Today we want to go over a famous American poet, Walt Whitman, and just give you a brief overview of some of the high points of his extraordinary life and talk a little bit about him. So, Walt Whitman was the second child of nine children and his full name was Walter Whitman Jr. He was named after his Dad but they called him Walt to distinguish him from Walter Senior. Walt Whitman was born on May 31st, 1819, in Long Island, New York, although he did most of his growing up in Brooklyn and ended his life in New Jersey. Between there he spent some time living in Washington, D.C. and also in New Orleans. It was while he was in New Orleans that he was exposed to some of the brutality of slavery and issues related to that and it helped form some of his views of equality and support in many ways the Northern cause and during the Civil War he actually was in Washington, D.C. working at a hospital there for wounded vets including his brother, nursing them back to health. So he stayed on in D.C. after the war and worked for a time as a clerk until his boss found out he had written his most famous work “Leaves of Grass”. His boss found it objectionable on moral grounds and fired him. So he had a very interesting life. As he grew up he finished his formal schooling at eleven but he was a voracious reader. He read constantly and he loved the written word. His first job in Brooklyn was a typesetter or printer until a fire swept through and destroyed pretty much the whole printing industry in that part of the town he was living in. He went on to become a teacher in a one room class teaching several different grades as one teacher. If you’ve ever seen Little House on the Prairie, that’s sort of what he was doing only he was doing it in the Brooklyn area. So a teacher in a one room schoolhouse. After that he went on to become a journalist, founding and writing for several different newspapers. He worked as a nurse, as I said, during the Civil War and finally as a government clerk. During this time he wrote his most important work called “Leaves of Grass” that was self published and it included many of his poems. Ralph Waldo Emerson loved his poems so he went through several editions bulking it up, adding to it as he printed these poems using what he called – or what has been styled what’s been called “free verse”. Free verse and basically that style is very open and flowing and free and he drew on themes that many Americans could resonate with — sort of a panoramic view and we have those words here that have been used to describe his poetry – idealist, free, panoramic, democratic, egalitarian and it tapped into the times that he was living in in many ways and evoked feelings for many who were at that time overwhelmed at that – this captures well in verse and words in what I feel and what I think about my country and so he became very famous not only in America but worldwide and would often receive monetary gifts and other support from people all over the world as they would read his book “Leaves of Grass” and be moved by that and said “we need to support this guy.” He was very altruistic. Often the money he received – the extra money that he received that he didn’t need to live off of – he would spend to buy supplies to help nurse those who were recovering after the Civil War and injured. So he spent a lot of his money on others and struggled in many ways to live his life. He certainly didn’t live in the lap of luxury but spent a lot of his money and effort on helping others. As he reached his twilight years he had a stroke and his health declined and he died at the age of 72 in New Jersey.
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Last updated: 07/25/2017
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