History People

23 Facts about Walt Whitman – the Father of Free Verse


1. Walter (Walt) Whitman was born to a farmer family in West Hills, New York on May 31, 1819.

2. His father’s name was also Walter Whitman. Not to confuse the names, young Walter was called “Walt”.

3. Walt was the second child among eight surviving children of Luisa Van Velsor and Walter Whitman.

4. Walt’s father sold a big chunk of his farm to support his large family. Then, he worked in several professions, such as carpenter, real state speculator, and a farmer.

5. Walt Whitman’s parents loved America and its democracy. They even named some of their children after the American leaders. For instance, Walt’s three younger brothers were named George Washington Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, and Andrew Jackson Whitman.

6. When Walt was at the age of three, his family moved to Brooklyn in order to benefit from economic opportunities there. However, his father’s bad investment prevented them from achieving financial stability.

7. At the age of 11, he was out of school because his father wanted him to work and contribute to the family. Though he never stopped learning. He continued to gain knowledge by visiting various libraries, cultural centers, museums, and theaters. That kind of informal education might have impacted on him to become open-minded (free versed) poet.

8. At the age of 12, Walt Whitman started working as a printer for a printing company in New York city . That was the first serious job that he possessed.

9. A fire that developed in the printing district of New York destroyed most of the printing business in 1838. The printing company, that Whitman was working for, was one of them. So, he lost his livelihood and returned back to his family to Long Island.

10. He started teaching in one of the country schools on Long Island, but he did not love the teaching profession. He even reflected his unsympathetic views on teaching in one of his poems: “O, damnation, damnation! thy other name is school-teaching,” (source)


11. Walt Whitman’s first writing career started in a daily newspaper in New York. There, he wrote news and edited written works at the age of 23.

12. In 1846, Whitman joined to Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper as an editor. Daily Eagle was considered one of the important newspapers of the time. Ideological and political discussions were part of the daily routine there. So, those discussions might have influenced Walt Whitman to develop his own thoughts and beliefs.

13. He supported the Antislavery faction of the Democratic party. Because of those views, he was discharged from Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

14. Whitman and his friend Judge Samuel Johnson found the Freeman Newspaper. The newspaper’s main objective was to support the political opponents of slavery. Whitman planned on turning it to the daily newspaper. However, his livelihood along with his expansion plans burned down once again by ravaging Brooklyn fire just one day after the first issue of Freeman.

15. Leaves of Grass was Walt Whitman’s first published book. He spent his own money to get it published. After unsuccessful attempts to find a financial backer, he decided to sell off his house to produce about 800 prints of the book. He even helped the publishers with typesetting labor to cut some costs. All those work, however, brought very little fruit. A few copies got sold at the end.

16. Walt Whitman did not include author’s name in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Instead, he posted the engraved image of himself which depicted him standing in ordinary clothes and holding his one hand on the hip. Through a time, that engraving became one of his iconic images. Also, Whitman made Leaves of Grass in a pocket size so anyone could carry it with them and be able to read it in the open air.

17. Ralph Waldo Emerson inspired Walt Whitman to produce more poems. Whitman himself stated that “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil”. Meaning, Emerson made him wake up to become a poet. As an appreciation to Emerson’s inspirational comments, Whitman sent him his first published book. By reading it, Emerson responded with some more inspirational statement: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed,” Emerson wrote.

18. Whitman wrote some of his poems explicitly and he got criticized for it. Despite the support from Ralph Waldo Emerson, there were so many critics of his poems. The way he wrote the poems indeed reflected some explicit sexual imagery. Though many people looked at his books as not fit for the common readership, Whitman still could enter to the American literature as a free verse poet.

19. Walt Whitman wrote several poems during the civil war. Those war-time poems were published in his book called Drum-Taps in 1865. The collection introduced its readers to the new free verse style of poems. That’s why many describe Whitman as “the father of free verse”

20. Whitman’s most significant book was Leaves of Grass. The first edition of the book only included 12 poems in 92 pages. As we mentioned above, the first edition also included neither publisher’s nor author’s name. The book went through several revisions and additions. It evolved with Whitman himself. By the time of Whitman’s death, Leaves of Grass has become a thick book, containing over 400 of his poems.


21. Walt Whitman was described as “Bard of Democracy”. He got such title not because he was an influential politician, but because of the philosophical ideologies that he reflected in his poems. He was into the abolition of slavery, and he also supported women’s property rights and equality in immigration.

22. His sexual orientation was so mysterious. In real life, no one knew whether he was leaning towards homosexuality or bisexuality. However, some suspected him to be homosexual referring to explicitly described behaviors in some of his poems. He himself, however, never admitted such behavior openly.

23. In 1872, Walt Whitman passed a stroke which left him partly paralyzed. Nevertheless, the illness had not stopped him writing his poems two more decades. On March 26, 1892, he passed away only a year after completing his most notable work Leaves of Grass.

By Arslan Batyrovich

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