Ever wanted to know more about Walt Whitman? The famous Father of Free Verse was an eccentric guy with a hard start to life, and he had several more difficulties along the way as it turns out.
But there are plenty of interesting tidbits about this great American poet, essayist, and journalist that you more than likely don’t know. Some of them may surprise (or even shock) you!
He may have had a unique way with the English language that not many poets before him did, but there are so many interesting aspects of his life and work to learn about.
What are we waiting for? Let’s dive into the most interesting facts about Walt Whitman.
Image by Library of Congress from Wikicommons
1. “Leaves of Grass” Was a Life-Long Work
“Leaves of Grass” is one of Whitman’s profound and renowned works. But perhaps you didn’t know it was a constantly growing and evolving collection. The first edition, published in 1855, contained only twelve poems.
Nonetheless, it received great acclaim, especially from Ralph Waldo Emerson, another American poet and essayist. As new editions were printed, Whitman added more and more poems to each new one.
By the time he was dying, the list of poems was sitting at more than 400.
Image by Samuel Hollyer from Wikicommons
2. “Leaves of Grass” Caused a Scandal
The famous work became somewhat of a tongue-wagger thanks to its blatant use of sexual themes and imagery. The publisher even considered abandoning the work because of it.
Even so, the book was published many times over, and plenty of critics condemned it as obscene and frankly profane. It often cost Whitman his livelihood, as employers wouldn’t want his poetry to be associated with them and their principles and Whitman would be promptly fired.
Bear in mind that this occurred when sensual pleasure wasn’t discussed openly. In fact, it was considered impure and immoral, especially in many religious circles.
3. Walt Left School at Age Eleven
No, this wasn’t a Doogie Houser situation. Whitman’s family struggled financially living in New York in 1830, and he was pulled out of school to help contribute to the household and make ends meet.
Image by JW Rochlitz from Wikicommons
At the tender age of eleven he began his first job, working for two lawyers as an office boy. He continued to read anything he could get his hands on voraciously, though, so his education technically didn’t end when his school career did.
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4. He Worked as a Nurse During the Civil War
Walt Whitman was 42 when the Civil War broke out, making him an unlikely candidate for heading up the front line. On the other hand, his brother George was enlisted in the New York 51st Volunteers for several years.
Once his brother was at the army camp, the New York Tribune published a terrifying list of the dead and wounded — and Walt’s brother’s name was on that list. Walt sped to the South to find out the fate of his dear brother, only to be met with a fairly intact family member suffering from minor wounds.
Even though his brother seemed to be alright, Walt was struck by the repercussions of the abomination of war on the soldiers; how many lay in pain awaiting amputation or death. He volunteered to work as an army nurse in the hospitals and even used his salary from the Army Paymaster to help pay for supplies.
Image by John White Alexander from Wikicommons
5. His Sexual Orientation Isn’t Precisely Known, Only Assumed
The sexual orientation of Walt Whitman seems to spark debate, as there is no clear-cut evidence where he lay on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. It’s understandable, as he lived during a time when being anything other than straight was a public shame (and, in some places, a crime).
Many point to references in his works and letters that he was homosexual or, at the very least, bisexual. The ways in which he described the bodies of the wounded men he tended to while working as a nurse are often quoted. But with the limited ways of expressing emotions for those of the same sex, there’s no way to say exactly how Whitman felt about his own sexuality.
He denied any homosexuality while alive, but this is not proof enough that he was straight, either. Whether he had a fascination with the male sex or was indeed homosexual or somewhere in between, we’ll never know for sure.
But there’s no denying that there is a tenderness in his poetry towards men that holds special meaning for many LGBTQIA+ people in our current day and age.
Image by Jules Maurice Gaspard from Wikicommons
6. Walt Was a Fitness Guru Ahead of His Time
Whitman was big into health and fitness. He wrote for the New York Atlas under the alias “Mose Velsor,” and in one article from his series, he focused on a detailed guide to wellness and diet.
He recommended manly exercise to prevent illness and mental conditions such as depression. He wasn’t far wrong either, as even recent information has linked exercise to an improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms.
He specifically described dancing and brisk walks as fine ways to get exercise in (there was no jogging in those days), and he praised frequent bathing for curing sickness.
He also said that beards were an effective barrier to protect against germs, though, so he didn’t have it all figured out. It might explain why he grew such a massive beard himself, though.
7. A Mystery Novel Whitman Wrote Was Rediscovered After 165 Years
Blissfully unaware, graduate student Zach Turpin was searching through old online newspapers for Whitman material when he stumbled upon some familiar phrases in the Library of Congress.
