Walt Whitman, American poet, journalist, and essayist, was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, New York. His verse collection Leaves of Grass is a landmark in the history of American literature.
I CELEBRATE 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.
Walt Whitman, opening to “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, 1855.
Whitman grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and at age twelve began to learn the printing trade. Over time he moved from printing to teaching to journalism, becoming the editor of the Brooklyn Daily EagleExternal in 1846. He began experimenting with a new form of poetry, revolutionary at the time, free of a regular rhythm or rhyme scheme that has come to be known as free verse. In 1855, Whitman published, anonymously and at his own expense, the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Revolutionary too was the content of his poems celebrating the human body and the common man. Whitman would spend the rest of his life revising and enlarging Leaves of Grass; the ninth edition appeared in 1892, the year of his death.
Whitman’s confidence and literary career got an enormous boost because of a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most respected essayist, philosopher, and lecturer of his generation, heralding Whitman’s work as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Emerson greeted Whitman “at the beginning of a great career.” Perhaps America’s first self-publicist, Whitman allowed Emerson’s letter to be published without the writer’s permission in the October 10, 1855, issue of the New-York Daily Tribune and the second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856).
The Library of Congress holds the world’s largest Walt Whitman manuscript collection, numbering some 20,000 items and including many original notebooks. In these sometimes homemade or adapted notebooks, the poet jotted down random thoughts in prose and expressions in poetry. Four of Walt Whitman’s early notebooks are available in the online Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers. The “1847” notebook (Notebook LC #80) contains remarkable trial flights of verse for what later evolved into “Song of Myself”—the opening section of Leaves of Grass. On page 65 and pages 68 through 72 Whitman breaks off from prose ruminations and speaks—perhaps for the first time—in the revolutionary verse form that he created.
During the Civil War, Whitman worked at the Army Paymaster’s Office in Washington, D.C. In his spare time, he visited wounded soldiers in hospitals. In Whitman’s “1862” notebook (Notebook LC #94) he recorded simple requests from the soldiers. For example, on page 3 Whitman notes during a visit to the Patent Office Hospital that the man in bed twenty-seven “wants some figs and a book” and that beds twenty-three and twenty-four “want some horehound candy.” Whitman also recorded the stories that the wounded men told him of their war experiences. On another page (image 60), he relates “the fight at the bridge” at the September 1862 Battle of Antietam.
Inspired by the death of President Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman wrote his famous dirge “O Captain! My Captain!” in 1865. A rare example of his rhymed, rhythmically regular verse, the poem was published in the Saturday Press to immediate acclaim and was included in the poet’s Sequel to Drum-Taps also published that year. Whitman revised the poem in 1866 and again in 1871. It quickly became his single most popular poem, much to his consternation, and it was the only one of his poems in his compendium Leaves of Grass to be widely reprinted and anthologized during his lifetime.
Whitman’s reputation has grown steadily since his death. Today, he is widely recognized as one of the greatest American poets.
- Read more in the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers about the story of how Whitman’s notebooks disappeared from the Library of Congress in 1942, and how they were found in New York and returned to the Library on February 24, 1995. The collection also includes background information about the notebooks and the process of scanning and preserving them.
- Learn more about Whitman through the online exhibit Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass, which traces the different occupations and preparations that led Whitman to become the author of Leaves of Grass, as well as his subsequent evolution as a poet.
- Teach students about Walt Whitman and the writing of poetry through the following Whitman-related posts on the Library blog From the Catbird Seat: Poetry and Literature at the Library of Congress:
- Walt Whitman’s Wartime Experience: Using Primary Sources to Offer Context, offers ways for students to explore how Whitman’s wartime work in Civil War field hospitals may have inspired many of the poems published in his collection Drum-Taps.
- The Power of Pairing Poems: Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, which offers ideas for exploring thematic similarities between Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too.”
- Walt Whitman’s War Work: Primary Sources in the English Classroom.”
- The Evolution of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”
- Celebrating Ourselves through Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
- Using Poetry to Teach the Importance of Word Choice: Part II, which looks at word choice in Whitman’s poem “Trickle Drops.”
- Search the Library’s collection of films on Walt Whitman to find videos of several Whitman readings, lectures, and symposia held at the Library. Watch, for example, the proceedings of the November 2005 symposium “Whitman and Place.”
- The Library’s crowdsourcing project, By the People, offers an opportunity for members of the public to transcribe, review, and tag documents from the Library’s digitized collections. In April 2019, to mark the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, the Library added a “Walt Whitman at 200” campaign through which volunteers can transcribe several thousand pages of Whitman’s writings and papers to make them more searchable and accessible online. Learn more about Whitman and his writing, while sharing your discoveries with others, by participating in this unique Whitman project.
- Words and Deeds in American History showcases the letters and drafts of several American poets and writers. The Arts and Literature overview lists some of the literary figures that are represented such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Langston Hughes.
- Explore a complete list of Today in History features related to poetry to find entries about Robert Penn Warren, Phillis Wheatley, and Edgar Allan Poe, and many other literary artists.
- To locate other Whitman materials available on the Library’s website and elsewhere on the web, consult Walt Whitman: A Resource Guide.