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Walt Whitman – Father of Free Verse

Full Name Walter "Walt" Whitman
Born May 31, 1819 in West Hills, NY
Died March 26, 1892 (age 72) in Camden, NJ
Cause of Death Respiratory failure
Resting Place Walt Whitman Mausoleum, Camden, NJ
Occupation Poet, essayist, journalist
Notable Works Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself, Drum-Taps
Influences Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau
Influenced Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda
Movement Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Realism

Walter "Walt" Whitman Jr. was an influential American poet, essayist, and journalist who pioneered free verse poetry. Often called the "Father of Free Verse", Whitman liberated poetry from formal constraints and brought it to the people through his iconic collection Leaves of Grass. His progressive views and celebration of democracy, the body, and the human spirit revolutionized American literature.

Early Life in Brooklyn

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 to a working class family in Brooklyn, which was still just a budding town at the time. When he was four, his family moved to Brooklyn where Walt would spend most of his youth.

As a boy, Whitman received a basic formal education, but he was largely self-taught, devouring books on history, science, and literature. Some of his favorites included the works of Homer, Dante, and Sir Walter Scott.

To help support his struggling family, Whitman began working at age 11 as an office boy for two attorneys. At 12, he started training as a printer‘s apprentice, learning skills that would benefit his later writing career. During the late 1830s, Whitman worked as a schoolteacher on Long Island to pay the bills, though he found the work dull and unfulfilling.

Budding Writer and Editor

In the early 1840s, Whitman moved back to New York City to establish himself as a full-time writer and newspaper editor. During this time, he founded a literary journal called the Brooklyn Freeman, which ran from 1841-1843. He also wrote fiction, poems, and essays for leading periodicals.

From 1848-1863, Walt worked as an editor at various newspapers in Brooklyn and New York. His columns and editorials, tackling issues like slavery and women‘s rights, gained notoriety for their fiery rhetoric and progressive views.

It was also during the late 1840s that Whitman turned his attention fully to poetry. He began crafting poems with a loose, informal style, rejecting traditional poetic conventions. This new free verse form better captured natural rhythms of speech.

Leaves of Grass – A Literary Landmark

In 1855, Walt self-published his groundbreaking poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Though it sold poorly at first, the book gained fame for its bold, sensual language and celebration of the self and the body. Leaves of Grass broke with every poetic convention – no rhyme, no meter, and not even titles for some poems!

I celebrate myself, and sing myself/And what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

These daring opening lines exemplified Whitman‘s new poetic style. Leaves of Grass would go through many expansions and revisions throughout Walt‘s life, eventually reaching nearly 400 poems in its final "deathbed edition".

This ever-evolving anthology came to define Whitman‘s life work and legacy. Its chant-like verse and unabashed message of human dignity resonated deeply with readers. Leaves of Grass was a declaration of creative independence for American writers.

Nursing the Wounded Soldiers

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Whitman was in his early 40s. Though eligible for exemptions, he traveled to Washington D.C. to be near his brother who had enlisted. Walt spent his days working a government job, but devoted nights and weekends volunteering in the army hospitals.

As a hospital nurse, Whitman provided physical and emotional comfort to over 100,000 wounded soldiers. He recorded his poignant experiences in notebooks and letters. Some of these observations later inspired his Civil War poems like "Vigil Strange I Kept" and "The Wound Dresser", memorializing the courage of these men.

Crafting a New Poetic Voice

Walt Whitman pioneered a radically new poetic voice through techniques like:

  • Free verse – Poetry without meter or rhyme
  • Long, rolling lines echoing natural speech
  • Repetition and anaphora as poetic devices
  • Cataloguing of objects, places, people
  • Plainspoken language and slang terms
  • Unconventional symbols like grass, the sea

His informal style aimed to make poetry accessible to all. Whitman wrote about universal themes – love, death, spirituality, equality – using words and concepts familiar to the common man.

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

That authentic American voice was Walt‘s unique contribution to literature.

Global Recognition and Last Years

In his later years, despite declining health, Whitman gained international fame. He continued revising Leaves of Grass, publishing the final "deathbed edition" in 1892. Though paralyzed on his left side after a stroke, Whitman remained mentally sharp. He spent his last years conversing with friends and admirers like Oscar Wilde.

Walt passed away on March 26, 1892 at age 72 due to respiratory failure. His funeral in Camden, NJ was simple but well-attended. Whitman was initially buried in Harleigh Cemetery, but his remains were later moved to a grand mausoleum in Camden‘s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Enduring Legacy

Today, Whitman is recognized as a pioneering force in American literature. His fearless, frank works like Leaves of Grass opened the door for American writers to find their own unique voices. Whitman captured the restless spirit of a growing nation – its love of freedom, diversity, and self-reliance.

Over a century after his death, Whitman‘s writings continue to move and inspire readers. His championing of democracy and human dignity feel more timely than ever. Through the power and beauty of his words, his spirit lives on.