Who Was Walt Whitman?
It was a hot day in July 1854. The photographer Gabriel Harrison stood in the doorway of his Brooklyn studio, watching the people pass by on the city street. Suddenly, he recognized a friend. He called out and asked him to come in for a photo session. His friend hesitated.
Harrison called again. “Do come: come: I’m dying for something to do.”
His friend was interested in photography and liked being in photo studios. Photography was still a very new technology. He went in and let Harrison take his picture.
A year later, Walt Whitman was getting ready to publish a book of his poems called Leaves of Grass. Walt didn’t put his name on the cover as the poet. Instead, he just included a picture of himself inside. He chose Harrison’s photo from that summer day. In Leaves of Grass, the poems didn’t rhyme. Many were written about things that nice, polite people didn’t talk about at that time, like relationships and the human body. People were shocked. Leaves of Grass was not like other poetry, and some people didn’t even consider it to be poetry at all.
For many, the photo of Walt was just as surprising as the poems. Poets were supposed to look elegant and thoughtful. They would wear a jacket and tie—-respectable clothing. But Walt Whitman was dressed like an ordinary workingman. He wore an open--neck shirt and rough pants. He had on a battered hat that was tilted down over one eye. And he certainly didn’t look like he was dreaming up delicate lines of poetry. He had one hand in his pocket and one on his hip. He stared into the camera defiantly.
Years later, Walt would say he wasn’t sure about the photo. He thought he looked angry, like he was “hurling bolts at somebody.” But he also admitted that he liked it because it was “natural, honest, easy.”
Walt’s poems were supposed to be for everyone, including the working people who dressed like he had in the picture. Walt wanted to be a poet for all Americans. In order to do that, he had to change the way poetry was written. He had to create a new way of writing that matched the energy and diversity of the young nation.
Walt kept revising Leaves of Grass throughout his entire life. In some editions, he used more traditional photos of himself. But in most versions, he included the Harrison picture. It made the most sense. It was the photo that matched his style of groundbreaking poetry the best.
No one expected that Walt Whitman would be the person who shook up American literature. He had been a newspaper editor, journalist, and printer. He had written a novel that even he thought was very bad. But he had been preparing his whole life to become this new kind of poet. Ever since he was a young boy watching people rush by on the busy streets of Brooklyn.CHAPTER 1
Long Island to Brooklyn
Walter Whitman Jr. was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills on Long Island, New York. His parents were Walter and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. He was the second child in the family and was always called Walt. His brother Jesse was one year older than him. Six more children followed: Mary, Hannah, George, Andrew, Jeff, and Eddie. The younger children looked up to Walt and considered him the leader of the family. Walt was very close to his mother. He thought she told wonderful stories.
The Whitman family had once owned a lot of land on Long Island, but they no longer did by the time Walt was born. His grandparents still had a farm, though. Walt would sometimes ride on his grandfather’s cart as they delivered fruit and vegetables to the market.
Walt’s father was a carpenter. In 1823, he moved the family to the nearby city of Brooklyn, which was growing very quickly. Walt’s father hoped to be able to make money by building and selling houses. But Walter Whitman Sr. was not a very good businessman. He lost more money than he made. He struggled to support the family. They moved seven times in ten years.
But there still were good times. When Walt was six, the Marquis de Lafayette, the great Revolutionary War hero, marched in a parade in Brooklyn. Lafayette had been born in France but had come to America as a young man to join the fight for American independence. The Declaration of Independence had been signed less than fifty years earlier, and some of the heroes of the American Revolution were still being honored. As Lafayette paused to greet people on the street, he stopped, picked up Walt, and kissed him. Walt told this story for the rest of his life.
Walt began to go to a local school when he was around six. Outside of school, he spent a lot of time wandering around the busy, growing town of Brooklyn. Walt took in all the people, sounds, and smells around him. He loved riding the ferries that ran across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He visited his grandparents on Long Island and swam in the ocean.
Walt quit school when he was eleven years old to get a job. First, he worked as an office boy for a group of lawyers. One lawyer helped him with his handwriting and got him a membership at a library. Walt read as much as he could. He discovered a whole world of novels and poetry. He felt that this was the most important thing that had ever happened to him.
