Walt Whitman Discussion Questions
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Walt Whitman was one of the greatest poets of the eighteen hundreds. Most of his poems can be found in his short book Leaves of Grass. He is one of the best known America’s poets and set the standard for intellectual patriotic poems.
Walt was born on May 31, 1819 in Long Island, New York. His father was an English carpenter and house builder whom was very strict. While his mother was of Dutch descent and of Quaker faith, and could barley read. It is doubtful that either of his parents would read, much less understand his poetry. His father Walt senior was too burdened with Walt’s eight brothers and sisters four of which were handicapped. Even though his dad was intelligent he had a fiery temper his heavy drinking could have been fault to this. His mother looked at him differently than the other farm boys she saw him as very good but very strange. Walt was an imaginative child and a keen observer of his surroundings.
The young Walt was taken out of school at the age of eleven to help support his family. He started out as a clerk in a lawyers office, the lawyers helped him with his hand writing and composition they also got him a library card and encouraged him to read. He was swept away by the adventure stories that he read. After this job he moved on to be an apprentice at a newspaper. After about four years with newspapers he starts writing. This would be due to his love of his surroundings. He started off writing short stories for the Mirror a New York paper. His writing career to this point is cut short when fires destroy a large portion on New York’s Publishing industry.
He returns back to Long Island to be with his family and decides to start teaching in small single room classes. Walt was opposed to whipping and also played games with the school boys this got him the love of his students. The parents however thought of Mr. Whitman as a daydreamer. His teaching contract is dropped because of this. In June of 1838 he starts his own newspaper entitled the Long Islander one year later the paper was sold so he goes on to work for other news papers. Walt’s easy going manner was likable, but his work habits drove them crazy. His daydreaming three hour lunch breaks and long observational walks were very odd to his employer. These habits cause him to be fired from many of his writing positions. By 1845 he had been employed by ten different newspapers in and around the New York area. He is offered a job by an acquaintance to work in Louisiana at the New Orleans Crescent. He takes the job on impulse of being fired from the Eagle shortly before. After a year he gets home sick and is overly repulsed by slavery. He found that the buying and selling of human beings was disgusting. Walt has written poems about such observations.
He returns home to New York and goes in to the building trade with his father and brothers. He writes articles for the New York newspapers from time to time. It was during this time that Walt, wanting to become a better writer, decides to become better educated. He reads articles on a variety of subjects. He visits museums and attends operas. He talks with everyone he meets, stagecoach drivers to sculptors. Walt jots down his ideas that will later be used in his poetry. He wants to keep the writing simple. He wants his writing to be easily understood by all who might read it. He wants his readers to be able to relate to the American character.
In the spring of 1855, Walt Whitman began setting his poems in type. By the early summer, he had finished a book. It was a slim volume of twelve untitled poems. The name of this book was Leaves of Grass. Walt printed 795 copies and offered them for sale. He gave away some copies and sent others to prominent Americans, to include Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American writer and poet. During this time, Walt’s father died. Walt spent months consoling his family. Several nasty reviews were printed regarding his book., however most of the public ignored the book completely. One exception was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised Whitman’s courage and original thinking.
After Emerson’s glowing endorsement, Walt published a second edition of Leaves of Grass. Emerson’s words of praise were printed on the book’s spine and twenty new poems were added. Within a year, Walt Whitman had completed seventy-eight more poems and was planning a third edition. Lacking the money, Walt returned to the newspaper business. By 1860, a publishing firm agreed to publish the third edition. Unfortunately the firm would go out of business before the end of that year. Walt was discouraged. Yet unknown to him, his work was gaining interest across the Atlantic Ocean. London readers saw greatness in Whitman’s poems and recognized him as an original American genius
Walt Whitman lived a full and productive life. He died at the age of 73. He felt he had accomplished only a small portion for what he had aspired to do. He wanted to influence his fellow Americans to be more observant of their surroundings. He wanted them to think about their actions and how their actions influenced others. All in all, Walt Whitman was a great man and a great writer, despite the high standards he placed upon himself. He inspired many writers and poets who would follow him.
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