Today in History

Today in History: May 31

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman
Whitman and the Butterfly
from the 1889 edition of Leaves of Grass
(Philadelphia, Ferguson Bros. & Co., Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress).
Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection

I CELEBRATE myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass.

Walt Whitman, opening to "Song of Myself,"
Leaves of Grass, 1855.

Walt Whitman, American poet, journalist, and essayist, was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, New York. His verse collection Leaves of Grass is a landmark in the history of American literature.

Whitman grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and at age twelve began to learn the printing trade. Over time he moved from printing to teaching to journalism, becoming the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846. He began experimenting with a new form of poetry, revolutionary at the time, free of a regular rhythm or rhyme scheme that has come to be known as free verse. In 1855, Whitman published, anonymously and at his own expense, the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Revolutionary too was the content of his poems celebrating the human body and the common man. Whitman would spend the rest of his life revising and enlarging Leaves of Grass; the ninth edition appeared in 1892, the year of his death.

Whitman butterfly
Cardboard "Butterfly" in photograph of Whitman in the 1889 edition of Leaves of Grass.
Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection

Whitman's confidence and literary career got an enormous boost from a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most respected essayist, philosopher, and lecturer of his generation, heralding Whitman's work as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Emerson greeted Whitman "at the beginning of a great career." Perhaps America's first self-publicist, Whitman allowed Emerson's letter to be published without the writer's permission in the New York Tribune and the second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856).

The Library of Congress holds the world's largest Walt Whitman manuscript collection, numbering some 20,000 items and including many original notebooks. In these sometimes homemade or adapted notebooks, the poet jotted down random thoughts in prose and expressions in poetry. Four of Walt Whitman's early notebooks are available in the American Memory collection Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection. The "1847" notebook contains remarkable trial flights of verse for what later evolved into "Song of Myself"—the opening section of Leaves of Grass. On page 65 and pages 68 through 72 Whitman breaks off from prose ruminations and speaks—perhaps for the first time—in the revolutionary verse form that he created.

Handwriting from Whitman notebook
Notebook LC #80 "Earliest" Notebook (Holloway No.1), 1847, 25.
Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection

During the Civil War, Whitman worked at the Army Paymaster's Office in Washington, D.C. In his spare time, he visited wounded soldiers in hospitals. In Whitman's "1862" notebook he recorded simple requests from the soldiers. For example, on page 3 Whitman notes during a visit to the Patent Office Hospital that the man in bed twenty-seven "wants some figs and a book" and that beds twenty-three and twenty-four "want some horehound candy." Whitman also recorded the stories that the wounded men told him of their war experiences. On page 117, he relates "the fight at the bridge" at the September 1862 Battle of Antietam.

Inspired by the death of President Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman wrote his famous dirge "O Captain! My Captain!" in 1865. A rare example of his rhymed, rhythmically regular verse, the poem was published in the Saturday Press to immediate acclaim and was included in the poet's Sequel to Drum-Taps also published that year. Whitman revised the poem in 1866 and again in 1871. It quickly became his single most popular poem, much to his consternation, and it was the only one of his poems in his compendium Leaves of Grass to be widely reprinted and anthologized during his lifetime.

Whitman's reputation has grown steadily since his death. Today, he is widely recognized as one of the greatest American poets.