Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass
Sections: Journalist and Teacher | Wound Dresser | Poet of the Nation | Good Gray Poet | Sage | Legend | Leaves of Grass

Starting from Paumanok

Walt Whitman's family were early settlers of West Hills on Long Island, New York. Whitman was born at his parents' modest farm, and as a child he roamed its fields. The beaches, flora, and history of Long Island—called “Paumanok” by Native Americans—remained touchstones in his mature writings. From 1836 to 1841, he taught at several rural Long Island schools. His letters to a bookkeeper friend, Abraham Paul Leech, written in 1840 and 1841 are the earliest Whitman correspondence known to exist. Though an innovative teacher, Whitman gladly moved on to other ways of making a living.

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Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

In his youth Whitman did office work and learned the printing trade before blossoming as an editor and journalist on the Brooklyn and Manhattan beats. At the Long Island Star, as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, and during work at other papers, he entered the whirl of Democratic and factional Free Soil politics and observed the pageantry of the streets. A frequent traveler on the Brooklyn ferry and along Broadway, he delved deep into working-class life, cheerily befriended ferrymen, dockworkers, and drivers, and became a regular among the bohemian actors, literati, and reformers at Pfaff's tavern in Greenwich Village.

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Finding His Voice

Whitman first kept accounts in this notebook and then began using it to find his major metaphor. He wrote: “Bring all the art and science of the world and baffle and humble it with one spear of grass.” On these pages, Whitman made his historic leap into a new poetry without rhyme and meter. His new poet's “I” sees and encompasses all. Although only two lines about “body and soul” from the page displayed survived Whitman's revisions intact in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the major touchstones of his poetry are here introduced: mediation, meditation, ecstasy, the self, the poet in everything, the soul everywhere, and the passion of common touch.

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Early Literary Efforts

Whitman's earliest poems and his short stories of hard street life appeared in newspapers, as did his one novel, a Dickensian temperance story, Franklin Evans (1842). He also wrote copiously on local issues for Brooklyn periodicals—all were written for the money they could bring. Whitman began reviewing theater and fell in love with opera, later observing that without opera, there would have been no Leaves of Grass. The rhapsodic form he developed as a poet was like the arias he adored. He was also keenly attuned to speech, compiling notes on the American vernacular.

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  • Walt Whitman. “Brooklyniana” [announcement of a series of vignettes written in twenty-five installments, printed June 8, 1861-November 1, 1862]. Brooklyn Daily Standard. (June 3, 1861). Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (3)

  • Whitman's copy of the libretto for Gioacchino Rossini's La Gazza Ladra [The Thieving Magpie], End of Act I. Printed libretto. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (7)

  • “Notebook on an Intended Dictionary.” Bound manuscript written on wrappers from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (9)

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Sections: Journalist and Teacher | Wound Dresser | Poet of the Nation | Good Gray Poet | Sage | Legend | Leaves of Grass