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Walt Whitman Biography

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Walter "Walt" Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American Romantic poet. His works having been translated into more than 25 languages, Whitman is said to have invented contemporary American literature as a genre. He abandoned the rhythmic and metrical structures of European poetry for an expansionist freestyle verse, which delivered his philosophical view that America was destined to reinvent the world as emancipator and liberator of the human spirit.

Whitman, American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist was born in West Hills, Huntington on Long Island in New York. His most famous work is Leaves of Grass, which he continued to edit and revise until his death. A group of civil war poems, included within Leaves of Grass, is often published as an independent collection under the name of Drum-Taps.

The first versions of Leaves of Grass were self-published and poorly received. Several poems featured graphic depictions of the human body, enumerated in Whitman's innovative "cataloguing" style, which contrasted with the reserved Puritan ethic of the period. Despite its revolutionary content and structure, subsequent editions of the book evoked critical indifference in the US literary establishment. Outside the US, the book was a world-wide sensation, especially in France, where Whitman's intense humanism influenced the naturalist revolution in French letters.

By 1864, Walt Whitman was world famous and Leaves of Grass had been accepted by a publishing house in the US. Though still considered an iconoclast and a literary outsider, the poet's status began to grow at home. During his final years, Whitman became a respected literary vanguard visited by young artists. Several photographs and paintings of Whitman with a large beard cultivated a "Christ-figure" mystique. Whitman did not invent American transcendentalism, but he had become its most famous exponent and he was also associated with American mysticism. In the 20th century young writers such as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac rediscovered Whitman and reinterpreted his literary manifesto for younger audiences.

After losing his job as editor of the Daily Eagle because of his abolitionist sentiment and his support of the free-soil movement, Whitman self-published an early edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 with Rome Brothers.

Except for his own anonymous reviews, the early edition of the book received little attention. One exception was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher and essayist, who praised the first edition of Leaves of Grass in a letter to Whitman, saying "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Whitman republished the letter in the second edition of Leaves of Grass without Emerson's permission. Emerson was furious, but continued to recommend the book. A few prominent intellectuals such as Oliver Wendell Holmes were outwardly opposed to Whitman and found his sensuality obscene and utterly homosexual.

It was not until 1864 that Leaves of Grass found a publisher other than Whitman. That 1860 re-issue was greatly enlarged, containing two new sections, "Children of Adam" and "Calamus". This revising of Leaves of Grass would continue for the rest of his life, and by 1892, Leaves of Grass had been reissued in more than seven different versions.

English composers of the early 20th century, notably Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, felt a strong affinity for Whitman's poetry. Williams' Symphony #1, "A Sea Symphony", uses Whitman's poems superbly, as does his "Dona Nobis Pacem".

Whitman's political views generally reflected the 19th-century liberalism. On free trade he stated: "The spirit of the tariff is malevolent. It flies in the face of all American ideals. I hate it root and branch. It helps a few rich men to get rich, it helps the great mass of poor men to get poorer. I am for free trade because I am for anything that will break down the barriers between peoples. I want to see the countries all wide open." A little discussed aspect of Walt Whitman's political views, Walt Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle as a staunch supporter of the Mexican-American War (see Walt Whitman quotes).

In 1862, Whitman first came face-to-face with the tragedy of the American Civil War when he traveled to Virginia to visit his brother George who had been wounded in battle. Whitman was so moved by the scene in the Virginia hospital that he traveled to Washington D.C. and remained there as an unofficial nurse in the army hospital. This period inspired the poem, "The Wound Dresser", which was later set to music by John Adams.

He remained at the hospital and used money he earned from his writings or from donations by various fans to buy more equipment for the hospital until his health declined in 1873.

An extensive collection of Walt Whitman's manuscripts is maintained in the Library of Congress largely thanks to the efforts of Russian immigrant Charles Feinberg. Feinberg preserved Whitman's manuscripts and promoted his poetry so intensely through a period when Whitman's fame largely declined that University of Paris-Sorbonne Professor Steven Asselineau claimed "for nearly half a century Feinberg was in a way Whitman's representative on earth" .

Walt Whitman's influence on contemporary North American poetry is so enormous that it has been said that American poetry divides into two camps: that which naturally flows from Whitman and that which consciously strives to reject it. Whitman's great talents presented a complex paradox for the modernist poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who recognized Whitman's value, but feared the implications of his influence.

During the height of modernism, Whitman continued to present "a problem" until he was rescued by such influential poets as William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. Later, Allen Ginsberg and the beat poets would become the most vociferous champions of Whitman's expansive, abundant, humanistic America. Ginsberg begins his famous poem "Supermarket in California" with a reference to Walt Whitman. The hand of Whitman can be seen working in such diverse twentieth-century poets as John Berryman, Galway Kinnell, Langston Hughes, Philip Levine, Kenneth Koch, James Wright, Joy Harjo, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver, and June Jordan, to name only a few.

Whitman was also revered by international poets ranging from Pablo Neruda to Rimbaud to Federico García Lorca.

Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom considers Walt Whitman to be among the five most important U.S. poets of all time (along with Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Robert Frost).

Whitman was also a huge influence on the English novelist and poet, D.H. Lawrence.
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