In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Walt Whitman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Archives
  • Journals
  • Reception

American Literature Walt Whitman
Ed Folsom
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0098


Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was born on Long Island near West Hills, New York and spent his first few years on his family’s farm before moving to the rapidly developing urban area of Brooklyn, where he attended public school until he was eleven, when he quit to apprentice himself to the printing trade. After working as a compositor for Long Island newspapers and as a printer in Manhattan, he taught school briefly in several Long Island towns before devoting himself to the newspaper business. He edited a number of newspapers in the New York area and published journalism, poetry, short fiction, and a popular temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842). In 1848, he accepted the editorship of the Daily Crescent in New Orleans and took his only extended trip to the South, never forgetting the slave auctions he witnessed there. When he returned to Brooklyn, he edited a “Free Soil” newspaper and increased his political involvement with antislavery groups. He continued his freelance journalism, operated his own printing business, and joined his father in real estate speculation. At this time, his conventional metered and rhymed poetry gave way to a free-verse flow as he published increasingly political antislavery poems. In the early 1850s, he began working on Leaves of Grass. Printed in 1855 by friends who ran a small print shop in Brooklyn, this slim volume of twelve poems would grow to nearly 400 poems through six distinct editions and two “annexes” during the next forty-two years. Each edition responded to quickly altering social, cultural, and biographical events in the second half of the 19th century. He continued to edit newspapers and publish journalism while he completed second and third editions of his book in 1856 and 1860. In his personal life, Whitman developed a number of close bonds with young male friends and explored new possibilities of male-male affectional relationships. In late 1862, he traveled to the Fredericksburg battlefield to nurse a wounded brother and ended up staying in Washington, D.C., which had become the site of numerous Civil War hospitals. Over the next couple of years he tended many thousands of wounded soldiers while continuing to write news reports from Washington as well as poems about the war, which he published in Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps in 1865. He worked as a clerk in government offices and formed a close relationship with Peter Doyle, a former confederate soldier. He brought out a new edition of Leaves in 1867, and he worked on a prose meditation on America’s future, Democratic Vistas, published in 1871. Meanwhile, a selection of Whitman’s poems was published in England in 1868, and over the following years his reputation abroad grew. After suffering a paralytic stroke in 1873, Whitman moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his brother lived. There he stayed until his death, receiving visitors like Oscar Wilde, corresponding with admirers and friends, gathering his Civil War reports into a volume called Memoranda During the War (and expanding it into an autobiography called Specimen Days), and supervising a small but very devoted group of disciples as he continued revising and adding to Leaves of Grass right up to the end.

General Overviews

Whitman criticism has exploded in quantity since the mid-1970s, with more than 250 books and thousands of essays published since then that are devoted to or that deal in significant ways with the poet. Folsom and Price 2005, Killingsworth 2007, Reynolds 2005, and Kantrowitz 2005, while taking different angles on Whitman’s career, are all good introductions to Whitman’s work, accessible to the general reader and beginning student as well as useful for scholars. As far back as 1946, Gay Wilson Allen recognized the need for such an introductory book, and Allen 1986, revised several times, became a kind of model for such volumes. Chase 1955 reveals how Whitman was perceived in the mid-20th-century, and Miller 1990 offers the first overview of the various roles that Whitman assumed over his career.

  • Allen, Gay Wilson. Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

    Originally published in 1946, Allen’s book is still valuable for its careful tracking of the development of biographical studies of Whitman and the growth of Leaves of Grass; the sections on the “realm of Whitman’s ideas,” Whitman’s “literary techniques,” and Whitman and “world literature” are more dated.

  • Chase, Richard. Walt Whitman Reconsidered. New York: William Sloane, 1955.

    Chase’s book remains useful for indicating how critics had constructed Whitman up to 1955, the centenary celebration of the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Chase rejects the “pseudomessianic ideal imposed on him by his admirers” (p. 175) and argues that Whitman was in fact “neurotic, riven, vividly paradoxical” (p. 44). He finds Whitman’s “Song of Myself” a “profound and lovely comic drama of the self” (p. 58). Chase also is one of the first critics to consider Democratic Vistas in an extended way.

  • Folsom, Ed, and Kenneth M. Price. Re-scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470774939

    In presenting an overview of Whitman’s “writing life,” Folsom and Price offer a “rethinking of Whitman’s life in terms of his script, those thousands of manuscript pages that he left behind and which . . . have not been adequately studied” (p. xi). The final chapter offers a history of the editing of Whitman’s work.

  • Kantrowitz, Arnie. Walt Whitman. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.

    This book offers a good short biography of Whitman, focusing on Whitman’s “love of comrades” and the ways that “homosexuality was a positive influence on his work” (p. 153).

  • Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. The Cambridge Introduction to Walt Whitman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511610981

    This introductory overview of Whitman’s life and career has a chapter on historical and cultural contexts for understanding Whitman’s work (with sections on democracy, the body, the land, and the culture), chapters on the antebellum poetry and the poetry after the Civil War, a chapter on Whitman’s prose works, and an illuminating chapter on Whitman’s critical reception.

  • Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne, 1990.

    This critical introduction to Whitman’s life and work, originally published in 1962, discusses the various roles that Whitman played over his career—dandy, vagabond, carpenter-Christ, American bard, bohemian, wound-dresser, bearded sage—and looks closely at the language, imagery, and structure of Leaves of Grass, naming Whitman America’s great “epic poet.”

  • Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    This book is a condensation of Reynolds’s monumental Walt Whitman’s America, and it tracks how Whitman transformed cultural materials into poetry; chapters focus on popular culture, city life, and politics; theater, oratory, and music; the visual arts; science, philosophy, and religion; sex, gender, and comradeship; and the Civil War, Lincoln, and Reconstruction.

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