Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
By the time Walt Whitman arrived in Washington City during the second winter of America’s Civil War, the forty-three year old poet was a figure of considerable notoriety. His “Leaves of Grass,” first published on July 4, 1855, with successive editions in 1856 and 1860, was hailed by some and reviled by others for its unvarnished portrayal of American life. Described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Gita and the New York Herald,” Whitman’s poems bared spouses copulating, comrades kissing, apprentice-boys wrestling, slaves escaping, Wolverines trapping, ploughers ploughing, souls fellating, mockingbirds mourning, and preachers exhorting, all in unrhymed verse and narrated by a bearded, unkempt, t-shirt-clad “rough”!
Born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, New York and raised with seven siblings in Brooklyn where his father built houses, Whitman was apprenticed to a printer, and spent his young adulthood as a journalist chronicling his fellow citizen’s engagement with their nascent republic. He began writing and publishing poetry and fiction at an early age, and attained a measure of popular success with a temperance novel, “Franklin Evans; or the Inebriate” (1842) which satisfied the public’s desire for sensation wrapped in a morality tale but embarrassed the young writer.
Politics interested Whitman and his journalistic career was associated with a series of newspapers affiliated with the Democratic Party. Over time, however, he became disillusioned with the Democrats’ accommodation of slavery, and in the early 1850’s, he chucked the profession and the Party to build houses with his father and brothers and write poems. “Leaves of Grass” became his vocational garden, and he spent the rest of his life cultivating it.
The poet’s arrival in Washington was precipitated by a family crisis, the wounding of his soldier brother George at the battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862). Whitman came to comfort his sibling but soon embraced an army of sick and wounded soldiers housed in the city’s make-shift hospitals, including one on the campus of the Columbian College (later The George Washington University), located in what is now the Columbia Heights neighborhood.
To support himself, Whitman got work clerking for the Army Paymaster’s Office, as well as freelancing for the local and New York presses with compelling descriptions of his hospital visits. The soldiers’ stories coupled with his own observations formed the genesis of “Drum Taps” (1865), Whitman’s collection of War poems. He was also attentive to the nation’s trauma and grief at the assassination of their beloved President Abraham Lincoln, which the poet gave voice to in the elegies, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!” (1865). He published a prose work on post-War materialism and its threat to civic virtues, “Democratic Vistas” (1871), and two more editions of his “Leaves” (1867, 1871-72).
Making a home in Washington, Whitman cherished the friendship of abolitionists William and Ellen O’Connor, publisher and attorney Charles Eldridge (a Columbian College graduate), naturalist John Burroughs and his wife Ursula, and Pete Doyle, a former Confederate soldier whom biographers often presume was the poet’s lover. Following his stint with the Army Paymaster, Whitman worked for the Office of Indian Affairs (until the Interior Secretary discovered the infamous author was his employee and promptly fired him), and the U.S. Attorney General.
A stroke in 1873 caused Whitman to move to Camden, New Jersey, where brother George and his wife Louisa nursed Walt. Despite poor health, he brought out a new edition of “Leaves” in 1881 and a prose memoir, “Specimen Days” in 1882. The Camden years saw increasing critical recognition for the aging bard, who entertained Oscar Wilde (1882) and Henry Irving and Bram Stoker (1884), and who was befriended and painted by Thomas Eakins (1888). Whitman summoned the energy to complete one final edition of his masterpiece, “Leaves of Grass”, before dying on March 26, 1892 in Camden. He is buried in that city’s Harleigh Cemetery in a tomb of the poet’s own design.
Martin G. Murray