Walt Whitman was the second oldest of nine children, one of whom died in infancy; the surviving siblings were named Jesse, Eddy, Mary Elizabeth, Hannah Louisa, Andrew Jackson, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. His family left West Hills, New York, for Brooklyn when he was four days shy of his fourth birthday and spent the next decade moving at least seven more times around the city.
In 1842, a twenty-two-year-old Whitman attended a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson across the East River in New York City. “It is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,” Emerson said. “I look in vain for the poet I describe.” Thirteen years later, Emerson read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed,” Emerson wrote. “I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion.”
Emerson introduced Whitman to his friends Amos Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, who made a social call to the young recluse at his Brooklyn house on November 10, 1856. “He receives us kindly, yet awkwardly,” Alcott recalled of their visit, “and takes us up two narrow flights of stairs to sit or stand as we might in his attic study—also the bedroom of himself and his feeble brother, the pressure of whose bodies was still apparent in the unmade bed standing in one corner, and the vessel scarcely hidden underneath.” By “vessel” he meant chamber pot.
Whitman’s publisher once observed that “any pickpocket who failed to avail himself of such an opportunity as Walt offered, with his loose baggy trousers and no suspenders, would have been a disgrace to his profession,” and his family admitted ignorance of his works’ appeal. “Mother thought as I did—did not know what to make of it,” George Washington Whitman said of Leaves of Grass. He compared it to Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha: “the one seemed to us pretty much the same muddle as the other.”
“My book and the war are one,” Whitman would write of Leaves of Grass in “To Thee Old Cause,” a later addition to the collection. He first heard that the Civil War had begun after returning from a Broadway performance of A Masked Ball, Verdi’s opera of betrayal, vengeance, and insubordination in Sweden. He welcomed the war’s arrival, and wrote “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” his first popularly successful poem, as his brother George Washington headed to Virginia with his regiment. When the December 16, 1862, edition of the New York Tribune reported that a “G. W. Whitmore” had been injured in the previous days’ Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman absconded south, on the correct hunch that his brother had been misidentified. After finding George Washington to be suffering merely from a wounded cheek, he decided to stay in the nation’s capital, and tended often to the war’s injured veterans. “I fancy the reason I am able to do some good in the hospitals among the poor, languishing, and wounded boys, is that I am so large and well,” Whitman wrote his mother, “indeed, like a great wild buffalo with much hair.” He remained until 1873. “He did the things for them no nurse or doctor could do,” his friend the journalist John Swinton reported in the New York Herald, “and, as he took his way toward the door, you could hear the voices of many a stricken hero calling ‘Walt, Walt, Walt! come again! come again!’”
He got headaches listening to the Fourth of July firecrackers in Camden, New Jersey, where he moved with his brother George Washington in 1873. A year later, “Prayer of Columbus,” in which he described Christopher Columbus as a “batter’d, wreck’d old man,” appeared in Harper’s Magazine. He confessed to his friend Nelly O’Connor that he had “unconsciously put a sort of autobiographical dash” in the poem.
Whitman reserved a mausoleum plot in Harleigh Cemetery in 1890, and by 1891 he had completed his design for the tomb. In May of that year he made a confession to the psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke: “I have two deceased children (young man and woman—illegitimate of course) that I much desired to bury here with me, but have ab’t abandon’d the plan on acc’t of angry litigation and fuss generally and disinterment f’m down south.”
Whitman died the following year, on March 26. His mausoleum was joined by the bodies of his parents; his siblings Hannah Louisa, Edward, and George Washington; and George Washington’s wife, Louisa, and their infant son, Walter.