Journalist and Teacher
Starting from Paumanok
Walt Whitman's family were early
settlers of West Hills on Long Island, New York. Whitman was born
at his parents' modest farm, and as a child he roamed its fields.
The beaches, flora, and history of Long Island--called "Paumanok" by
Native Americans--remained touchstones in his mature writings.
From 1836 to 1841, he taught at several rural Long Island schools.
His letters to a bookkeeper friend, Abraham Paul Leech, written
in 1840 and 1841 are the earliest Whitman correspondence known
to exist. Though an innovative teacher, Whitman gladly moved on
to other ways of making a living.
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
In his youth Whitman did office
work and learned the printing trade before blossoming as an editor
and journalist on the Brooklyn and Manhattan beats. At the Long
Island Star, as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, and
during work at other papers, he entered the whirl of Democratic
and factional Free Soil politics and observed the pageantry of
the streets. A frequent traveler on the Brooklyn ferry and along
Broadway, he delved deep into working-class life, cheerily befriended
ferrymen, dockworkers, and drivers, and became a regular among
the bohemian actors, literati, and reformers at Pfaff's tavern
in Greenwich Village.
Finding His Voice
Whitman first kept accounts in this
notebook and then began using it to find his major metaphor. He
wrote: "Bring all the art and science of the world and baffle and
humble it with one spear of grass." On these pages, Whitman made
his historic leap into a new poetry without rhyme and meter. His
new poet's "I" sees and encompasses all. Although only two lines
about "body and soul" from the page displayed survived Whitman's
revisions intact in the first edition of Leaves of Grass,
the major touchstones of his poetry are here introduced: mediation,
meditation, ecstasy, the self, the poet in everything, the soul
everywhere, and the passion of common touch.
Early Literary Efforts
Whitman's earliest poems and his
short stories of hard street life appeared in newspapers, as did
his one novel, a Dickensian temperance story, Franklin Evans (1842). He
also wrote copiously on local issues for Brooklyn periodicals--all
were written for the money they could bring. Whitman began reviewing
theater and fell in love with opera, later observing that without
opera, there would have been no Leaves of Grass. The rhapsodic
form he developed as a poet was like the arias he adored. He was
also keenly attuned to speech, compiling notes on the American