitman enthusiastically upon reading the book.
Whitman continued to work on Leaves of Grass even after the first edition was printed. He added, changed and edited. Several new and updated editions of the book were published during the following years: In 1856, the second edition was published, and in 1860 a third edition was published . The second edition was a financial failure and a shortly after the third edition was published, the publishing house that published it went bankrupt.
The American Civil War broke out in 1861. In the first days of the war, one of Whitman's eight brothers was wounded in battle. Walt spent time among the wounded in Washington D.C. hospitals in an attempt to help those who had returned from the killing fields. Towards the end of the war, Whitman was appointed an administrative position in the Interior Ministry, but was fired after only a few months.
Whitman's book Leaves of Grass created a great scandal. In a review published in "The Christian Examiner" in 1856, William Rounseville Alger writes thus:
"For here is not a question of literary opinion principally, but of the very essence of religion and morality. The book might pass for merely hectoring and ludicrous, if it were not something a great deal more offensive. We are bound in conscience to call it impious and obscene [,,,]the book is an impertinence towards the English language; and in point of sentiment, an affront upon the recognized morality of respectable people "
Whitman's friends managed to clear his name and in 1866 he was appointed a position in the Attorney General's Office.
Leaves of Grass, the work that made Walt Whitman famous, was published in nine editions during his lifetime. The different editions provide insight into the development of the work over the span of 25 years, until 1881.
As a devotee of Romantic Poetry, Whitman sought to reflect his inner self through his works.Whitman's poetry burst into the American cultural scene during a time when there was a demand for "authentic" American poetry that would reflect a young nation making large strides, and an idealistic nation settling a gigantic land, with almost endless natural resources. Leaves of Grass was seen as an answer those demands. It included themes of freedom of the soul, personal liberty, political liberalism, an intimate relationship with nature and man's connection to his inner self and his body.
Whitman wrote in free verse with a cadence based on the the King James Bible. He endeavored to imitate the rhythms and symmetries of Biblical language in order to give his work an epic dimension, energy and liveliness. His poetry combines a realistic approach with descriptions of nature as a reflection of American society during his era and the American experience as an evolving country with a clear transcendentalist bent.
Whitman was critical of his era and the institutions that characterized it, and believed that man was at his best when he enjoyed full independence and was able to acquire all his needs. Such a man – free, natural and healthy – is the foundation of a a healthy and vital society.
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
From: Song of Myself
In his works, Whitman expresses an inseparable connection the "I" and the "other", the "is" and the "ought". Whitman's preoccupation with the individual, his attempt to return man to his pure "natural state" and the philosophy that sees the lone, healthy, clean man as the strong foundation of a better society and world, invites us to read his poetry on two levels, the personal and the general.
As a poet that gained fame after the American Civil War, this unique combination, full of energy and faith that the greatness of the United States would be spiritual and not only material, places Walt Whitman, in the eyes of many, as the greatest American poet.
During Whitman's life time, the poems of Leaves of Grass were constantly criticized as immoral and as works that did not meet the criteria of proper morality and decent societal mores. Poems that possibly hinted to homosexual tendencies and that discuss spiritual crises and the darkness of the soul didn't find favor among those who saw themselves as the guardians of public morality. Whitman often wrote about the cycle of life and fertility. He depicts nature bursting forth using sexual imagerys.
Whitman also called for more sexual freedom than what was generally accepted during his era. Even though he saw sexuality as a symbol for the great power of nature and existence itself, superficial readings of Leaves of Grass set the censors in the government and among the American public against him. Even as late as 1881, when Whitman was a well-known poet and famous figure, the "Society for the Eradication of Corruption" established that Leaves of Grass was an immoral work, and Whitman's publishers found themselves under the threat of legal action. The last edition from 1881, which is the canonical version of Leaves of Grass until this very day, was financially successful due to this publicity. During the last decade of his life, Whitman finally saw material wealth and lived peacefully.
In 1865, Whitman published a collection of poetry, reflecting his thoughts on the American Civil War, from the tragic movement that led to the initial exuberant excitement of the war, to the terrible consequences and the heavy price paid in human life and in the spiritual well-being of the individual. The collection of poems, Drum Taps, was expanded after the assassination of President Lincoln that same year. The elegy for the president, Captain, O, My Captain!, which has since become a classic, was added. Naomi Shemer translated the poem into Hebrew and put it to music (הו, רב חבל) in memory of Yitzchak Rabin.
When he died on the 26th of March, 1892, Whitman was famous as a poet, a representative of American democracy and a man who personified the ideals of the "simple man" – a sort of "noble savage" who raised the banner of the spirit of man and American individualism in all its freedom.
The Israeli writer and poet, Shimon Helkin translated Leaves of Grass into Hebrew (Worker's Library, The National Kibbutz HaShomer Hatzair, 1952). The Helkin translation is considered the flagship translation and it greatly influenced the Hebrew poetry of the 1950's and 60's. Oded Peled translated two of Whitman's books, Song of Myself (Carmel, 2003) and A Clear Midnight (Keshev L'shira, 2010) into Hebrew.
In honor of the 120th anniversary of Whitman's death, we have chosen to present a number of items from the Walt Whitman Collection, preserved in the archives of the National Library. The collection was donated to the Library by Charles Feinberg between the years 1967-1968 and includes prints, pictures, autographs and photographs of materials connected to Walt Whitman.