Image by Matthew Benjamin Brady from Wikicommons
A mystery novella written in six parts in a newspaper series and published only once anonymously turned out to be Whitman’s work. It was published without a byline and had the title “The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” but not much attention was paid by readers when it first hit the newspaper stands.
In 2016, on the other hand, Whitman enthusiasts were thrilled for what felt like untouched, out-of-the-box Whitman prose that they could enjoy for the first time.
8. He Experienced a Stroke and Was Left Partially Paralyzed
In 1872, Whitman was pretty ill from the emotional aftereffects of the Civil War — the stresses and heartache had left him in crisis and affected him physically. Being a volunteer nurse, he saw the result of the war on human lives every day, and it deeply affected him.
Early in 1873, he suffered a major paralytic stroke that left him partially paralyzed on the left side of his body. Before the month of May rolled over, he managed to recover sufficiently to travel to his brother’s house in Camden, New Jersey, where he could further convalesce.
Image by Thomas Eakins from Wikicommons
He took over the room recently vacated by his dying mother after she succumbed to heart disease.
9. Walt Was Influenced By Deism
Unfamiliar with the concept of Deism? It’s a philosophical concept that offers the view that God (or any god, for that matter) does not directly interfere with the world. It does allow for the existence of God, though.
Whitman’s view on religion, interlaced through his writings, was interesting and slightly divergent. He didn’t subscribe to any of them, even though he accepted them all. Instead, he believed the human soul was immortal and perpetually in development and that every human was, in their own right, “divine”.
10. Emotion Was More Important Than Rationalism to Whitman
It seems like he was a sensitive guy. Whitman preferred to embrace intuition and emotion over logic and rationality in his writings and became a notable contributor to transcendentalism. This genre of writing centered around the spiritual belief that divinity, or the divine spirit, resides within all of humanity.
It also subscribed to the importance of the inherent goodness of nature. Like Henry David Thoreau, Whitman was a key member of the transcendentalist movement reflected in his writings.
Image by Alexander Gardner from Wikicommons
11. He’s Called the Father of Free Verse
Whitman’s poetry was often known to have no form or rhyme, unlike what usually constituted poetry in that day and age. He preferred to express himself without the limits of meter and verse.
It’s not how he began his poetic career, though. He started just like other poets utilizing standard poetic conventions for his works. But he evolved his style into a formlessness that flowed effortlessly like honey. His style was unique in that it was spontaneous, prosaic, and included incantatory repetitions.
His ultimate subject was the diversity and unity of the American self and its limitlessness, which fit well with his Old Testament influences. He might not have been the first to use free verse, but he perfected it.
12. Whitman Had Six Notable Works
Walt is known for several works that are considered notable. These are Franklin Evans (1842), Leaves of Grass (1855 initially, but published in many editions over the years), and Drum Taps (1865). Further ones include Democratic Vistas (1871) and Memoranda During the War (1876), as well as Specimen Days (1882).
Image by Thomas Dewing from Wikicommons
He died in 1892, still adding poems to Leaves of Grass, so that edition (known as the Deathbed Edition) is technically his final work.
13. He Wrote a Novel in Three Days
That specific novel happens to be one of those notable works he’s so renowned for: Franklin Evans. But frankly (pardon the pun), it caused him a lot of embarrassment in later years.
This is because he admitted he wrote the book in three days to make some money, and had been drinking almost the entire time he wrote it. Sometimes there’s just no accounting for how masterpieces are created, even if their creators aren’t always proud of the circumstances.
14. Whitman Might Be an Inspiration for Dracula
Most people know that the biggest influence on the legend of Dracula was the true story of Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century Romanian prince also known as Vlad the Impaler.
But Walt was in correspondence with Bram Stoker, another great Victorian author who idolized the American poet. After all, Whitman discussed the voluptuousness of death in his poetry and a deathlike quality of love, which is pretty much perfect for a vampire story.
Image by Public Domain from Wikicommons
While Stoker never explicitly suggested who he modeled the Count on, there are few clues one could use to link Dracula’s appearance and poetic speech to Whitman.
15. He Was Very Affected By President Lincoln’s Assassination
Whitman had a soft spot for the American President. He admired what he referred to as Abraham Lincoln’s “striking appearance,” “unpretentious dignity,” “idiomatic Western genius,” and “supernatural tact.”
His admiration of Lincoln grew until October 1863 when he wrote, “I love the President personally” in his diary. No surprise then that he was devastated by Lincoln’s untimely assassination.
He wrote two poems about the event, one of which, “O Captain, My Captain,” became particularly famous and often recited at patriotic events.
16. Whitman Died at Age 72
On 26 March 1892, Whitman breathed his last in Camden. A three-hour autopsy was performed to establish the cause of death, which was determined to be pleurisy of his left side and consumption in his right lung.
