Walter Whitman (May 31, 1819 March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist. Proclaimed the "greatest of all American poets" by many foreign observers a mere four years after his death, he is viewed as the first urban poet. He was a part of the transition between Transcendentalism and Realism, incorporating both views in his works. His works have been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Whitman is among the most influential and controversial poets in the American canon. His work has been described as a "rude shock" and "the most audacious and debatable contribution yet made to American literature." As Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass (By Blue Ontario's Shore), "Rhymes and rhymers pass away...America justifies itself, give it time..."
Walter Whitman was born May 31, 1819 in West Hills, Long Island, to parents of Quaker background, Walter and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. He was the second of nine children. One of his siblings, born prior to him, did not make it past infancy. His mother was barely literate and of Dutch descent and his father was a Quaker carpenter. In 1823 the family moved to Brooklyn, where for six years Whitman attended public schools. It was the only formal education he ever received. His mother taught him the value of family ties, and Whitman remained devoted to his family throughout his life, becoming, in a real sense, its leader after the death of his father. Whitman inherited the liberal intellectual and political attitudes of a free thinker from his father, who exposed him to the ideas and writings of the socialists Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, the liberal Quaker Elias Hicks, and the deist Count Volney.
His most famous work is Leaves of Grass, which he continued to edit and revise until his death and is considered his most personal and political work. A group of Civil War poems, included within Leaves of Grass, is often published as an independent collection under the name of Drum-Taps.
Whitman had not by any means stopped writing poetry during this period. He had, soon after the 1860 Leaves of Grass went into a second printing, begun work on a new volume of poetry, to be called Banners at Day-Break, but the failure of Thayer and Eldridge brought this plan to a halt. The verses intended for the aborted volume would find their way into the next edition of Leaves of Grass (on which Whitman was continually working) and into his next book, which would poetically comment on the Civil War.
In January 1865 Whitman was appointed a clerk in the Indian Affairs Department in Washington. By spring, not long after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, he was fired from his government post on the orders of Secretary of the Interior James Harlan. The charge was that Whitman was the author of a "dirty book," Leaves of Grass. Actually, Whitman's dismissal was part of an efficiency campaign, but Harlan, formerly a professor of mental and moral science in Iowa, also objected strongly to Whitman's emphasis on the body in his poetry. On 1 July, Ashton reinstated Whitman and transferred him to his own department. Whitman was relieved and his life returned to normal. O'Connor, though, was still upset and went about vindicating Whitman by publishing a biographical study, The Good Gray Poet, in January 1866. This book defended both Whitman and artistic freedom and is especially interesting today because Whitman himself had a major role in preparing it.
During his later years, Whitman ventured out on only two significant journeys: to Colorado in 1879 and to Boston to visit Emerson in 1881. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and was buried in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery.
Leaves of Grass
In 1855, Whitman took it upon himself to publish his first edition of Leaves of Grass. The next year he released his second edition of Leaves of Grass in 1856 with around 20 new poems. In 1860 Whitman released his third edition of Leaves of Grass, which was the first major revision and edition to his work. Whitman in 1870 added “Drum-Taps”, “Sequel to Drum-Taps”, and “Songs before Parting” to Leaves of Grass, which made this edition the first to properly address the Civil War through Whitman's eyes. In 1881 Whitman was able to purchase his final home because of the revenue generated from the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. The final edition, called the deathbed edition, was released in 1892, bringing Leaves of Grass to its current state.
Song of Myself
Song of Myself was originally published in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass in which it was the first of twelve poems. At the time this poem was untitled, but in 1856 Whitman titled this work “Poem of Walt Whitman: An American”. “Poem of Walt Whitman: An American” was divided into 52 numbered sections in 1867, which is how the poem is organized to this day. Then in 1881 Whitman decided to give the poem its final name: Song of Myself.
“Song of Myself is a history of the poet's movement from loafing individual to active spirit. But the poet's movement is paralleled by the reader's movement from “assuming” to “resuming” and the poet controls both movements in the poem with the catalogues.”
(R) thedailystar.net 2007