May 31, 2007
Walt Whitman's Birthday
American poet Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819.
Only four years after his death, Walt Whitman was hailed by foreign critics as "the greatest of all American poets," but during his own lifetime, and in his own country, his works were often met with criticism and scorn.
The son of a Quaker carpenter of somewhat liberal and "free-thinking" views, Walt Whitman only received 6 years of education in the Brooklyn public schools. In his early life, he worked as a teacher, a journalist, and an editor. He wrote and published numerous political pieces.
Leaves of Grass, his most famous work, was initially self-published. The first (1855) edition consisted of 12 untitled poems and a preface. He sent a copy of it to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised it highly. The second edition, which he published a year later, contained 33 poems, a letter from Emerson, and his response to Emerson's letter.
The work was poorly received, except in select literary circles. In general, it was considered too graphic in its depiction of the body. At one point, Whitman was discharged from his government position in the Indian Affairs Department on the charge that he had written a "dirty book."
Outside of the United States, however, the book was an immediate hit. Over the years, it gained support in the U.S., especially from the younger poets. It has been said that all poetry since Leaves of Grass has been influenced by it -- either in an attempt by the poet to be like Whitman, or an attempt to not be like him.
Whitman continued to revise and refine his greatest work throughout his life.
Illustration: Walt Whitman, by photographer George C. Cox, 1887.
This was Whitman's favorite photograph out the session, and the one which he chose to send to poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.