Leaves of Grass. One only needs to see those three words to recognize the famous work of poetry. Published almost 150 years ago, the great work is still as recognized today as it was all those years ago. We hear about the great poems in movies and in books today. In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, the solemn poem, O Captain, My Captain, is talked about. In the recent movie, The Notebook, a copy of Leaves of Grass is the companion of a man who is losing his wife to Alzheimer’s. Who was the man that wrote the historic work? Why is the work so famous today and why is a bridge spanning Philadelphia to Camden named after the writer? This essay will introduce you to Walt Whitman, not only the writer, but the humanitarian too.Order now
Walt Whitman was born at West Hills, near Huntington, Long Island, New York on May 31, 1819 (Platt). Walt was born to Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor. His mother was always the deepest emotional attachment of his life. His mother came from Dutch and Welsh backgrounds. Her parents lived only a few miles away at Cold Spring Harbor, so naturally, Walt often visited them. His grandmother Naomi, or Amy, was a Quakeress who wore plain garments and cap and had a gentle manner. Walt Whitman’s father contributed his full share to the making of the poet. The Long Island Whitman’s derived from Zechariah Whitman, an English minister who had come to Connecticut in the seventeenth century (Marinacci, Pg 9). His father’s claim to fame was being a good friend to Thomas Paine who wrote “Common Sense” (Bengtsson). Walt’s mother taught him to read the bible faithfully and to be a good Quaker. Walt’s father had little time for his family as he was to busy fighting for the cause of his friend Thomas Paine. It is doubtful that Whitman’s mother or father had ever read any of his works. To Walt the word “father” would never have the same positive meaning as “mother”. By temperament, Walter Whitman was a perfectionist; he was also moody and easily upset and irritated. His love and approval were often held in abeyance, not freely given or displayed. Frequently he spun dreams of some glory or sudden success, then, when his neatly wrought schemes fell apart, perhaps because he had convinced them unrealistically, he took his frustration and disappointment out on his family (Marinacci, Pg 12).
Walt had eight other siblings and when he was about 4 years old, his family removed to Brooklyn. Walt attended the public schools of Brooklyn, and somewhere between the ages of nine and twelve, is when he dropped out of school and started to work for a short time as an errand-boy in a lawyer’s office. At he age of twelve, Walt started work in the printing office of one of his father’s favorite newspapers, the Long Island Patriot, affectionately called “the Pat.” Taught by an old printer named William Hartshorne, Walt quickly took to this new trade. He learned to sort the jumble of type called “pi” and to use the composing stick (Marinacci, Pg 25). He enjoyed handling the metal type, slicing and stacking the crisp paper sheets, and smelling the ever-present printer’s ink, this was also around the time where he had taught himself how to read and write (Platt).
In 1835, when Walt was seventeen years old, he moved to New York City. After several years of apprenticeship on the “Star” he qualified as a journeyman printer. Always attracted to Manhattan, Walt found a job in the print shop of a newspaper and took a room in a nearby rooming house. No longer did he have to ride the ferry across the river to spend just a few hours at the theater or sightseeing, now he was able to absorb the full daily and nightly life styles of the city (Marinacci, Pg 38). Walt moved back to Long Island where he taught several terms in country schools. As a new teacher, Walt began to put into practice some ideas that came naturally to his particular temperament. Although probably unaware of it, he used some of the unconventional teaching methods that others of this period had been trying out, especially in New England. Walt instructed his students in the standard “Three R’s” of his day, yet did not stop there. He did not want them to learn by rote, as he had to do while he was in school, but to understand the meaning and relevance of what they were learning. Frequently he read poems and asked his children to memorize them; sometimes they were his own compositions, but more often those by some of his favorite poets. He declined to use the usual corporal punishment. Instead of whipping recalcitrant pupils, he tried to change their attitudes and behavior by gentler methods such as patience, reasoning, reward and providing good examples. What he ideally wished to achieve, as an actual teacher must have been similar to the effect he later hoped to have upon would be readers of his poetry (Marinacci, Pg 44).
After teaching he opened a printing office in Huntington, Long Island, starting a new weekly newspaper called The Long Islander, which is still being published to this day. After about eight months of publishing the Long Islander, Walt gave up the paper, probably on the strong advice of his backers and so it was sold. Restless, dissatisfied with his limited horizons, he had grown bored with the daily routine of his work and then began neglecting it (Rubin). He worked at the newspaper until around 1840, when he moved back New York. Spending several summers in the country doing farm work, Walt had published Franklin Evans in The New World paper in 1841, and also contributed essays and tales to the Democratic Review, until around 1848, when he became the editor of The Brooklyn Eagle. A year later, Walt started working with his brother Jeff on a long winding journey through the Middle and Southern States as far as New Orleans, where he worked for some time on the editorial staff of The Crescent (Platt).
It seemed as though no matter where he had gone he always got involved with the press. In 1850 Walt returned to Brooklyn, where he had published a newspaper called The Freeman. Staying in Brooklyn for a few years, he began working with his father building and selling houses. Five years later the first edition of Leaves Of Grass was published in Brooklyn, New York. Later that year in July, Walt’s father had passed away. A few days later, Walt received a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, praising him for the book he had written, Leaves of Grass. A few months after sending the letter, Emerson went to visit Walt in Brooklyn, and later, he also received a visit from Henry David Thoreau, after the second edition of Leaves of Grass was published in New York and the third edition, which was later published in Boston (Platt).
In 1862, Walt headed to Fredericksburg, Virginia to visit his brother George, who was wounded while fighting in the Civil War. While visiting his brother and helping him recuperate from his injuries, Walt’s eyes were awakened to the horrors of war. Walt began his next life as a civil servant and for the next three years stayed around Virginia and Washington D.C. ministering to sick and wounded soldiers. While serving in army hospitals, Walt’s life became recharged. Once angered and dismayed over the breakup of the Union and after his brother being held prisoner by confederate soldiers, Walt’s heart and eyes were opened that the Union could only survive with a reconciliation. Walt was no longer just the poet of Long Island; he became the poet of a nation. After spending a few years with his brother he spent the next six years working with his book. Leaves of Grass has been called a lot of things, but mostly a work of art and an amazing read. Leaves of Grass is Walt’s way of putting his life, dreams and thoughts down on paper. It is about love, family and compassion I personally read it and loved it.
Walt had suffered a stroke that had paralyzed one side of his body. Walt who had praised and cultivated bodily health and vigor now felt betrayed. Yet he believed that he would fully recover in time, through persistent effort and sheer force of will. His doctor seemed optimistic as well. Walt assured his mother that he would soon recover and return to work. Then he would buy a little house where he would have her and Eddie come and live with him. As it was, Walt employed a substitute to do his office work for him, so that he would still receive at least a portion of his salary.
By May Walt was well enough to spend several hours a day on the job. Then he heard that his mother’s health had suddenly and seriously failed. Alarmed, he left right away for Camden. Three days later, on May 23 his mother died, at the age of seventy-eight. Her death was the hardest blow that Walt had ever had to bear. “It is the great cloud of my life,” he wrote in anguish. His mother’s death coming on top of his own illness proved too much for Walt. He returned to Washington a week after the funeral. Extremely depressed and debilitated, he now accepted the Ashtons’ hospitality, for he did not want to be alone (Marinacci, Pg 285). Walt Whitman lived such an amazing life doing the very best at everything he put his mind to. But at dusk on March 26, 1892, as a light rain pattered down on Camden’s rooftops, Walt Whitman died, at the age of seventy-two. His soul was off at long last on that long-anticipated outward-bound journey (Marinacci, Pg 341).