Seeking Inspiration — Walt Whitman: Part 2

ww0053sMy appreciation of this great American poet has deepened as a result of the discoveries made in Seeking Inspiration — Walt Whitman: Part I. Previous to this research, I’d known nothing about his Quaker ancestry, the impact of alcohol on his childhood, his career in print and journalism, or his interest in the abolition movement.

Whitman maintained his keen interest in the debate over slavery and his concern for its social and political impact. He drew together his collection of poems called Leaves of Grass which he published in 1855. In future years, he would release new editions of the book featuring new poems and slight modifications in punctuation and title of the original works. Sadly, his father never saw the book published as he died within the year prior to its being published.

His literary hero, Robert Waldo Emerson wrote to him, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career”.  Even so, the book was not the success he had hoped for. People referred to him as “a mass of filth” or an “an escaped lunatic”. He began moving in circles of writers and poets that included activists and risqué characters. Whitman changed his manner of dress. He began wearing overalls, a red flannel shirt and a striped calico jacket. His hair grew shaggy and his grey beard, long.

Leaves of Grass

Whitman was very involved planning the layout of Leaves of Grass, right down to selecting font. Some of his notes are seen here. (Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Family relationships continued to place a strain on Whitman as well. He was close to his mother, but she often complained about complications regarding his brothers and sisters. George, Jeff and Mary were self-sustaining but the others posed problems for their mother, Louisa Whitman.

Eddy required constant care. He suffered a head injury after falling from a ship mast. Eddy was physically disabled and prone to agitation to the point of violence. He was eventually committed to King’s Lunatic Asylum where he died six years later.

Brother Andrew suffered from alcohol addiction as his father had. He died of tuberculosis in 1863. Sadly, his family was turned out on the street. The children begged and their mother turned to prostitution.

Walt’s sister, Hannah, was the victim of domestic violence. Her husband suffered bouts of mental illness, during which he hounded Walt for money. These experiences lead to Hannah’s emotionally instability, and her hostilities turned on her mother whom she began to  hit.

Soldiers wounded at Fredricksburg

This photograph shows soldiers outside a brick hospital building in Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 1864 recovering from wounds received during the battles in the “Wilderness campaign.” I considered removing it from since Whitman volunteered at Washington hospitals, but something about the photo captivates me, so I did not. The woman seated in doorway is volunteer nurse Abby Gibbons from New York City (Source: photographer James Gardener, contributed by descendant Angela Schear, Oct. 2013)

The American Civil War began and Walt received word that his brother George was wounded and being held in a Washington hospital. Walt went there immediately and was relieved to learn that the injury was superficial. He stayed on in Washington and volunteered as a nurse in hospitals for the war wounded. He secured a clerk position for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was fired from that job in 1865 when Major James Harlan, a strict Methodist, decided that Leaves of Grass was, in his opinion, immoral.

As it turns out, Harlan did Whitman a service. Douglas O’Connor, a friend and fellow author, wrote a pamphlet, “The Good Gray Poet” in which he defended Whitman’s work and his character. Leaves of Grass was not pornographic and Whitman helped selflessly in the Washington hospitals.

Whitman was disturbed by the materialism and political wrongdoing that occurred after the Civil War ended. He wrote new poetry to convey his feelings on that topic and published yet another edition of Leaves of Grass.

The final 19 years of Walt’s life were lived out in Camden. He moved there to be near to his dying mother. His brother George lived in Camden as well with his family and operated a pipe manufacturing business. Soon after his mother’s death, Whitman suffered the first of many strokes. His leg was left paralyzed, forcing him to walk with a cane. In future years, he would come to rely on a wheelchair.

Cambden house

In 1882, Whitman bought a narrow two story wood frame house on Mickle Street in Camden. He was visited there by the likes of Oscar Wilde and others. (Source: unknown)

In the latter years of his life, Walt Whitman’s fame increased. He continued to write and lecture until his final four years during which he suffered the result of strokes and tuberculosis. Each day he spoke to Horace Trubel who recorded notes from their conversations which he later compiled into a collection of written works called With Walt Whitman in Camden. Walt Whitman at his home died on March 2, 1892.

I recently read through portions of Leaves of Grass in search of poetry that the characters in my novel would enjoy. What I discovered was a two lined poem that captures the heart of the story. The characters share a philosophical conversation about what Whitman might have meant. This discovery was the bit of synchronicity I’d been waiting for. After learning about Walt Whitman’s life experiences, I know that I looked to right poet for inspiration. We speak each others language.

Only themselves understand themselves and the like of themselves,
As souls only understand souls.
by Walt Whitman
Lead and closing photos (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

What is your interpretation of Perfections? 

I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.


Categories: Seeking Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Curating Wonder — Bytown Transportation in the Early 1900s

Ottawa Bytown

Horse Drawn Cab



Photo sources: Scenes from the early 1900’s: train station, taxi stand at Parliament Buildings, downtown area, first electric street car

“I wonder …”

How would you finish this sentence?