In his last days, his lungs had been reduced to an eighth of normal breathing capacity thanks to bronchial pneumonia. It wasn’t an uncommon way to die in Whitman’s time.
Image by Public Domain from Wikicommons
17. Walt Designed His Own Tomb
In a final burst of creativity (and one can argue autonomy) as his impending death approached, Whitman decided to design his own tomb. It’s a granite mausoleum in New Jersey’s Harleigh Cemetery that looks like a little house. Even though it sounds simple, it cost an impressive $4,000.
It was paid using monetary contributions given by Whitman’s admirers. To this day, visitors often leave a penny bearing Lincoln’s image at the front of the grave as a token of appreciation for the poet and his lasting works.
18. Whitman Worked as a Teacher
After his first job at age 11 working for two lawyers, at age 12 Whitman began work at a printing company. Here he developed the skills that would later come in handy when he began to self-publish his poetry.
He continued to educate himself and became a teacher at age 17; a position he held until 1841. His first teaching job was at the one-roomed schoolhouses on Long Island.
Image by E Pearsall from Wikicommons
19. He Was a Bit Erratic
Sometimes great minds think differently. Whitman was known to write notes, whether poetically inclined or otherwise, in an erratic way, scribbling them on scraps of paper and storing them in a casual, unsystematic manner.
He was considered erratic for most of his life, but nonetheless, many people came to love his eccentricities and he earned the nickname, “America’s good gray poet.”
20. He Founded Two Newspapers
From 1838 until 1839, Whitman took a break from teaching and started a newspaper called Long Islander. He started to develop his journalistic skills and covered local news in Huntington, New York.
He was its publisher, pressman, editor, and distributor for ten months before he sold it to E.O. Crowell. In 1848 he started another paper called Brooklyn Freeman and used it as a platform to express his anti-slavery views.
21. Whitman Mostly Paid for His Books to be Published
Although Whitman continued to publish poetry throughout his life, the costs often came out of his pocket. The jobs he took here and there were not only to help support his family initially but became a means of getting his works printed, too.
Image by Mathew Benjamin Brady from Wikicommons
The third edition of Leaves of Grass is an exception, where a Boston publisher paid for the printing and distribution with no financial costs to Whitman.
22. He Worked in the Department of Justice
After the Civil War ended and there was no need for army nurses, Whitman opted to work in the Department of Justice at the United States Attorney General’s office. He managed to attain this job largely with the help of a friend named William O’Conner.
His job was to interview the former Confederate soldiers and see if they were applicable for a Presidential pardon. His post was maintained even after his stroke and subsequent semi-invalid status but eventually terminated in 1874.
23. Whitman Never Married
Whether this was because he was indeed homosexual, as many biographers believe, is still up for debate as all evidence seems to be second-hand with no conclusive proof. Having come from a large family and seeing how his father struggled to look after them financially, he may also have been wary of starting a family.
Image by Public Domain from Wikicommons
Whatever his reasons were, Whitman remained a bachelor with no confirmed significant partners throughout his life.
24. He Met Oscar Wilde
More notable authors besides Bram Stoker sought out Whitman’s friendship. Wilde visited Whitman in his Camden home to discuss a favorite topic: fame and poetry. At this point Whitman was 62 years old and Wilde was 27, but despite the age gap, the two got along immediately.
Wilde wanted to learn from Whitman. Not how to be a famous writer, as he was confident that would happen for him either way, but how to be a famous person. He also admired the older poet intensely. Oscar claimed years later that he kissed Whitman in a letter to a friend, though nothing has been proven.
25. Whitman Came From a Large Family
Born on 31 May 1819, he was the second of nine children to his father Walter, and his mother Louisa. His working-class family moved to Brooklyn when Whitman was only four years old.
Whitman described his childhood as an unhappy and restless time, thanks to the financial struggles of his family from poor investments and the frequency with which they moved house.
Image by Public Domain from Wikicommons
26. He Was Inducted into the Legacy Walk
In North America, specifically in Chicago, Illinois, there’s an outdoor public display that celebrates the contributions to history and culture made by members of the LGBTQIA+. It’s an outdoor museum and the largest collection of bronze biographical memorials.
Although there is no definitive proof of Whitman’s sexual orientation, it is generally accepted that he was most likely homosexual, or at the very least, on that spectrum. He was inducted into the Legacy Walk in 2013, one year after Oscar Wilde.
27. There’s a Walt Whitman Bridge
On 16 May 1957, a bridge that crossed the Delaware River was opened. One side of the single-suspension bridge sits in Philadelphia, and the other in Camden Country, New Jersey. This happens to be near the home where Whitman spent his last years in, so it was named in his honor.
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