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[Note: This biographical essay is excerpted from a longer essay included in The

Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive at http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/whitman/

It is copyright ? 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 by Kenneth M. Price and Ed Folsom.

Family Origins

Walt Whitman, arguably America’s most influential and innovative

poet, was born into a working class family in West Hills, New York, a village near

Hempstead, Long Island, on May 31, 1819, just thirty years after George Washington was

inaugurated as the first president of the newly formed United States. Walt Whitman was

named after his father, a carpenter and farmer who was 34 years old when Whitman was born.

Walter Whitman, Sr., had been born just after the end of the American Revolution; always a

liberal thinker, he knew and admired Thomas Paine. Trained as a carpenter but struggling

to find work, he had taken up farming by the time Walt was born, but when Walt was just

about to turn four, Walter Sr. moved the family to the growing city of Brooklyn, across

from New York City, or "Mannahatta" as Whitman would come to call it in his

celebratory writings about the city that was just emerging as the nation’s major

urban center. One of Walt’s favorite stories about his childhood concerned the time

General Lafayette visited New York and, selecting the six-year-old Walt from the crowd,

lifted him up and carried him. Whitman later came to view this event as a kind of laying

on of hands, the French hero of the American Revolution anointing the future poet of

democracy in the energetic city of immigrants, where the new nation was being invented day

by day.

Walt Whitman is thus of the first generation of Americans who were born in

the newly formed United States and grew up assuming the stable existence of the new

country. Pride in the emergent nation was rampant, and Walter Sr.—after giving his

first son Jesse (1818-1870) his own father’s name, his second son his own name, his

daughter Mary (1822-1899) the name of Walt’s maternal great grandmothers, and his

daughter Hannah (1823-1908) the name of his own mother—turned to the heroes of the

Revolution and the War of 1812 for the names of his other three sons: Andrew Jackson

Whitman (1827-1863), George Washington Whitman (1829-1901), and Thomas Jefferson Whitman

(1833-1890). Only the youngest son, Edward (1835-1902), who was mentally and physically

handicapped, carried a name that tied him to neither the family’s nor the

country’s history.

Walter Whitman Sr. was of English stock, and his marriage in 1816 to

Louisa Van Velsor, of Dutch and Welsh stock, led to what Walt always considered a fertile

tension in the Whitman children between a more smoldering, brooding Puritanical

temperament and a sunnier, more outgoing Dutch disposition. Whitman’s father was a

stern and sometimes hot-tempered man, maybe an alcoholic, whom Whitman respected but for

whom he never felt a great deal of affection. His mother, on the other hand, served

throughout his life as his emotional touchstone. There was a special affectional bond

between Whitman and his mother, and the long correspondence between them records a kind of

partnership in attempting to deal with the family crises that mounted over the years, as

Jesse became mentally unstable and violent and eventually had to be institutionalized, as

Hannah entered a disastrous marriage with an abusive husband, as Andrew became an

alcoholic and married a prostitute before dying of ill health in his 30s, and as Edward

required increasingly dedicated care.

A Brooklyn Childhood and LongIsland Interludes

During Walt’s childhood, the Whitman family moved around Brooklyn a

great deal as Walter Sr. tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to cash in on the city’s quick

growth by speculating in real estate—buying an empty lot, building a house, moving

his family in, then trying to sell it at a profit to start the whole process over again.

Walt loved living close to the East River, where as a child he rode the ferries back and

forth to New York City, imbibing an experience that would remain significant for him his

whole life: he loved ferries and the people who worked on them, and his 1856 poem

eventually entitled "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" explored the full resonance of the

experience. The act of crossing became, for Whitman, one of the most evocative events in

his life—at once practical, enjoyable, and mystical. The daily commute suggested the

passage from life to death to life again and suggested too the passage from poet to reader

to poet via the vehicle of the poem. By crossing Brooklyn ferry, Whitman first discovered

the magical commutations that he would eventually accomplish in his poetry.

While in Brooklyn, Whitman attended the newly founded Brooklyn public

schools for six years, sharing his classes with students of a variety of ages and

backgrounds, though most were poor, since children from wealthy families attended private

schools. In Whitman’s school, all the students were in the same room, except African

Americans, who had to attend a separate class on the top floor. Whitman had little to say

about his rudimentary formal schooling, except that he hated corporal punishment, a common

practice in schools and one that he would attack in later years in both his journalism and

his fiction. But most of Whitman’s meaningful education came outside of school, when

he visited museums, went to libraries, and attended lectures. He always recalled the first

great lecture he heard, when he was ten years old, given by the radical Quaker leader

Elias Hicks, an acquaintance of Whitman’s father and a close friend of Whitman’s

grandfather Jesse. While Whitman’s parents were not members of any religious

denomination, Quaker thought always played a major role in Whitman’s life, in part

because of the early influence of Hicks, and in part because his mother Louisa’s

family had a Quaker background, especially Whitman’s grandmother Amy Williams Van

Velsor, whose death—the same year Whitman first heard Hicks—hit young Walt hard,

since he had spent many happy days at the farm of his grandmother and colorful

grandfather, Major Cornelius Van Velsor.

Visiting his grandparents on Long Island was one of Whitman’s

favorite boyhood activities, and during those visits he developed his lifelong love of the

Long Island shore, sensing the mystery of that territory where water meets land, fluid

melds with solid. One of Whitman’s greatest poems, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly

Rocking," is on one level a reminiscence of his boyhood on the Long Island shore and

of how his desire to be a poet arose in that landscape. The idyllic Long Island

countryside formed a sharp contrast to the crowded energy of the quickly growing

Brooklyn-New York City urban center. Whitman’s experiences as a young man alternated

between the city and the Long Island countryside, and he was attracted to both ways of

life. This dual allegiance can be traced in his poetry, which is often marked by shifts

between rural and urban settings.

