May 31

This Day in History

Literary

May 31, 1819:

Walt Whitman is born

Today is the birthday of poet Walt Whitman, born in West Hills, Long Island, and raised in Brooklyn.

Although Whitman loved music and books, he left school at the age of 14 to become a journeyman printer. Later, he worked as a teacher, journalist, editor, carpenter, and held various other jobs to support his writing. In 1855, he self-published a slim volume of poems called Leaves of Grass, which carried his picture but not his name. With this book, Whitman hoped to become a truly American poet, as envisioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "The Poet" (1843).

Whitman spent much time in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island, attending cultural events, taking long walks, and sometimes riding on coaches and ferries as an excuse to talk with people. In 1856, the second edition of Leaves of Grass included his "Sundown Poem," later called "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."

In 1862, Whitman's brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, and Whitman went to care for him. He spent the rest of the war comforting both Union and Confederate soldiers. His poem "Oh Captain, My Captain," mourned Lincoln's assassination. Whitman worked for several government departments after the war until he suffered a stroke in 1873. He spent the rest of his life in Camden, New Jersey, and continued to issue revised editions of Leaves of Grass until shortly before his death in 1892.

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