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I Walt or Walter Whitman * (1819–1892) was born May 31, 1819, in West Hills, near Huntington, Long Island. While Walter was yet a child, the parents moved from West Hills to Brooklyn. The boy was educated at the Brooklyn Public Schools, tended in a lawyer's and a doctor's office, and was apprenticed at the printer's trade on The Brooklyn Star and The Long Island Patriot. He began at this time to write « sentimental bits” for the papers.
At the age of sixteen he taught school in Long Island, “ boarding round the district.” For a year he published The Long Islander newspaper at Huntington. In 1840 he settled in New York City as printer and journalist, writing some essays and tales for The Democratic Review.
In 1846 he became the editor of the daily paper, The Brooklyn Eagle. In 1848 he journeyed to New Orleans, and became a member of the editorial staff of The Crescent. In 1850 he was again in Brooklyn as the editor of The Freeman.
From 1851 to 1854 he was engaged in the building trade in Brooklyn. During this period he was also writing, lecturing, and giving political talks. The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855. The same year
his father died. The second edition of the poems came out in 1856, and the third in 1860. In 1862 he went to the field of war, and engaged as a volunteer nurse in the hospital service. At the close of the war in 1865 he became a clerk in the office of the Secretary of the Interior, from which he was soon dismissed on the ground of being the author of “ an indecent book,” but was at once given a place in the office of the AttorneyGeneral, which he kept till his illness in 1873. In 1865 (1866) he published Drum-Taps and other poems, including the Lincoln Hymn. The fourth edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1867. In 1871 he published Democratic Vistas and Passage to India. This
year he wrote After All not to Create Only, and delivered it at the American Institute, New York. The fifth edition of Leaves of Grass was also issued in 1871. In 1872 he delivered As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free at the Commencement of Dartmouth
* He was called Walt to distinguish him from his father, Walter. Walter was signed to his first publications (see The Death of Wind-foot, The American Review, June, 1845), and in this name the copyright of Leaves of Grass in 1855 was taken out. In all later editions the name appears as Walt.
College, and travelled in the New England States. In 1873 he was prostrated by paralysis, and moved to Camden, New Jersey, where he resided, with spells of illness and recovery, until his death. The same year he suffered his greatest loss in the death of his mother. In 1874 he delivered The Song of the Universal at the Commencement of Tufts College. In 1875 Memoranda of the War was published. The sixth edition of Leaves of Grass and Two Rivulets (a supplementary volume) came out in 1876, the centennial year.
In 1879 he travelled through the West and South, and the next year up through Canada. The seventh edition of the poems was issued in 1881; but the publication was abandoned by the publisher, James R. Osgood, of Boston, under threat of prosecution for issuing immoral literature. The eighth edition with final corrections was immediately set forth in Philadelphia in 1882, and in a separate volume the prose works entitled Specimen Days and Collect. November Boughs, poems and prose, appeared in 1888.
The ninth edition of the Leaves and the complete prose writings were published in one volume in 1888–89. In 1889 a special autograph edition of the poems was made up. Good Bye my Fancy came out in 1891. The tenth edition of Leaves of Grass and the volume of prose were published in 1892. That year, 1892, on March 26, the poet died at Camden, and was buried in Harleigh Cemetery.
II. With reference to Whitman's life-work, the writing of Leaves of Grass, his career readily falls into four periods, each of which was distinguished by special experiences. The first and preparatory period extended from 1819 to 1855. The second or creative period included the years from 1855 to 1862, during which three editions of the poems appeared in rapid succession. The third extends from 1862 to 1873, which includes the experiences of the war and of his life at Washington, at which time his character culminated in its development of a universal sympathy. In 1873 he fell permanently ill. His writings passed continually under revision till the completion of the final edition the year of his death, in 1892.
