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.
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. (Correction: Please visit the comment by Wesley Raabe, Kent University Professor, Department of English: Restoring Fragile Remains of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman Letters) 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.
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.
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.
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 Grass.
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!
September 9, 2014 at 4:06 pm
I’ve heard of Walt Whitman of course, but I’ve never read one of his poems, let alone knew anything about him, so this was a real education for me 🙂
September 13, 2014 at 4:51 pm
Hello Andrea. Walt Whitman was a familiar name to me as well, but I confess I knew little about him. Writing this piece was also an education for me. I will be posting a second piece that shares more about his family dynamic. This part was particularly illuminating for me. I can a reflection of these experiences in his poetry. One of them is the heart of the novel I’m working on.
September 11, 2014 at 8:51 am
Gwen, thanks for digging up some of Whitman’s backstory. I especially like the bit about the “inner light.” There are so many truly wonderful poems written by him and moving passages within his longer pieces. I regularly return to “Song of Myself” as a reminder of the specialness of each of us and every part of nature.
September 13, 2014 at 5:03 pm
I also appreciated the “inner light” aspect that is at the heart of the Quaker philosophy. It’s interesting to hear that such a “new age” concept is at the heart of a very old religion. I’ve written the Quaker role in the abolition movement.
His family background is quite fascinating and I’ll be sharing more of that in the second installment of this post that comes out Tuesday Sept. 16, 2014. Reading about those dynamics made his poetry all the more special. I do love poetry that pertains to the value we should place on nature. I am a Canadian girl:) and I do love a hike in the woods with the fall leaves under foot, even if the skies above are grey!
September 25, 2014 at 8:21 pm
I was pleased to find your appreciation of the poet Walt Whitman, which is heartfelt and an enjoyable read. But I would like to respond to a point in your post, because the rumor of his mother’s illiteracy has been greatly exaggerated.
Scholars of the 1970s and 80s often stated that Walt Whitman’s mother Louisa Van Velsor Whitman was illiterate and unable to read or write, but that is not true. I have edited her 170 letters to him, all written in her hand, and they have been published on the Walt Whitman Archive alongside the poet’s other correspondence, with the title “walter dear”: The Letters from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt.
The poet did refer to his mother as “illiterate in the formal sense,” but he was referring most likely to her minimal punctuation and nonstandard spelling. He may have been engaging also in a bit of self-fashioning, a practice to which he was rather inclined. My introduction to her letters offers reasons why the rumor of her illiteracy has proved so irresistible. You can access the introduction and her letters–which are reproduced in facsimile, transcribed, and fully annotated–from this page on the Walt Whitman Archive:
I also question some earlier scholarship about Walt’s brothers and sisters there. My work is written for an audience of scholars and may be somewhat dry, but it includes extensive documentation. Robert Roper’s Now the Drum of War and Sherry Ceniza’s Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Women Reformers are recommended as readable and sympathetic guides to Whitman’s mother.
Kent State University
September 26, 2014 at 7:34 am
Thank you so very much for writing. Your academic pursuits are fascinating. I did in fact visit the link provided in your comment. I can only imagine how rewarding it must be to sift through the correspondence first hand and peer into the relationship between Walt and his mother.
One of the greatest rewards of my work here, is when people add their knowledge, as you’ve done here. I’ll revise the piece to reflect your insights.
I look forward to spending time with your writing. Your new project involving Uncle Tom’s Cabin holds great interest for me as well.
May 18, 2018 at 2:50 pm
as an editor of literary journal katha katha kabita kabita in odia language from odisha,india i m lover of american authors writers poets..many full circle articles have been published even on many american authors..
this journal is enlisted by US library of congress since 1998..this time on celebration of 200 years of birth anniversary of walt whitman d father of modern american poetry is our research subject..we give equal respect to life and creation of walt whitman. he is also national poet of america.we are preparing an exclusive tribute in his 200years birth celebration.
June 22, 2020 at 10:03 am
You have Leaves of Green here when, of course, it is Leaves of Grass.