Categories: Curating Wonder | 2 Comments

Seeking Inspiration — Walt Whitman: Part 1

396px-Whitman_at_about_fifty wiki commons

I first became interested in Walt Whitman’s poetry after seeing him featured as a character in a Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman episode called The Body Electric. He was portrayed as a gentle nature loving man who extended great patience when people were judgmental. This was only a story, I know, but his personality was appealing.  So, off I went to the library, in search of a copy of his collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass.

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

When I read these lines from There Was  A Child Went Forth, I couldn’t help wondering what he picked up as a child. What object did he look upon and become? Ancestry intrigues me, so it seemed like a natural place to begin.

whitman parents

Walter Whitman Senior and Louisa Whitman (Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

In 1660, Zechariah Whitman left England and settled in Connecticut. His son, Joseph Whitman, moved a short distance away to Long Island where he acquired several acres of land. His descendants increased their holdings to a farmstead of 500 acres which was eventually overseen by Nehemiah Whitman and his feisty wife, Phoebe. She was reportedly cursed freely, spat tobacco juice, and fired off orders to the slaves who worked the land. The Whitman family suffered general bad luck. By the time Walt’s father was an adult, the large land holding had dwindled to 60 acres.

Walter Whitman Senior was a carpenter and occasional farmer. He attempted a few ventures to advance the family, but to no avail. Although it is suspected that alcohol was his downfall, he was reportedly an affectionate father.

Walt Whitman was especially close to his mother, Louisa. His mother could neither read nor write, but she had avid imagination and a natural ability to tell extraordinary stories. She was the glue that held the family together. Her ancestors came from Holland and settled near the Whitman homestead. Walt was very close to his maternal Quaker grandmother, Naomi Van Veslor. Her death affected him deeply. His maternal grandfather, Major Cornelius Van Veslor, often brought him along on the wagon ride to Brooklyn, New York, where they sold vegetables.

West Hill Walt Whitman Birth place

The birth place of Walt Whitman: West Hill, Long Island (Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Walt was born on May 31, 1819. He was one of eight children in the Whitman family. At the age of three, his father moved the family to Brooklyn with the hopes of capitalizing on the building boom. The family lived in eight homes in ten years. Each place they moved to, they lost. The Whitman family subscribed to the notion that all religions were of equal importance, prizing the moral principle of each one. They taught Walt about the Quaker concept of inner light whereby man is not inspired by preachers and scripture, but rather by the light within.

Whitman’s formal education ended at age eleven when he left school to work as an office boy in a library. The family needed his financial help. He read the free books voraciously until he became a newspaper apprentice for the Long Island Patriot at age 12. The newspaper owner, Samuel E Clements, taught him about the printing industry. When Walt was 13 years old, his family returned to West Hill, but he remained in Brooklyn to be come a compositor for the Long Island Star.


Elias Hicks was a traveling Quaker preacher. Walt Whitman attended his lecture about inner light at the age of 10 and remained profoundly affected by Hick’s message. (Source: Wikipedia)

In 1836, a devastating fire swept through the printing district of New York and put a swift end to Walt’s printing aspirations. He returned rural life in Long Island where he worked as a traveling school teacher. His teaching style was very different from the traditional rote learning approach of the day. He founded the Long Islander in 1838 and functioned in the roles of editor, compositor, printer and delivery man. Eighteen months later, he sold the paper.

From 1841 to 1845, Whitman wrote poems, short stories and a temperance themed novel called Franklin Evans that sold 20,000 copies. He also wrote freelance articles focusing on popular culture.

A review by Whitman on October 17, 1846 during his stint as editor of Brooklyn Daily Eagle

A review by Whitman on October 17, 1846 during his stint as editor of Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Between 1846 and 1848, Walt became part of the Quaker Abolitionist movement. In his zeal for the cause, he used his platform at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to support Wilmot Proviso’s fight to stop the spread of slavery to the western territories. This move lead to his termination in January of 1848. He was quickly hired by a New Orleans newspaper. His 15-year-old brother, Jeff, accompanied him to this new city but they left in May of that year to avoid yellow fever season.

The two Whitman brothers went on to attend anti slavery meetings. Walt sold political poetry, managed a stationery shop and even did a little carpentry to make ends meet. All the while, he continued honing his craft. He was on the brink of publishing his greatest work — Leaves of Green.

Seeking Inspiration — Walt Whitman Part 2 will continue to follow this great American poet through the trials and tribulations of scandalous press, troubling family relationships and ill-health. I will also share how reading Whitman has impacted my novel in progress. See you there!

 Lead & Closing Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division

Are you a Walt Whitman fan?  Perhaps you have a favourite poem? Or an anecdote?

I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.

Categories: Seeking Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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