Bard of Democracy Buried in Camden:
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."
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.
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 nurses 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.
Like many great writers and artists, Walt Whitman had to struggle to support himself. His small clerks 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 Americas 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
1An 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
(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
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these
Of unsurpass'd heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was
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
O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
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.)
4Thus 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
A Bibliography for Further Reading of Whitmans 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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