Walter “Walt” Whitman (/ˈhwɪtmən/; May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse. His work was very controversial in its time, particularly his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sexuality. Born in Huntington on Long Island, Whitman worked as a journalist, a teacher, a government clerk, and—in addition to publishing his poetry—was a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. Early in his career, he also produced a temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842). Whitman’s major work, Leaves of Grass, was first published in 1855 with his own money. The work was an attempt at reaching out to the common person with an American epic. He continued expanding and revising it until his death in 1892. After a stroke towards the end of his life, he moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his health further declined. When he died at age 72, his funeral became a public spectacle.
Whitman’s sexuality is often discussed alongside his poetry. Though biographers continue to debate his sexuality, he is usually described as either homosexual or bisexual in his feelings and attractions. However, there is disagreement among biographers as to whether Whitman had actual sexual experiences with men. Whitman was concerned with politics throughout his life. He supported the Wilmot Proviso and opposed the extension of slavery generally. His poetry presented an egalitarian view of the races, though his attitude in life reflected many of the racial prejudices common to nineteenth-century America and his opposition to slavery was not necessarily based on belief in the equality of races per se. At one point he called for the abolition of slavery, but later he saw the abolitionist movement as a threat to democracy.
After suffering a paralytic stroke in early 1873, Whitman was induced to move from Washington to the home of his brother—George Washington Whitman, an engineer—at 431 Stevens Street in Camden, New Jersey. His mother, having fallen ill, was also there and died that same year in May. Both events were difficult for Whitman and left him depressed. He remained at his brother’s home until buying his own in 1884. However, before purchasing his home, he spent the greatest period of his residence in Camden at his brother’s home in Stevens Street. While in residence there he was very productive, publishing three versions of Leaves of Grass among other works. He was also last fully physically active in this house, receiving both Oscar Wilde and Thomas Eakins. His other brother, Edward, an “invalid” since birth, lived in the house. When his brother and sister-in-law were forced to move for business reasons, he bought his own house at 328 Mickle Street (now 330 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). First taken care of by tenants, he was completely bedridden for most of his time in Mickle Street. During this time, he began socializing with Mary Oakes Davis—the widow of a sea captain. She was a neighbor, boarding with a family in Bridge Avenue just a few blocks from Mickle Street. She moved in with Whitman on February 24, 1885, to serve as his housekeeper in exchange for free rent. She brought with her a cat, a dog, two turtledoves, a canary, and other assorted animals. During this time, Whitman produced further editions of Leaves of Grass in 1876, 1881, and 1889.
While in Southern New Jersey Whitman spent a good portion of his time in the then quite pastoral community of Laurel Springs between 1876 and 1884, converting one of the Stafford Farm buildings to his summer home. The restored summer home has been preserved as museum by the local historical society. Part of his Leaves of Grass was written here, and in his Specimen Days he wrote of the spring, creek and lake. To him, Laurel Lake was “the prettiest lake in: either America or Europe.” As the end of 1891 approached, he prepared a final edition of Leaves of Grass, a version that has been nicknamed the “Deathbed Edition.” He wrote, “L. of G. at last complete—after 33 y’rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old.” Preparing for death, Whitman commissioned a granite mausoleum shaped like a house for $4,000 and visited it often during construction. In the last week of his life, he was too weak to lift a knife or fork and wrote: “I suffer all the time: I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony—monotony—monotony—in pain.”
Whitman died on March 26, 1892. An autopsy revealed his lungs had diminished to one-eighth their normal breathing capacity, a result of bronchial pneumonia, and that an egg-sized abscess on his chest had eroded one of his ribs. The cause of death was officially listed as “pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general miliary tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis.” A public viewing of his body was held at his Camden home; over one thousand people visited in three hours. Whitman’s oak coffin was barely visible because of all the flowers and wreaths left for him. Four days after his death, he was buried in his tomb at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden . Another public ceremony was held at the cemetery, with friends giving speeches, live music, and refreshments. Whitman’s friend, the orator Robert Ingersoll, delivered the eulogy. Later, the remains of Whitman’s parents and two of his brothers and their families were moved to the mausoleum.
- May, 31, 1819
- West Hills, Huntington, Long Island, New York
- March, 26, 1892
- Camden, New Jersey
Cause of Death
- pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general miliary tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis
- Harleigh Cemetery
- Camden, New Jersey