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Bard of Democracy Buried in Camden:
A Short Biography of Walt Whitman
by Daniela Gioseffi

"The Wound Dresser," a Poem by Whitman in His Later Years

A Bibliography for Further Reading of Whitman’s Writings

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman would come to spend the final years of his poetic life in Camden, New Jersey, when this famous and familiar photo of the aged "good gray poet" was taken.

The most widely known poet the United States has ever produced is Walt Whitman, whose Democratic Vistas read throughout Latin America and Europe, has made him the sage and prophet of the hope of American democracy. Born on May 31, 1819, he was the son of Walter Whitman, a construction worker, and Louisa Van Velsor, a house wife. The Whitman family, with nine children of which Walt was the second son, lived in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s.

At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer's trade, and became enamored of writing. Largely Self-schooled, he read voraciously, acquainting himself with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible. He worked as a printer in New York City until a fire in the printing district destroyed his industry. At the age of seventeen, he began his profession as teacher in small school houses of Long Island. He continued teaching for several years until 1841, when he became a journalist and founded a weekly newspaper, The Long Islander. He later edited a other Brooklyn and New York papers and in 1848, left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle--still published in Brooklyn Heights today--to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent While residing in New Orleans, he discovered with his own eyes the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of the city. He wrote of such experiences, decrying the injustices, in "I Sing the Body Electric."

Whitman LI Home
Whitman’s Long Island home–which still stands as a National monument on West Hills, Huntington, Long Island, is pictured here in a photo taken by "Uncle Ben." Conklin in 1903 from the Lightfoot Collection, Huntington Station, New York.

Upon returning to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded, The Brooklyn Freeman, and began to develop his Whitmanesque style of free verse, a genre of long prosaic lines full of rich imagery and passionate emotion which was bound to make its lasting impression upon the chief Brahman of American letters, the renown transdentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson of New England. Emerson, along with Abraham Lincoln, was an early appreciator of the poetry of Whitman.

Whitman in 1854
Here Whitman is pictured in 1854 just before the publication of his first volume of poetry, destined to become a seminal classic of American verse.

In 1855, Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Emerson received it with words of encouragement, though others would decry his verse as badly written and illicit. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. Throughout his lifetime, Whitman would continue to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of Leaves of Grass.

During the Civil War, Whitman wrote freelance journalism and visited the wounded at New York area hospitals. He journeyed to Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war. Deeply effected by the misery of the many wounded in Washington, he decided to stay on and work as a nurse’s aid in the hospitals. Whitman stayed in Washington for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found scandalous. The poet was fired for his frank opinions and sensual expressiveness.

Whitman in 1863
Whitman is here pictured in 1863, during his time nursing the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union Army in Washington, D.C.

Like many great writers and artists, Walt Whitman had to struggle to support himself. His small clerk’s salary and tiny royalties were sometimes spent on supplies for the patients he nursed. He also sent money to his widowed mother and invalid brother and occasionally writers who admired his work sent him money so the he could squeeze by. Early in the1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, where he had come to see his mother who was dying at his brother's home in the city. He suffered a stroke in Camden and never returned to Washington. He lived on with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass which gave him just enough money to purchase his own home in Camden. In this small and humble, two-story clapboard house, he lived out his declining years working on revisions to a new edition of his collected poems, Leaves of Grass. He also prepared his last book of poems and prose titled Good Bye My Fancy completed in 1891. Following his death on March 26, 1892, Walt Whitman was buried in a tomb of his own design which he had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. The good grey poet of America’s hope for democracy, the fashioner of her most free and visionary verse, would come to his final resting place in The Poetry State: New Jersey.

"The Wound-Dresser"
a poem by Walt Whitman in his older years

1

An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens
     love me,
(Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and
     urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I
     resign'd myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch
     the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these
     chances,
Of unsurpass'd heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was
      equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what
     deepest remains?

2

O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden
      your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover'd with sweat
      and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout
      in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur'd works -- yet lo, like a swift-running river
      they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade -- I dwell not on soldiers' perils
      or soldier's joys,
(Both I remember well -- many the hardships, few the joys, yet
      I was content.)


But in silence, in dreams' projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints
      off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you
      up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof'd
      hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do
      I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and
      fill'd again.


I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes -- poor boy! I never
      knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if
that would save you.

3

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush'd head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the
      bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and
      through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet
      life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)


From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the
      matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv'd neck and
      side-falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on
      the bloody stump,
And has not yet look'd on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and
      sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.


I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-
      wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so
      sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray
      and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in
      my breast a fire, a burning flame.)

4

Thus in silence in dreams' projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd
      and rested,
 

A Bibliography for Further Reading of Whitman’s Selected Writings:

Volumes of Verse in Chronological Order:

Leaves of Grass (1855) First edition.

Leaves of Grass (1856) Second edition.

Leaves of Grass (1860) Third edition.

Drum Taps (1865)

Sequel to Drum Taps (1865)

Leaves of Grass (1867) Fourth edition.

Leaves of Grass (1870) Fifth edition.

Passage to India (1870)

Leaves of Grass (1876) Centennial edition.

Leaves of Grass (1881) Sixth edition.

Leaves of Grass (1891) "Deathbed" edition.

Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891)

Notable Works of Prose in Chronological Order:

Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (1842)

Democratic Vistas (1871)

Memoranda During the War (1875)

Specimen Days and Collect (1881)

November Boughs (1888)

Complete Prose Works (1892)

 

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