"The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book." -
Walter Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island, New York where his father worked as a carpenter and farmer. He was educated in Brooklyn until the age of 12, after which he left school to work as an office boy, and soon after as a printer's assistant. During the next few years he contributed articles to newspapers (including some of the earliest coverage of baseball games) and taught in various schools. In 1838 he founded, and was the first editor of, the Huntington based Long Islander newspaper (which still exists today). He continued to educate himself by attending the opera, theatre and through copious reading, and also found time to edit a couple of other newspapers including the Brooklyn Eagle, from which he was dismissed in 1848 because of his outspoken views on slavery.
By 1848 he was writing poetry in earnest. He self published his first volume of twelve poems in 1855 in Leaves of Grass. It was not well received - his free-flowing style, personal subject-matter and sexual allusions being a little much for the tastes of the time!
For any self-published authors reading this who feel their work is under appreciated, you might be comforted to know that I found a 'first edition' copy of Leaves of Grass for sale for $12,500 - and from the publication date I don't believe it is even the very first edition but instead an edition published some 20 years later!
In 1862 he went to Virginia to find his brother who had been wounded during the Civil War, and then went on to Washington DC where he nursed wounded soldiers. He took a job in the Department of the Interior but was dismissed when it was learned that he was the author of Leaves of Grass. However, the attorney general's office were less fastidious and he was able to find employment there for almost 10 years until he suffered a paralytic stroke.
His second book of poems, Drum Taps (1865) was better received. In 1877 he published his first work of prose Democratic Vistas, followed by Specimen Days in 1882. Although he was revered by a few in the USA as the 'Good Gray Poet', it was not until many decades after his death that he received wide recognition.
It avails not, time nor place--distance
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh'd,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm'd pipes of steamboats, I look'd.
From Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (Leaves of Grass)
Whitman's poetry and prose can be browsed for free at Project Gutenberg.
See also Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days.
Image: Walt Whitman photographed by Mathew Brady, undated
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