Walt Whitman was born in 1819 on Long Island (the Paumanok of many of his poems). During his early years he trained as a printer, then became a teacher, and finally a journalist and editor. He was less than successful; his stridently radical views made him unpopular with readers. After an 1848 sojourn in the South, which introduced him to some of the variety of his country, he returned to New York and began to write poetry.
In 1855 he self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which at the time consisted of only twelve poems. The volume was widely ignored, with one significant exception. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote him a congratulatory letter, in which he offered his “greet[ings]... at the beginning of a great career.” Whitman promptly published another edition of Leaves of Grass, expanding it by some twenty poems and appending the letter from Emerson, much to the latter’s discomfort. 1860 saw another edition of a now much larger Leaves—containing some 156 poems—which was issued by a trade publisher.
At the outset of the Civil War Whitman volunteered as a nurse in army hospitals; he also wrote dispatches as a correspondent for the New York Times. The war inspired a great deal of poetry, which was published in 1865 as Drum Taps. Drum Taps was then incorporated into an 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, as was another volume of wartime poetry, Sequel, which included the poems written on Lincoln’s assassination.
Whitman’s wartime work led to a job with the Department of the Interior, but he was soon fired when his supervisor learned that he had written the racy poems of Leaves of Grass. The failure of Reconstruction led him to write the best known of his prose works, Democratic Vistas, which, as its title implies, argues for the maintenance of democratic ideals. This volume came out in 1871, as did yet another edition of Leaves of Grass, expanded to include more poems. The 1871 edition was reprinted in 1876 for the centennial. Several other prose works followed, then a further expanded version of Leaves of Grass, in 1881.
Whitman’s health had been shaky since the mid-1870s, and by 1891 it was clear he was dying. He therefore prepared his so-called “Deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass, which contained two appendices of old-age poems as well as a review essay in which he tries to justify his life and work. The “Deathbed Edition” came out in 1892; Whitman died that year.
Whitman’s lifetime saw both the Civil War and the rise of the United States as a commercial and political power. He witnessed both the apex and the abolition of slavery. His poetry is thus centered on ideas of democracy, equality, and brotherhood. In response to America’s new position in the world, Whitman also tried to develop a poetry that was uniquely American, that both surpassed and broke the mold of its predecessors. Leaves of Grass, with its multiple editions and public controversies, set the pattern for the modern, public artist, and Whitman, with his journalistic endeavors on the side, made the most of his role as celebrity and artist.