Self-Education and First Career

By the age of eleven, Whitman was done with his formal education (by this

time he had far more schooling than either of his parents had received), and he began his

life as a laborer, working first as an office boy for some prominent Brooklyn lawyers, who

gave him a subscription to a circulating library, where his self-education began. Always

an autodidact, Whitman absorbed an eclectic but wide-ranging education through his visits

to museums, his nonstop reading, and his penchant for engaging everyone he met in

conversation and debate. While most other major writers of his time enjoyed highly

structured, classical educations at private institutions, Whitman forged his own rough and

informal curriculum of literature, theater, history, geography, music, and archeology out

of the developing public resources of America’s fastest growing city.

In 1831, Whitman became an apprentice on the Long Island Patriot,

a liberal, working-class newspaper, where he learned the printing trade and was first

exposed to the excitement of putting words into print, observing how thought and event

could be quickly transformed into language and immediately communicated to thousands of

readers. At the age of twelve, young Walt was already contributing to the newspaper and

experiencing the exhilaration of getting his own words published. Whitman’s first

signed article, in the upscale New York Mirror in 1834, expressed his amazement

at how there were still people alive who could remember "the present great

metropolitan city as a little dorp or village; all fresh and green as it was,

from its beginning," and he wrote of a slave, "Negro Harry," who had died

in1758 at age 120 and who could remember New York "when there were but three houses

in it." Even late in his life, he could still recall the excitement of seeing this

first article in print: "How it made my heart double-beat to see my piece on the

pretty white paper, in nice type." For his entire life, he would maintain this

fascination with the materiality of printed objects, with the way his voice and identity

could be embodied in type and paper.

Living away from home—the rest of his family moved back to the West

Hills area in 1833, leaving fourteen-year-old Walt alone in the city—and learning how

to set type under the Patriot’s foreman printer William Hartshorne, Whitman was

gaining skills and experiencing an independence that would mark his whole career: he would

always retain a typesetter’s concern for how his words looked on a page, what

typeface they were dressed in, what effects various spatial arrangements had, and he would

always retain his stubborn independence, never marrying and living alone for most of his

life. These early years on his own in Brooklyn and New York remained a formative influence

on his writing, for it was during this time that he developed the habit of close

observation of the ever-shifting panorama of the city, and a great deal of his journalism,

poetry, and prose came to focus on catalogs of urban life and the history of New York

City, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Walt’s brother Thomas Jefferson, known to

everyone in the family as "Jeff," was born during the summer of 1833, soon after

his family had resettled on a farm and only weeks after Walt had joined the crowds in

Brooklyn that warmly welcomed the newly re-elected president, Andrew Jackson. Brother

Jeff, fourteen years younger than Walt, would become the sibling he felt closest to, their

bond formed when they traveled together to New Orleans in 1848, when Jeff was about the

same age as Walt was when Jeff was born. But while Jeff was a young child, Whitman spent

little time with him. Walt remained separated from his family and furthered his education

by absorbing the power of language from a variety of sources: various circulating

libraries (where he read Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and other romance

novelists), theaters (where he fell in love with Shakespeare’s plays and saw Junius

Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s father, play the title role in Richard III, always

Whitman’s favorite play), and lectures (where he heard, among others, Frances Wright,

the Scottish radical emancipationist and women’s rights advocate). By the time he was

sixteen, Walt was a journeyman printer and compositor in New York City. His future career

seemed set in the newspaper and printing trades, but then two of New York’s worst

fires wiped out the major printing and business centers of the city, and, in the midst of

a dismal financial climate, Whitman retreated to rural Long Island, joining his family at

Hempstead in 1836. As he turned 17, the five-year veteran of the printing trade was

already on the verge of a career change.

Schoolteaching Years

His unlikely next career was that of a teacher. Although his own formal

education was, by today’s standards, minimal, he had developed as a newspaper

apprentice the skills of reading and writing, more than enough for the kind of teaching he

would find himself doing over the next few years. He knew he did not want to become a

farmer, and he rebelled at his father’s attempts to get him to work on the new family

farm. Teaching was therefore an escape but was also clearly a job he was forced to take in

bad economic times, and some of the unhappiest times of his life were these five years

when he taught school in at least ten different Long Island towns, rooming in the homes of

his students, teaching three-month terms to large and heterogeneous classes (some with

over eighty students, ranging in age from five to fifteen, for up to nine hours a day),

getting very little pay, and having to put up with some very unenlightened people. After

the excitement of Brooklyn and New York, these often isolated Long Island towns depressed

Whitman, and he recorded his disdain for country people in a series of letters (not

discovered until the 1980s) that he wrote to a friend named Abraham Leech: "Never

before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s

nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here," he wrote from

Woodbury in 1840: "Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the

reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair."

The little evidence we have of his teaching (mostly from short

recollections by a few former students) suggests that Whitman employed what were then

progressive techniques—encouraging students to think aloud rather than simply recite,

refusing to punish by paddling, involving his students in educational games, and joining

his students in baseball and card games.

[. . . .]

By 1841, Whitman’s second career was at an end. He had interrupted his teaching in

1838 to try his luck at starting his own newspaper, The Long Islander, devoted to

covering the towns around Huntington. He bought a press and type and hired his younger

brother George as an assistant, but, despite his energetic efforts to edit, publish, write

for, and deliver the new paper, it folded within a year, and he reluctantly returned to

the classroom. Newspaper work made him happy, but teaching did not, and two years later,

he abruptly quit his job as an itinerant schoolteacher. The reasons for his decision

continue to interest biographers. One persistent but unsubstantiated rumor has it that

Whitman committed sodomy with one of his students while teaching in Southold, though it is

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