Next, Walt became a printer’s apprentice. He learned to lay out the pages of a newspaper, set the pieces of metal type, and then print them on large sheets of paper. Working on a newspaper gave him a chance to see the power of words. As he learned about setting up the press, he also read the articles. He observed what went into writing a good piece and how editing could make it better.
The Whitman family moved back to Long Island in 1833, but fourteen--year--old Walt stayed in Brooklyn. He finished his apprenticeship in early 1835 and then began working as a printer in Manhattan. He began to write, too, and he was thrilled to have some of his pieces published in New York papers. But after two huge fires hit the city’s printing district, it was hard to find work as a printer. Walt moved back to Long Island to live with his family and eventually became a schoolteacher.
Walt’s students liked him. But he wasn’t very interested in the job. He sometimes spent his classroom time reading, writing stories, or just thinking. He was only seventeen years old. But he was tall and strong. He looked like a grown man.
In 1838, he decided to start his own weekly newspaper. He called it the Long Islander. Walt wrote the articles, edited them, and printed the paper. He even delivered the newspaper, riding around Long Island on his horse, Nina.
It was fun at first. But Walt didn’t like sticking to a schedule. Sometimes, he liked to spend his days lying under a tree thinking or floating in the ocean off Long Island. Walt put out the newspaper only when he felt like it. The people who had given him money to start the paper had had enough. After ten months, they sold it.
Finally, in 1841, he decided that it was time to leave Long Island. He moved to the city—-Manhattan.CHAPTER 2
Walt worked as a printer and editor for the next few years. He also began to write seriously. He wrote newspaper articles and short stories. Some stories were good enough to be published by newspapers and magazines.
He also wrote poetry. His poems were the same kind everyone else was writing at the time. They had rhymes, and each line had the same rhythm. They were written in the same style British writers had used for centuries.
Nothing Walt wrote seemed special or different. But one newspaper editor liked his work enough to ask him to write a novel. The editor wanted a “temperance novel.” These were popular stories that were meant to warn people about the dangers of drinking alcohol. Walt’s novel Franklin Evans, or, The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times was published in 1842. Walt thought it was a piece of junk. But it sold twenty thousand copies!
Walt seemed more likely to succeed as a newspaper editor than a fiction writer or poet. He certainly dressed the part of an editor. He wore a fancy coat and tie, along with a fashionable hat. Like many gentlemen of the time, he carried a cane while out walking.
And Walt loved to walk. He walked all over the city, often when he should have been working. He watched the crowds of people rushing on the busy streets: deliverymen, carpenters, horse--cart drivers, lawyers, merchants, and shopkeepers. Walt marveled at the rushing variety of people he observed as he strolled along the streets. They were all part of his city, constantly vibrating with energy.
Walt took in all the city had to offer. He went to museums and libraries and attended lectures given by popular speakers. He loved music, especially opera. He enjoyed theater and thought Junius Booth’s performance in the play Richard III was the greatest thing he’d ever seen.
In the 1840s, new states were being created in the United States as territories petitioned for statehood. The country was divided on whether slavery should be allowed in these new states. Walt considered himself a Democrat, but the party was split on this issue. Some Democrats wanted to stop slavery. Others thought it should be allowed. Walt was against slavery. He became a member of the Free Soil Party, which demanded that slavery be kept out of new states.
In 1848, Walt met the owner of a New Orleans newspaper, the Crescent, who offered Walt a job as its editor. On February 11, Walt set off for New Orleans. He brought his youngest brother, Jeff, with him. He wanted to teach fourteen--year--old Jeff how to be a printer. Traveling by stagecoach, train, and steamship, it took two weeks for the Whitman brothers to reach New Orleans.
Walt loved New Orleans, another busy city filled with all kinds of people. But soon the editors became worried by Walt’s politics. Slavery was accepted in New Orleans. Walt’s Free Soil beliefs were not appreciated. At the end of May, Walt and Jeff returned to Brooklyn.
Copyright © 2021 by Kirsten Anderson; Illustrated by Tim Foley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.