III The record of outer events does not constitute the biography of such a man as Whitman. He was a seer. His life was wrought in harmony with the higher spiritual laws of his being. What he contributed to the world was not a series of incidents, but a new spiritual experience. By virtue of that experience his greatness is recognized and his power acknowledged. He is to-day the minister of a religion whose service is admitted by palpable live disciples. Not to perceive the sacer vates aspect of his life is to miss the reason for his extraordinary influence and to remain ignorant of the essential fact of his biography.
IV Leaves of Grass is Whitman's personal record. It is a subtle and profound autobiography. He himself composes the epic of the senses, the passions, the ideas, the spiritual aspirations the book displays. Whether speaking of men, animals, or things, he has reference to himself, through whom the whole creation moves as in an endless procession. The universe that he describes is the one he has personalized in his own consciousness. This quality of the book is emphasized by the presence in every edition of something marked, as it were, “personal,”— an autograph, a portrait, a special note or poem. The portrait facing the Song of Myself is, , as Whitman said to his publisher, involved as part of the poem, an inherent
part of his message to the world. This characterization needs, however, some modification. The poem is not in a narrow sense autobiographic. While its first impression is that of a personality, the succeeding and dominant feeling is that of impersonality. His “I” has an infinite range of meaning. He stands as the type, the microcosmos, a man embracing all experiences natural to men and women. His joys and sorrows, virtues and vices, are as often vicarious as personal.
« If you become degraded, criminal, ill, then I become so for your sake.” His experience furnishes a most remarkable proof of the possibility of identifying the individual with the universal man, and raises the question whether the true self is not in very fact the Spirit of the Universe. His own soul in its growth took on impersonality. He learned to speak of himself in an objective manner, the words “Walt Whitman” standing to him as a sign of the universal man. • What am 1,” he once said, “ but an idea, spirit a new language for civilization ? In the last editions of his poems, passages referring to himself- as the lines in the Song of the Broad-axe descriptive of his own shape omitted. During later years the perception grew that his work was especially representative. In the note at the end of the 1889 edition of the Complete Works he queries: « The fancy rises whether the 33 years of life from 1855 to 1888, with their aggregate of
our New World doings and people, created and formulated the works — coming actually from the direct urge and developments of those years, and not from
individual epic or lyrical attempts whatever, or from my pen or voice, or anybody's special voice, therefore considered as an autochthonic record and experience of the soul and evolution of America and of the world.” It is better perhaps to conceive of Whitman not so much as a separate person as the representative of a cosmic instinct and tendency.
V Nevertheless, the incarnated form and soul have to be considered, with their particular growths and experiences from the time of birth to death.
Walter was the second of a family of nine children,- seven boys and two girls. The Whitmans are English stock, the line in New England being directly traceable to the Rev. Zechariah Whitman (born 1595), who came from England in 1635, and settled at Milford, Connecticut. The Whitmans were men of considerable prominence in the colonial days. The Rev. Zechariah Whitman of Hull, Massachusetts, the nephew of the Milford Whitman, was a Harvard graduate (1668), and is described in the Dorchester records as
“ Vir pius, humilis, orthodoxus, utilisimus.' Joseph Whitman, of the Milford family, moved to Huntington, Long Island, about 1660, purchasing the farm at West Hills, which was occupied in turn by Whitman's great-grandfather, grandfather, and father. The family burying-ground, on the home farm, contains perhaps fifty stones, uninscribed as was the Quaker custom. The Whitman line is described as a long-lived race, large of stature, slow of movement, sturdy and friendly of nature. They appear to have been of democratic and heretical tendencies. In the Revolution several of the family were soldiers and officers of rank under Washington. Many members of the family have maintained the New England academic traditions, twelve of the name having graduated from Harvard, five at Yale, and nine at other Eastern colleges. There have been ministers and teachers beyond number. The great-grandmother on the paternal side is known to have been a large, swarthy woman, rather rude in s disposition. The immediate grandmother, Hannah Brush, was a woman of superior type. With memories of the Revolution, she instilled into her grandson the spirit of independence. Walter Whitman, the poet's father (born 1789, died 1855), was pere a farmer and carpenter.
He is pictured as a large, quiet, serious de